How Big is Northern Virginia?

Some months ago, I was at a party where one attendee lamented not living in Northern Virginia and having to drive back home all the way to Centreville. This led to an animated discussion about whether that town was part of NoVA and what constituted the region. I started to wonder if it’s possible to come up with a unified definition to end the arguments once and for all.

I created a Google Forms survey where I gave people a list of 50 places in Virginia, ranging all the way from Arlington to Ashburn to Richmond and asked them if they considered each one part of “NoVA”. I also gave them the option to include their ZIP Code so I could analyze the data by the respondent’s location.

Not visible: Winchester (7.1%), Front Royal (10.4%), Strasburg (2.1%), Stafford (14.9%), Culpeper (5.7%), Fredericksburg (9.6%), King George (2.8%), Spotsylvania (2.6%), Charlottesville (2.4%), Richmond (1.4%).

Click for a full-sized version.

If one were to go by majority rule, the border of Northern Virginia would run from Woodbridge to Manassas, along the Fairfax County border to Dulles Airport, and then northwestward to Leesburg. There’s an over 20 percentage point dropoff from those places to anywhere outside that boundary. Overall, it would be a fairly reasonable definition, with the exception of perhaps including South Riding to make the border look prettier.

The consensus boundary of Northern Virginia. Apologies for the MSPaint quality.

The government’s definition doesn’t really work so well

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the Washington Metropolitan Statistical Area contains Front Royal (10% NoVA), Warrenton (11%), Fredericksburg (9.6%), and even Spotsylvania (2.6%). Fewer than one percent of respondents included all four of those places. While those towns may not feel like a part of Northern Virginia, they still contribute to the region. Residents of Fauquier, Spotsylvania, and Stafford Counties all have longer average commute times than those in Fairfax County as people move further and further away from DC.

On the other hand, I have heard people who claim that Northern Virginia only consists of land within the Beltway.  Despite that, the most frequently-included place was the City of Fairfax, a good five miles away from the proposed demarcation. Reston, even further out, was considered NoVA by over 95% of respondents. Going by the survey results and population density data, one could argue for a restrictive definition of the area that contains McLean, Tyson’s Corner, Vienna, Fairfax, Burke, Springfield, and points closer.

Why is a place part of Northern Virginia?

Now that we have all the percentages and raw data, is there any method behind the madness? To figure out what drove people’s responses, I ran regression analyses on the results with various census data and got the following significant factors, starting with the most important:

  1. Distance from Washington, DC. This was the most obvious factor, and to no one’s surprise it’s the most influential. About 70% of the results could be explained by this single variable.
  2. If it’s within Fairfax County. Even accounting for the above, there’s a noticeable drop once you leave the county. A lot of people I’ve talked to are inclined to include all of Fairfax County regardless of what other criteria was used, so this was somewhat expected.
  3. Latitude. After all, it’s called Northern Virginia. This variable probably earned its significance due to places like Leesburg (68%) and Ashburn (72%) being commonly included while Dale City (40%) and Dumfries (33%) were not.
  4. Population. There are two explanations for this. The first is that smaller communities such as Clifton (66%) would feel less built-up and therefore not considered to be a true part of Northern Virginia. Secondly, if a place is small, it’s less likely that someone has heard of it, which would cause them to not include it in their list.

Newington? Never even heard of it!

Newington is a census-designated place located about halfway between the Beltway and the Prince William County line and is closer to DC than Fairfax City. About 13,000 people live within its borders, and it has a respectable 2800 people per square mile. Yet, just under a third of respondents considered it to be part of Northern Virginia.

The problem is that few people have heard of such a place. The only time I’ve seen it mentioned with any regularity is the exit sign for it while driving down I-95. I don’t know of anyone who says they’re from Newington, there are no attractions in Newington that I know of, and if I were to talk about that location I’d be more likely to use something like “south of Springfield” or “near Lorton” instead.

Several other places ran into the issue of name recognition. Bailey’s Crossroads, adjacent to both Arlington and Alexandria and the densest place surveyed, was selected by only 73% of people. However, if we just consider those who live inside the Beltway, that number jumps to 92%. Woodbridge is at 69% while a couple miles down the road Dale City lies at just 40%. I suspect that number might be higher had I instead asked about the latter’s most defining feature, Potomac Mills.

We’re part of Northern Virginia too!

Unsurprisingly, people who were from the outer suburbs were significantly more generous with their definition of Northern Virginia than those who lived within Fairfax County. Those residing in Loudoun or Prince William Counties included on average four more locations as than those within the Beltway. This is even more evident when we focus on the further-out towns.

Increase in likelihood of including selected places by those from Loudoun and Prince William Counties

TownCountyAllLoudoun OnlyPWC Only
AldieLoudoun23.94%+38.69%+5.27%
South RidingLoudoun46.82%+38.03%+7.11%
PurcellvilleLoudoun20.02%+30.48%-2.04%
AshburnLoudoun71.61%+25.36%+0.30%
LeesburgLoudoun68.22%+24.71%+1.44%
WinchesterFrederick7.10%+7.04%-2.60%
Dale CityPrince William40.36%-0.97%+47.28%
DumfriesPrince William32.94%+0.39%+41.21%
GainesvillePrince William36.33%+11.14%+28.83%
WoodbridgePrince William68.86%-4.21%+22.16%
StaffordStafford14.94%-3.83%+14.28%
WarrentonFauquier11.12%+2.01%+7.98%

While those in Loudoun County are more willing to include themselves in Northern Virginia, they don’t tend to extend the same courtesy to those in Prince William County (and vice versa). Gainesville, South Riding, and Aldie are notable exceptions, due to them all being closer to the county line than, for example, Purcellville or Woodbridge.

Can a gas station settle this once and for all?

Sheetz is a chain of gas stations with locations ranging from North Carolina to Pennsylvania and Ohio. Similar to Wawa, they pride themselves on serving “made to order” food, which earns them their popularity during college student road trips, having spoken from experience. They also don’t have a single location inside Fairfax County. In fact, the nearest Sheetz locations to DC make for a rather accurate frontier of Northern Virginia.

The one exception to this rule is the Sheetz between Sterling (77%) and Dulles Airport (91%). Oddly enough, when I zoomed in on that location, it did not appear to exist. I’m just going to assume that there was a glitch in Google Earth and that location was added in error.

The Case of the Missing Sheetz

Conclusion

There will continue to be disagreements over what defines the exact borders of Northern Virginia. If we were to extrapolate our findings, we could say that over 100,000 people in the area would include Fredericksburg while another 100,000 would leave out Springfield (and 10,000 would do both, apparently). However, there is still a fairly reasonabe compromise to be found and hopefully we can all agree on it and never have to deal with this argument ever again.

Okay, maybe I’m a bit too optimistic.

Boring details

There were 944 total responses, of which 859 entered a local ZIP Code. Aldie was not included on the map or analysis because it’s not a census-designated place. Dulles Airport was excluded from analysis because it has no population. There were no attempts to weight the sample by location, but if that were done responses from Loudoun and Prince William Counties would count about double. There were also no attempts to get a representative sample, and I do not pretend that this is the pinnacle of polling science. It’s unlikely that 2.2% of the population does not believe Arlington or Alexandria are part of Northern Virginia; rather it’s probable that some people misclicked, intentionally trolled the survey, or misunderstood the prompt. I’m looking at you, guy who selected Herndon and nowhere else. Raw data can be found at https://github.com/hdwhite/novastats/.

Days 5 and 6: The Great White North

Turns out it can be hard sometimes to find the time to get these written. Who knew constantly driving and exploring different places each day would be such hard work?

On Wednesday morning, I was a bit slow to wake up from having stayed up fairly late the night before. Before I started my journey for the day, I walked around downtown Montreal for a bit, deftly avoiding all the “sidewalk closed” signs. I’m sure it’s normally a much prettier city, but it’s hard to get a real gauge when I visit it in the middle of a facelift. I wasn’t able to stay long, though, since it was over 300 miles to Toronto, and this time I wanted to get there before sundown.

Continue reading Days 5 and 6: The Great White North

Day 4: Going International

Okay, I’ll admit it. It got a bit cold last night. The low was in the upper 30s, but thankfully I brought my insulated sleeping bag which kept me from freezing. My dad and I packed up our gear, and around 8 in the morning we set out northward.

Our first stop was Bangor, about an hour north of Acadia. We had a big breakfast at a local diner, and since it was my 25th birthday, my dad bought me a slice of Apple pie and ice cream. Once we finished up, I dropped my dad off at the airport for his flight back home. Afterwards, I went to the Bangor public library to print out a few documents I might need for the border crossing. I gotta say, the library is a very useful public resource, even if you don’t use it to check out books. Eventually, I got my luggage sorted, my passport in my front seat, and I was ready to continue on.

Continue reading Day 4: Going International

Day 3: The Precipice

It turns out that Acadia National Park isn’t known for its high-quality 4G networks, so while I wrote this on Monday, you’ll probably have to wait until I get to Bangor before this post is up.

After waking up bright and early at the Motel 6, my dad and I set out to compete the drive to Acadia. You’d think that Maine would be a small state, being in New England and all, but no, it’s a five-hour drive from Boston to Bar Harbor. It was at least a pretty drive, at least. We got to see the leaves change colors, the Atlantic Ocean, and the small towns that dot the coastline. Around lunchtime, we finally arrived at our destination. We set up the tent, unloaded our sleeping bags, and planned our hike for the day.

Continue reading Day 3: The Precipice

Day 2: Beantown

Today, I woke up and discovered that my laptop decided that it didn’t want to hold a charge. To be fair, I wasn’t planning on using it for much, bit it may make my posts a bit shorter as I now have to rely on a phone keyboard for everything.

Once I got everything in order, I headed out from my lodging in Wellesley and took the train into town. It was a couple miles’ walk to the station, but I didn’t mind. Temperatures in the mid-fifties and a light mist is the best walking conditions, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Continue reading Day 2: Beantown

Day 1: The Long Road to Boston

I woke up bright and early in my bed for the final time for a month. Today I would be leaving on a month-long trip of a lifetime, and the first step would be an eight-hour drive up to Boston. I wanted to get as far away from home as reasonably possible on my first day. It seemed a bit silly to spend an evening in nearby New York City when I could use that time to enjoy another day out west in a place I might never get to visit again. So, with my gear packed and my gas tank full, I headed off on my grand adventure.

Continue reading Day 1: The Long Road to Boston

Road Trip Day 0: Introduction

About a year and a half ago, I was leaving Baltimore when I came across the exit for I-95. I ultimately took the exit to go south and back home, but at that moment I felt a nagging desire to turn north, leave my responsibilities behind for a while, and see what the open road had to offer. Tomorrow, after saving up several months’ worth of vacation time and gas money, I finally get to live that dream.

Continue reading Road Trip Day 0: Introduction

How much is a gold coin worth?

In most role-playing games, gold is the universal currency of choice. It provides some relatability with the fantasy world (gold is valuable!), and it’s an effective method for transporting wealth that is light enough to not encumber its owner. It’s ubiquitous to the point where it simply becomes just a number. But what exactly does the amount of gold you have mean in real-world terms?

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The Board Game Interactivity Scale

Board games nowadays come in many levels of interactivity. Some can almost be considered multiplayer solitaire, where each player does their own thing with little or no regard to their opponents’ actions. On the other end, games can be entirely zero-sum, where any action anyone does comes at the expense of another player. Neither extreme can really be considered “better”, but people still do have their preferences. Germans, popularizers of the “victory point” system, tend to prefer the former, while American-produced games seem to more often than not fall into the latter category.

In a desire to categorize these games, I have come up with a board game interactivity scale, ranging from 0 to 10. Continue reading The Board Game Interactivity Scale

Applying Physics to The Avengers

(WARNING: The following post contains physics as well as spoilers for a certain film.)

A couple months ago, I was watching The Avengers for the third time, and when the portal opened to start the alien invasion, I noticed that they kinda ignored the physics of the whole thing. The most obvious one (at least for me) was that for some reason none of the air was escaping into the vacuum of space. In addition, the Earth should have a gravitational pull on the space station, yet that doesn’t appear to be visible. And so, for whatever silly reason, I decided to actually crunch the numbers on the whole thing.

Continue reading Applying Physics to The Avengers