The State of Dense Comparisons

One of my biggest pet peeves is comparisons of the U.S to other countries – especially European countries – to show how the U.S. is “behind” in some nationwide attribute like healthcare, broadband speeds/adoption, public transit.

My first issue with these comparisons is one of scale. The United States is closer to the European Union in structure than any individual European country and multiple times larger in geographic area than either. We should be comparing individual states against individual states by GDP.

  • Minnesota ~= Norway
  • California ~= France
  • New York ~= Brazil
  • Illinois ~= Mexico

My second issue is one of population density. Lots of people in a small space increases the demand and makes it logistically easier to deliver public transit and high-speed internet access to more people faster. If nearest neighbors are 40 acres and a mule away, connecting them is far more expensive than if they live on top each other.

Ranking countries by their population density puts the US 180th (31 people/km2).


  • Netherlands: #25 – 395 people/km2
  • Belgium: #31 – 341 people/km2
  • Japan: #32 – 339 people/km2
  • United Kingdom: #51 – 246 people/km2
  • Germany: #53 – 232 people/km2
  • France: #95 – 110 people/km2

Imagine seeing 10x the number people around you everyday. Our towns, cities, and attitudes would have to dramatically change to support that. Just as they have to support their current densities (e.g. Minneapolis got a light rail train).

The US is closer by comparison to Madagascar (32 people/km2) and Estonia (29 people/km2).

I don’t remember the last time I’ve heard the US compared to those developing countries. Though from what I’ve heard about Estonia’s electronic government, there’s some interesting stuff going on there.

Again, individual state level comparisons are more appropriate here as well.

  • Minnesota ~= Somalia[1]
  • California ~= Greece
  • New York ~= Kuwait
  • Illinois ~= Spain

For the densities greater than 100 people / km2 we need to move to New England:

  • South Korea ~= New Jersey
  • Netherlands ~= Rhode Island
  • Belgium or Japan ~= Massachusetts
  • United Kingdom ~= Connecticut
  • Germany ~= Maryland
  • France ~= Ohio or Florida[2]

Looking at these numbers it’s clear why Thomas P. M. Barnett says the U.S. has more in common with emerging markets like Brazil and Russia than Western Europe and Japan.

We’re definitely behind Brazil in open source software adoption.

1. Interesting considering the recent influx of immigrants from that country into Minnesota
2. Yes, I know Ohio and Florida aren’t in New England. I found the comparison of France with Ohio & Florida entertaining so I wanted to keep it in.

3 thoughts on “The State of Dense Comparisons

  1. I see how this argument applies to public transit – although I also don’t hear people crying for more public transit in places like Brainerd or Perham – only in the denser areas of states. Not sure how it’s relevant to health care or broadband adoption where we fall behind when compared at a national or state level against the typical European countries used in comparisons like this.

  2. Alas, we still fail when comparing this way. High density areas in Europe compared to here still have better mass transit, though if you are selective we can manage to look competitive (NYC, DC, Portland, etc.)

    Nearly any country in Europe compared to any state here still has better health care.

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