Is Melbourne really bigger than Los Angeles?

Deirdre Macken makes the point in today’s AFR (gated) that a large proportion of Australia’s population is located in a very small number of primate cities, unlike the US where there are very many smaller cities.

She argues that if you want an urban lifestyle in Australia you either live in a large capital city or you camp out, whereas in the US you are spoilt for choice. Instead of making our capital cities larger, she asks, why don’t we build up our smaller cities?

Good question and if I weren’t about to go to the Zombie Shuffle I might well have something to say about it. Perhaps another day.

Not the Melbourne Zombie Shuffle but the footy! (The Age, today)

However for the moment let me just respond to her claim that “if Sydney were transported to the US, it would rank as the second-biggest city after New York. If Melbourne were transported to the US, it too would be the second biggest city, just pipping Los Angeles’s 3.8 million”.

A mere 3.8 million people in LA? I’ve got a lot of sympathy for journalists but this seems a bit too obvious. Perhaps Deirdre doesn’t do much travelling. She’s also got form when it comes to playing fast and loose with the numbers.

Sydney’s population is currently around 4.5 million and Melbourne’s is 4.0 million. Los Angeles had a population in 2009 of 12.9 million. In fact there are ten US cities that are larger than Sydney and fourteen larger than Melbourne (see here and here).

She also claims that Zurich’s population is a mere 375,000. I’ll grant that it’s small, but it’s actually closer to 850,000 (I’ve seen some estimates that put it over a million).

All of which is a pity because the point she is trying to make is an important one.

There’s also an interesting technical angle to this issue. The size distribution of cities in Australia is unusual because it doesn’t accord with Zipf’s law. This law is observed in lots of natural phenomena. In relation to cities, it says that the second largest city in a nation is half the size of the biggest, the third largest is one third the size of the biggest, and so on. See for example this article by eminent Harvard Professor, Edward Glaeser.


17 Comments on “Is Melbourne really bigger than Los Angeles?”

  1. Bruce Dickson says:

    The confusion surrounding American cities always stems from the fact that what is not made readily obvious is that most are in effect ‘conurbations’ or clusters of adjoining ‘cities’ forming one much larger city.

    And the dominant ‘city descriptor’ usually goes to the better known and largest of these – such as LA. To the north, Oakland may be on same Bay, but San Francisco has the bigger and more dominant name even though both are totally physically connected.

    Acknowledging the reality of conurbation and suburban spread – in a semi farcical way – means that Australia’s biggest city (covering an astonishing combined land mass) would be the ‘GREAT AUSSIE COAST CITY’. (Stretching as it does almost continuously from Melbourne/Geelong to Sydney/Wollongong/Newcastle/Blue Mtns and beyond … to potentially even Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast!)

    And don’t laugh – this is not an exercise in total absurdity, as returning to LA as a case study, the urban development zone around Los Angeles now extends all the way to Tijuana below the Mexican border – on the way taking in San Diego (separated ever so slighty from LA only by the hilly Camp Pendleton military base) – realistically forming the giant new city of ‘Southern California’. San Diego and its own cities and counties alone adds at least another 4 million people.

    Inland from LA this greater urban development area extends to even more dramatic lengths – having marched right into and over the substantial coastal mountain strip and then even beyond into the high desert areas themselves. And they all need water supplies – crazy eh? As you can imagine the traffic is a nightmare in all directions around this high density settled zone …

    • Jonathan says:

      Does that mean all of South East Queensland could be one big city-from north Brisbane (Redcliff) down to Gold coast and as far west as Ipswich? If they had just gave the whole south east Queensland the same name like Brisbane OR they called the whole area ‘SOUTH EAST CITY’ for example 🙂

  2. Bruce Dickson says:

    And if you are wondering where infamous Orange County and its huge population is to be found, it also lies to the immediate south of LA – and above San Diego.

  3. […] This is very different from the US where there is much more variation between cities than there is in Australia. Similarly, if I were comparing Melbourne against international cities like London or Paris, then I would expect to find more significant differences between them. There is also much more variation within Australian cities than there is between them, as I’ve mentioned previously. […]

  4. Michael R. James says:

    Actually even that 12.9 m figure for LA is not quite right. As Bruce Dickson says, the contiguous LA metro area is huge. I suspect gigantic Orange county was not included in that figure but I cannot see it in the demographia list. What is on the list is Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario with 4.3 m, so that brings it to 17.2 million which sounds right from memory. I don’t think one can include San Diego because it does have that clearly defined separation of the gigantic Camp Pendleton and Miramar (Top Gun territory) bases. But if you did, it would surpass Australia’s population.
    In fact there is some argument on the web about density: some claim LA is more dense than NYC, but I cannot see how that is possible (I think they eliminate the unbuilt area in LA–the hills etc in the calcs.) but still LA is surprisingly dense compared to almost all other American cities. And it is true that there is more area given over to roads than any other city (about 30%). Such a vast city has everything–including some very nice areas–but is not a model for how to build a friendly city.
    San Francisco the city is small, about 650k, but the Bay Area is undergoing what they call Losangelization: you must add San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara to SF-Oak which gives you 6.2 m, and that still seems to me to leave out the bits in-between (San Mateo county with Stanford, Hillsborough, Foster City etc).
    The point about such “cities” is that they really function as a series of cities. Even in LA the average commuting time is about 40 min from memory which seems surprising until you realize that most people live close enough to where they work. Most people do not get out of their corner of LA much—if many tried the place would actually lock up permanently (which it does at certain times). It hides a sub-set of longer-distance commuters who really do it tough. The BayArea may actually be worse than LA because of its geography and huge cost of housing. In the silicone valley area that also encompasses Stanford-Palo Alto, some of the people in those hi-tech companies do just unbelievable commutes. Living across the Bay (cos it is the only place they can afford the typical American house) they get up at 4.30am to get across the Bay Bridge before –something very early to avoid peak time, then still have 1.5 hours to drive down the peninsular. Ridiculous. This is the way we are heading unless we stop building roads and start fast mass transit. And it is not just to improve commuting but to actually link the greater metro area to create a great social and creative space (eg. Paris, NYC, London, Tokyo and all those coming Chinese cities). LA just doesn’t compare though it is slowly painfully building its Metro system. The original plan for BART was to run it right around the entire Bay Area–but lots of the wealthier areas down the peninsular do not want it and have stopped it (as well as not wanting to contribute funding). The extension to the SFX airport was built about a decade ago about 3 decades later than planned.
    Oops, I have rambled on.

  5. Jonathan says:

    The stats I have found from Hours of research that I have done to find out exactly which cities are bigger in Australia and in US of A shows that NEW York is the ONLY city larger then SYDNEY or MELBOURNE in terms of city population and sheer size.. statistics from many many different sights No.1 is NYC, No.2 is Sydney Australia and No.3 is Melbourne Australia.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Jonathan, that’s extremely interesting. It would be good to see your numbers and sources if possible.

      • Jonathan says:

        I just searched through some random sights on the net. just out of curiosity and all the sights claim that LA only has 3.7/3.8 million in population and claims of 4 million for Melbourne and 4.8 million for Sydney.

        I was also amazed to find claims that Sydney and Melbourne were more richer cities then LA and ranked in the top ten most liveable cities in the world.
        UNLESS I’m getting it wrong 🙂

        • JT says:

          LA is much more bigger than Sydney or Melb . LA City is just like the inner melbourne the whole urban area is 12.4 milion people and metropolitan 18 milion people . By your measurment Paris is smaller than Perth.

  6. Jonathan says:

    I reckon if we cut out the abortion in Australia maybe one day our great cities will move into the top thirty world’s biggest cities list.

    If we want our cities to be twice as big in the near future then we need our population to at least double and it won’t double if we have abortion going on like it is now. the abortion rate is a lot

    more population means more Australian owned companies in the future and also more money for the country to develop.

  7. Alan Davies says:

    Jonathan, those numbers probably refer to the population of the central county within much larger metropolitan areas. Americans call the central county “the city” and the surrounding built-up counties “the suburbs”.

    It would be like calculating Melbourne’s population on the numbers in the City of Melbourne municipality, even though it’s only one of 31 municipalities that comprise what we conventionally think of as metropolitan Melbourne.

  8. sam dehmie says:

    in think in terms of land area sydney is larger than new york,los angelas,chicaga and dallas.even melbourne is larger than any city in the us maybe with the exeception of new york. from research sydney is larger them new york only with population new york larger them sydney,melbourne and brisbane.

    • Alan Davies says:

      US metros with a larger area than Sydney are Detroit, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami, Philadelphia PA-NJ-DE-MD,San Francisco-San Jose, Chicago IL-IN, Los Angeles and New York. Phoenix also has a larger area than Melbourne.

      A lot of the differences come down to choice of administrative units. Wendell Cox has sought to define metros on a consistent basis. His estimates for US cities are very similar to those by Paul Mees.

  9. […] Is Melbourne really bigger than Los Angeles? 444 reads […]

  10. graham says:

    the london metropolitan area if done the same way as they do in the us would be about 35 million,london is way bigger than any city in the us and australia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s