Worst State Capital Location

On October 3, 2010 · 18 Comments

Loyal Reader "Greg" read my recent article about whether the county seat of Benton Co., Washington should move because the center of population shifted overwhelmingly to the east. Greg said, "To go up an order of subdivision, I wonder what US state has the smallest capital city by population compared to (a) the state as a whole, and (b) the largest city in that state. Iā€™d guess Albany for both, but Carson City might have a shot." That sounded like a mighty fine reason to go to the U.S. Census population tables, build a spreadsheet and see if I could figure out an answer.

First a bit of warning about these data. I tried to base everything upon the latest projections that were released in 2009. I couldn’t find that for all fields so there’s a bit of mix-and-match going on. Also, by definition, Greg and I agreed to consider the population within city boundaries rather than the larger metropolitan area. The conclusions could change if I ran these again using metropolitan areas. It would also take a lot longer and I’m not quite that motivated. It’s best to consider my findings approximate enough for amusement rather than something exact.

Most Unbalanced Population, State Capital vs. Entire State



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  • (1) Pennsylvania: Harrisburg comprises 0.4% of the population of Pennsylvania
  • (2) New York: Albany comprises 0.5%
  • (3) (tie) Maryland: Annapolis comprises 0.6%
  • (3) (tie) Washington: Olympia comprises 0.6%
  • (3) (tie) Kentucky: Frankfort comprises 0.6%
  • (3) (tie) Missouri: Jefferson City comprises 0.6%

Does Pennsylvania surprise you? It made sense once I started thinking about it. There are two very large metropolitan areas, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, plus several other very respectably-sized cities scattered throughout the state. Greg’s Albany hunch came in a close second, though. The two states at the opposite end of the scale — where the highest percentage of residents live within the boundaries of the state capital — are Honolulu, Hawaii and Phoenix, Arizona. Both state capital cities house about 25% of their respective state population.


Most Unbalanced Population, State Capital vs. State’s Largest City



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  • (1) New York: The capital, Albany, is equivalent to 1% of the population of the largest city, New York City
  • (2) Pennsylvania: Harrisburg is 3% of Philadelphia
  • (3) Illinois: Springfield is 4% of Chicago
  • (4) Kentucky: Frankfort is 5% of Louisville
  • (5) Maryland: Annapolis is 6% of Baltimore

Here’s where Albany makes it’s appearance in the top spot. It’s almost unfair to compare any location to the behemoth that is New York City, and sure enough, Albany’s population pales in comparison. Notice how quickly the percentages increase even within the top 5. There are seventeen states where the capitals also happen to be the largest cities within the state.

Then I decided to take this a step further. What state capitals, I wondered, were the most inconveniently located to the residents of the state’s largest city? From this I thought I might be able to infer some good candidates for relocation.


Most Inconveniently Located State Capital for an Individual Traveling from the Largest City



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  • (1) Alaska: The state capital at Juneau is 849 road miles from the state’s largest city, Anchorage
  • (2) Nevada: Carson City is 441 miles from Las Vegas
  • (3) California: Sacramento is 384 miles from Los Angeles
  • (4) Montana: Helena is 239 miles from Billings
  • (5) South Dakota: Pierre is 226 miles from Sioux Falls

First I looked at highway miles from the state’s largest city to the capital. I could have just as easily used air miles but I figured most people would drive to the state capital. Anyway it would have been more time consuming to calculate air miles and I had to run this fifty separate times so I wasn’t looking for extra work. It was all about finding the easiest method. Alaska pops to the top immediately with no other state coming close. A drive from Anchorage to Juneau involves a jaunt into Canada plus a ferryboat ride. Realistically anyone who needs to transact state business in Juneau is going to want to fly.

The shortest distance, excluding those state capitals that are also largest cities, is a much less daunting 11 miles from Minneapolis to St. Paul, Minnesota.


Most Inconveniently Located State Capital Overall to the Residents of the Largest City



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This one is going to take a little bit of explanation. I’ve attempted to calculate an inconvenience factor where 100 is defined as the most societally inconvenient state capital location. Sure, Alaska has the greatest distance but relatively few people need to make that journey. The index starts with the road distance between the state capital and the largest city. I multiplied the road distance by the number of people in the largest city (those inconvenienced) and did the same for the number of people in the state capital (those not inconvenienced). I subtracted the value for the state capital from the value for the largest city. Then I set the highest value of all fifty states at 100 and created a scale for all the others. I did that last step only so it would be easier to compare states.

Got all that? Okay, here are the results:

  • (1) California: Sacramento vs. Los Angeles is 100
  • (2) New York: Albany vs. New York City is 97
  • (3) Illinois: Springfield vs. Chicago is 44
  • (4) (tie) Texas: Austin vs. Houston is 19
  • (4) (tie) Nevada: Carson City vs. Las Vegas is 19

California and New York are the most unbalanced. California would cause less inconvenience to its citizenry if it moved the capital closer to Los Angeles. New York could move its capital closer to New York City. The best result, excluding states where the capital city and largest city are one-in-the-same, is Connecticut. Hartford versus Bridgeport is an inconvenience factor of only 0.06.

There’s one big flaw. Largest city isn’t analogous to the state’s center of population. Take the case of Pennsylvania with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia anchoring opposite ends of the state. Move the capital to Philadelphia (largest city) and suddenly it causes great inconvenience to residents of Pittsburgh (second largest city). I found a list of all centers of population by state but I need some time to analyze it. That will be discussed in my next installment so check back in a couple of days.

On October 3, 2010 · 18 Comments

18 Responses to “Worst State Capital Location”

  1. James D says:

    Well, then arguably Pennsylvania should be two states then, one with its capital in Philadelphia, the other with its capital in Pittsburgh. But then we’re getting into this kind of silliness

    • Salvo says:

      Is there a story behind the map you linked to?

      • James D says:

        Yes. It’s a different data-set (Major Trading Areas) that happens to divide the contiguous 48 into 46 areas, onto which were pasted names that strongly suggested states. It originated as a joke and a parody to see whether anyone would notice that it wasn’t just another map from the “let’s redraw all the states” meme, perhaps with a particular aim to reflecting urban America. Ironically, it actually achieves this objective rather well, as a Major Trading Area is focussed on a Major Trading Center, or a very big city in plain English (which naturally the map marks as state capitals).

  2. Craig says:

    I think an inconvenience factor might be scaled on size of the state by using a ratio of the average distance to the state capital to the average distance to the center of population.

  3. Greg says:

    Excellent post. I didn’t see Harrisburg coming, but you’re right: it makes perfect sense. Another reason, besides subjectivity, to not use metro areas is that they can spread across state lines. Should Nutmeggers or New Jersyites living in the NYC metro area be making New York’s capital seem even smaller? Also, how about how state capitals compare to not only state centers, but geographical centers? Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Columbus, and Des Moines look like they were designed to be centrally located state capitals, while Cheyenne seems inexcusable.

  4. David says:

    As a native St. Paulite, living now in DC and a huge fan of this blog, I have to note that it is misleading to describe Minneapolis as ‘eleven miles’ from St. Paul. The cities are mostly next to each other.
    Also, James, where’d you get that map?
    Thanks for the great blog!

  5. mike says:

    As someone who lives in and works for a county government in Northwestern PA, I can absolutely verify Harrisburg as the a pain in the butt state capitol, even based on geography alone.

    One thing to take into consideration is interstates and topography: In your last category, all of the cities and capitols are linked by a major interstate highway. There is no easy way to get from northwestern PA to Harrisburg and vice versa.

    granted the bulk of the population lives in SE PA, but those Appalachian Mts and the way they curve around make for a lot of difficulty between western and eastern PA.

    If you get Google directions for Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, and check the “Avoid tolls” option, you’ve got a near-7 hour trip on your hands through very hilly and turn-y land.

    So, if the capitol of PA was put on the other side of the Appalachians, you would see a very different state indeed.

  6. Matt says:

    I think what you really want to do is compare the population centroids for each state (http://www.census.gov/geo/www/cenpop/statecenters.txt) with the state capitals. Harrisburg might be small, but it is very close to the population centroid for Pennsylvania (the average latitude and longitude for every resident of the state). So at least it’s fair. Sacramento is a large city, but if one were to base California’s capital on where people actually live, it should be Bakersfield, (or, to be more specific, Shafter), which is between the Bay Area and LA/San Diego. You may know that Alaska had plans to move its capital to Willow (north of Anchorage) but dropped them after finding the move would be too expensive.

  7. Matt says:

    Incidentally, I think Florida definitely deserves a mention here. The population center is in Polk County, near Winter Haven. The geographic center is in Hernando County, near Brooksville. But the capital is in Tallahassee, which is close to Atlanta than to Melbourne, let alone Miami.

  8. Jerry says:

    What about Tallahassee to Miami, Florida? According to Google “Directions” it is 480 miles. Now some might say that Jacksonville is the largest city but Jacksonville is the whole county not just the city (it used to be).

  9. Matt says:

    Incidentally, Key West is an 11-hour drive from Tallahassee. Try finding a longer voyage to a location’s own state capital in the Lower 48. The only one I can find is the northwest corner of the Texas Panhandle, which is 11h 20m from Austin according to Google Maps.

  10. Lincoln Ho says:

    Wasn’t it in an earlier post you mentioned Juneau is not accessible by road?

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