Austin has a big population, but is Austin a big city?

Austin skyline

The Austin skyline, as seen on March 23 from the 23rd floor of the Skyhouse Apartments. (Laura Skelding / American-Statesman)

A big city is more than its population.

The Census Bureau released its latest city population estimates Thursday — we learned that Texas was home to five of the 11 fastest-growing cities in the country (all suburbs: Georgetown, New Braunfels, Frisco, Pearland and Pflugerville) between July 1, 2014, and July 1, 2015 — and I again found myself pondering why Austin, despite its rank as the 11th most populous American city, with 931,830 residents, doesn’t feel like a big city.

Yes, Austin is a wonderful city, and though Austin is a little too full of itself at times, and certainly less affordable than it’s ever been, there’s nowhere else in Texas I’d rather live. Austin has better restaurants than it’s ever had, great festivals and a hike and bike trail I use several times a week. One of my favorite annual events, the Paramount Summer Classic Film Series, starts next week. And to say something doesn’t “feel” like something else is, I admit, pretty intangible.

And yet …

I lived in Washington, D.C., from 1988 to 1991 before I moved to Austin. (Well, I lived just north of the district line in Silver Spring, Maryland, to be precise.) Washington is the 22nd most populous city in the United States, with a July 2015 population of 672,228, but it feels much bigger — much more like a city — than Austin.

The same is true of San Francisco, which Austin passed on the most populous list in 2011. Like Washington, San Francisco — currently the nation’s 13th most populous city, with 864,816 people — has features we associate with large cities, such as major art and science museums, convenient public transportation, multiple vibrant and walk-able neighborhoods, and big-league professional sports teams. Austin lacks many of these kinds of things.

Part of the difference is D.C. and San Francisco are part of metropolitan areas that are significantly more populous than the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area that includes Travis, Williamson, Bastrop, Caldwell and Hays counties. It was front-page news in March when the Census Bureau reported that the population of the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area had surpassed 2 million residents between July 1, 2014, and July 1, 2015. Even so, the Austin metropolitan area ranks only 33rd in population.

Despite its growth and evolution, despite its transformed skyline and more diverse and energetic downtown, despite its having awakened years ago from its slumber as a sleepy college and government town, Austin remains largely suburban in character. It’s one reason why I don’t think of Austin as a city in the same way I think of D.C. or San Francisco as cities. Or Seattle, Denver and Portland, Oregon, for that matter — three cites with 250,000 to 300,000 fewer people than Austin, but which feel larger than they are, while Austin feels smaller than it is.

Topping Thursday’s census report was the news that Georgetown grew faster between July 2014 and July 2015 than any other city with a population of at least 50,000. New Braunfels was No. 2 on the bureau’s list of fastest-growing cities; Pflugerville was No. 11.

As of July 2015, Georgetown had 63,716 residents — 7.8 percent more people lived in Georgetown last summer than lived there the previous July. New Braunfels grew at a 6.6 percent rate, to 70,543 people. Pflugerville’s growth rate was 4.5 percent; it had an estimated population of 57,122.

Austin, meanwhile, added another 19,117 people between July 2014 and July 2015, bringing its population to 931,830 and keeping the city well on track to reach the 1 million mark by 2020. Only seven cities (Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Dallas among them) added more people, in raw numbers, than Austin did. However, in terms of growth rate — 2.1 percent — it was Austin’s slowest population gain in years.

Strong urban growth, but stronger growth in the suburbs and exurbs. This is the long story of Thursday’s census numbers. Consider that Austin grew by 17.9 percent from 2010 to 2015, but Georgetown grew by 34.4 percent over the same period.

Any discussion about all the traffic this growth causes put aside, clearly many people prefer living outside cities, where more space can be bought for less money. Even millennials, often seen as hipsters solidly committed to city living, are proving to be as attracted to the lower housing costs and family friendliness of the suburbs as their parents and grandparents were before them. Many others in Austin, of course, are forced to leave city neighborhoods that are no longer affordable for suburban ones that are.

As for its place on the list of most populous cities, Austin will remain just outside the top 10 for another dozen years, assuming current trends and city boundaries hold. The 10th most populous city in the country is San Jose, Calif., which had a population of 1,026,908 as of July 1, 2015 — 95,078 residents ahead of Austin’s 931,830. San Jose is growing, too, though at a slower rate than Austin. Austin’s move past San Jose might come in 2028, give or take a year or two.

And that is where Austin will stay for the rest of my lifetime. Dallas is No. 9, with a population of 1,300,092. That’s a 368,262-person lead over Austin, and Dallas is adding a lot of people each year, too —19,642 between 2014 and 2015. In the No. 8 spot is San Diego (pop. 1,394,928), which Dallas might pass around 2030 but which Austin won’t pass, given current trends, for another 70 years or more. By then Austin may be just another cluster in the great Texas Interstate 35 megalopolis. You know, the one without the professional sports team.