Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

The Hub of the Universe?

The Hub of The Universe?

The Hub of The Universe?

“Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system. You couldn’t
pry that out of a Boston man if you had the tire of all creation
straightened out for a crowbar.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, 1858.



This quote recorded by Holmes is the source of the famous nickname of Boston, although it’s range has been expanded over the years to include the entire universe, and has also been shortened to “The Hub.” What people often misunderstand about the quote is that Holmes was actually making fun of the small mindedness of people who would make such a claim. However, there is certainly some truth in the idea that a Bostonian is somewhat self-centered and often presumes that the city of Boston has a magnified role in world affairs. This idea of the outsized importance of Bostonians is captured in the joke headline I have heard in various permutations that goes something like “Passenger Jet Crashes- Hub Man Dies!”  It often manifests as an excess of outrage at being slighted, and is particularly pronounced when discussing sports. Our ire is particularly directed at our perceived chief rival and large neighbor New York City, but the response of the denizens of Gotham is usually an indifferent shrug of surprise that we are still bitter about not being New York. It is not dissimilar  to a puppy trying to get the attention of an old sleeping dog who is merely annoyed at having been bothered at all.

In recent years a more sinister version of this pride has evolved as the tone of the Boston sports grumpy guy seems to have changed from one of resigned bitterness at always falling short (especially to those ‘Damn Yankees’) to one of gloating, symbolized by a more recent and, to my mind, obnoxious nickname Boston seems to have adopted: “City of Champions.” Even the tragic events at the Boston Marathon finish line on Patriots Day in 2013 have been embraced and abused by gloaters who presume we have ‘matched’ (or ‘bested’ even) New York with ‘our own 9-11’. There has been a profusion of the accompanying “Boston Strong” paraphernalia which, although intended to demonstrate fortitude in the face of acts of terror, seems to have morphed into a slightly menacing show of aggression. I was deeply saddened by the events of that day and the impact on the lives of so many victims but the subsequent Boston macho boosterism that resulted and continues to this day is an ugly side of Boston that I try to avoid.

One negative side effect of this development is a precipitous decline in my interest level in Boston sports in recent years as I no longer wish to be in constant contact with people who seem to want to rub everybody’s nose in their success, ‘Booyah!!’ ugh. That, and the fact that nobody seems to actually watch the games I attend but rather meander around the park, beer in one hand taking Selfies with the other, wearing all the gear to prove they are Sox or Pats or B’s or Celtic fans and therefore are “Boston Strong.”

On a recent trip to California I was told over and over again how much people hated Boston sports teams. Tom Brady has become the poster boy in the rest of America for the obnoxious, overbearing, win at all costs Boston sports team and fan mentality. This is not the image of the city that I think Boston should be cultivating. It is bad enough that large swaths of the country think Boston is full of arrogant Harvard liberals bent on destroying the American way of life and lecturing the rest of the country in the process. Now we are becoming the jock bully as well. That is, to those who think about Boston at all.

Which brings me to today’s topic: How relevant is Boston in the real world?  Sure, I have been making the case that Boston is a candidate city for ‘World Class Status,’ but how much do we actually contribute to the world? At a very basic level, how much of the world  is comprised of Bostonians? I have created a small table to quantify the absolute number of Bostonians and then compared that number to the actual number of people in the United States and in the world.

The first row shows the numbers for the City of Boston alone, without any of the surrounding areas like Cambridge or Brookline. The second row shows the figures for the Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). Boston MSA is composed of Suffolk County (744,426, all the data presented here is from 2012 estimates), Norfolk County (681,845), Plymouth County (499,759), Middlesex County (1,537,215), Essex County (755,618), Rockingham County, NH (297,820), and Strafford County, NH (124,119) : Total 4,640,802 (2012). As of 2014 the total had increased by over 90,000 to 4,732,161 as shown on the chart. The third row is the Boston Primary Statistical Area, which includes Worcester, Providence, Manchester (NH), and other areas deemed to be part of the widest definition of the Boston sphere of influence by the Census Bureau. All data on the chart are Census Bureau figures from mid-2014 estimates and from 2010, when the last Census was taken.


Place2014 Population (Census midyear estimate)2010 Population (Census midyear estimate)Growth 2010-2014% Growth 2010-2014As % of US Population 2014As % of World Population 2014Number of People in World for each resident
Boston City655854617594382606.20%0.21%0.009%10946
Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area473216145524021797593.95%1.48%0.066%1517
Boston Primary Statistical Area809957578933762061992.61%2.54%0.113%886
United States318857056308745538101115183.28%100.00%4.442%23

The principal point I want to make about this data is how small a place Boston actually is in the world.  If all the people on the planet were randomly mixed and then moved via Brownian motion, the odds that the first person they bumped into would be another resident of the City of Boston would be almost 1 in 11,000. The odds of winning the Lottery’s Daily Number are higher. To run into a resident of the Boston MSA and PSA the likelihood of each occurrence respectively is 1 in 1500, and nearly 1 in 900, still not very good odds. The odds of running into an American are about 1 in 23, which is a little surprising considering the widespread impression that the United States is also the center of the world, until one is reminded that over 60% of the world population resides in Asia. The odds of running into somebody from Asia in a random mixer encounter are better than even, and the odds of running into somebody from China are about one in 6, with the odds of running into somebody from India being only slightly worse (not for long, however, as India is poised to become the most populous nation on Earth sometime in the next decade).

One chart on Wikipedia attempts the very difficult task of ranking the largest cities in the world. On this list Boston MSA comes in at 62nd place, behind Berlin and ahead of Sydney. This is pretty good company. If the Boston PSA data were used instead then Boston would probably move up into the top 40 according to that chart.  Still, our near neighbor and ‘rival’ hovers around the top 10 depending on which data one uses to calculate the population of metropolitan New York. This topic is something in which I have a keen interest and I am currently working on my own list of the world’s largest cities. Stay tuned!

Boston fares much better in the United States, as befits its top ten rank in the largest metropolitan area charts (see my last post, Boston Versus the World!). By this metric, a random encounter similar to the above experiment would have a success ratio of 1 in 40 for the Boston PSA. On a more dispiriting note for Boston Boosters, this is about the same chance as running into somebody from the five boroughs, and you are three times more likely to run into somebody from the New York PSA (over 23,000,000 residents).

Anecdotally, when I travel abroad I would say only about half the people I speak with have actually heard of Boston, whereas almost everyone (but not all, amazingly!) has heard of New York. So, for about 50% of the people that want to know where I live, the answer is a dispiriting “near New York.” Apparently we are not the Hub but we are fairly close (about 200 miles) to an actual candidate.

On the bright side, the City of Boston has been growing at a faster rate than the surrounding MSA and PSA, and is also growing faster than the United States as a whole. More impressively, its rate of growth is higher than the growth rate of the population of Earth! So apparently Boston IS becoming the Hub after all, judging from the numbers. It just might take a while before we make up the bulk of the world’s population.

Following the last idea to its logical conclusion: below are some figures for the geographical extent of the Boston MSA and some associated quirky calculations I have done that are of interest to me and, hopefully, to the reader.

Area of Boston MSA: Suffolk (58mi2), Norfolk (396mi2), Plymouth (659mi2), Middlesex (818mi2), Essex (493mi2), Rockingham NH (695mi2), Strafford NH (369mi2): Total Area 3,488 mi2

Population in 2014- 4,732,161 residents.

Overall Density of Boston MSA : 1,357 inhabitants/mi2

World Population (2014)= 7,178,723,000

World’s Land Area= 57,510,000 mi2

World Density (Land area only, no Waterworld scenarios)= 125 inhabitants/mi2

The first point is that Boston MSA is over ten times more densely populated than the average density for the entire planet. Not really a surprise there but it does indicate how large the actual world is when you take into account the population figures above. Clearly there are some places in the world where the population density is much higher than that of Boston. Considering the range of the Boston MSA- it runs well into New Hampshire and all the way to the Cape Cod Canal- it seems as though despite the density there is a lot of spare room in the Boston MSA. Thus…

World Density if entire population was placed in Boston MSA (i.e. 3488 mi2)=

2,058,120 inhabitants/square mile.

A lot of people in a small space… probably not ideal…but…

Area needed to fit the entire population of the world at the same density as the City of Boston (2014-13,585 inhabitants/mi2)=

528,430 square miles.

In other words, everyone on the planet could live in a ‘MEGA-Boston’ that extends across an area the size of Texas, California, and Arizona put together. Again, probably not ideal; on the other hand there are two golf courses in Boston and lots of parks and the ratio of people living in urban environments increases every year and already constitutes over half of the world’s population. So the idea that the entire planet’s population could fit into a MEGA-Boston the size of 3 large states fairly comfortably (after all, I live in Boston and I am pretty comfortable…) makes me feel better somehow about the state of the world in 2015. Plus, there would be 11,000 golf courses to play in MEGA-Boston, if one extrapolated from the current City of Boston.

Alternatively, the area needed to fit population of the World at the same density as the Boston MSA=

5,290,142 square miles.

The population of the entire planet could fit into the continental USA plus Canada, including an expanded version of all the golf courses, beaches, parks, shopping malls, farms, and empty space found from Cape Cod Canal to the foothills of the White Mountains, with hundreds of thousands of square miles leftover. Again, this somehow makes me feel better about the prospects for humanity. Except for the malls. That would be a lot of malls.

One other note: the population of the world has increased in the last 5 years more than the entire population of the United States!! (7,282,507,000 as of the latest World population clock at the Census Bureau);

thus    7,282,507,000-6,866,332,000= 416,175,000 people.

Population of United States of America on the same Census Bureau page = 322,062,000.

You can throw a Germany in as well, the 16th largest country on Earth with around 82,000,000 inhabitants. The United States is the 3rd largest country in the world. The equivalent of a whole new country larger than the USA and Germany combined has come into existence in 5 years. That makes me feel somewhat less sanguine about the prospects for humanity.

Finally, if all those people were to be crammed into Boston, the city really would be the Hub of the Universe, or at least the Hub of Planet Earth. Then we would really have something to gloat about but nobody to gloat to about it. Maybe we can send a ‘Free Brady’ signal into outer space.


Postscript: from the time I began this article to the time I finished it (about 3 hours) the population of the World has increased by another 40,000 people according to the Population Clock, or an entire full house at Fenway Park! Please sit down! I am trying to watch the game.


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