Monday, October 17, 2022

Post 31: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

 I tend to take clean, plentiful water for granted.  I’m guessing that most of us do.  That faith was undermined a couple of weeks ago when a water main break half a block away left my household without water for more than 6 hours.  What was doubly annoying was that we had out-of-town guests staying with us at the time.  A planned “dinner in” turned into “dinner out” but we survived and water service was restored before we went to bed.

This type of occurrence is disturbingly common in my Kansas City neighborhood of 80-year old homes.  I sometimes think the water department has a plan to replace water lines 8 feet at a time.  I should probably count my blessings, however, because as inconvenient as water line breaks are, things are much worse elsewhere.

A couple of months ago, Jackson, Mississippi was in the headlines because the 150,000 residents of the city were without municipal water for an extended period of time.  Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency, warning that there wasn’t enough water “to fight fires, to reliably flush toilets, and to meet other critical needs.” [1]  This crisis dragged out for days and is still not totally resolved.

The headlines blamed torrential rains which flooded the Pearl River and, in turn, the Ross Barnett Reservoir, a 33,000-acre lake that provides water to Jackson.  But the more I read the more it became clear that this wasn’t a story about a one-time flooding event.  The current water crisis is just the most recent twist in a long-running saga that is so incomprehensible that it struck me as the public works version of a slow-motion train wreck – except this train wreck has been playing out for years.

The real story is one of political and managerial incompetence, exposed by several unexpected weather events, and amplified by our human tendency to defer hard decisions until there is a crisis at hand.  Let’s review:

Heavy rain in August did, in fact, flood the Pearl River and the Barnett Reservoir.  Flood waters often contain high levels of silt and other contaminants which must be filtered out by water treatment plants before being distributed through the water system.  This additional filtration load slowed down the volume of water that could be treated by the city’s two treatment facilities to the point that the city’s water towers effectively ran dry.  Without water in the water towers, there is not enough water pressure to distribute water through the water mains, and a water system without pressure is susceptible to contamination.  

The flooding and the resulting filtration problem was certainly unfortunate, but it was hardly the type of thing that couldn’t have been foreseen and planned for by the water system staff.  The problem was exacerbated because the main pumps at the primary treatment plant were out of service – and had been out of service for weeks prior to the flooding.  The plant was operating with lower capacity backup pumps and suffered from a variety of other treatment components that had either failed or were operating at limited capacity because of years of deferred maintenance.  Even the secondary treatment plant experienced pump issues during this same time period. [1]

It might be tempting to write this off as a really bad week for the City of Jackson, except that it wasn’t just one week.  The city had been under a “boil water notice” since July because the state health department had detected water quality issues.  This was just the most recent of a series of such notices that have been issued over the past couple of years.  In addition, the system has suffered from high lead levels since 2016 to the degree that city officials recommend that pregnant women and children under five not drink tap water.  In March of 2020, the EPA issued an emergency order because the system represented an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to its customers.

In 2021, roughly a third of the city’s residents were without running water for more than two weeks because of an unexpectedly severe cold snap.  Screens which filter incoming water from the reservoir had frozen solid preventing water from entering the treatment plant.  Water towers in the southern part of town (furthest from the treatment plants) once more ran dry because the volume of available water was insufficient to keep them even partially full.  Again, this was an avoidable problem that better facility design and system management could have addressed, but years of underfunding, staffing shortages and deferred maintenance gutted any hope of contingency planning or system resilience.

Why is the water system underfunded?  The answer starts with the fact that Jackson has lost more than 20 percent of its population to suburban areas (with their own water systems) over the past several decades, leaving the population not only smaller but also  disproportionately poor.  There are an estimated 4,000 abandoned properties that are served by the aging network of water mains but which obviously generate no revenue for the water system.  Parts of Jackson’s 1,500 miles of water mains are more than 100 years old and in obvious need of replacement. [2]

Perhaps more importantly, the city’s billing system has had chronic problems.  Some residents receive no bill, others receive bills that are exorbitantly high.  In 2013, the city signed a $91 million contract to replace water meters and implement a new water billing system but the work was plagued with problems.  Many of the meters did not work properly and many of those that did work could not be read remotely as had been planned.  The billing software had so many glitches that support lines were swamped with calls.  It got so bad that at one point a city councilmember simply advised people to “pay what they think they owe.” [3]

Fortunately, there are few water systems that are as badly run as the one in Jackson.  It would be a mistake, however, to assume that there aren’t significant problems in older cities all across the country.  Clean water is essential to our health and our way of life, but the systems that supply it are surprisingly fragile in many places.

This past August as temperatures approached 100 degrees in Newark, New Jersey, a 140-year old, 72-inch water main broke leaving much of the city without water.  Hospitals closed their doors to non-emergency patients, streets were transformed into brown rivers, and a resulting sinkhole swallowed a car. [4]  The break was fixed, but the majority of that same water main is still ancient and still vulnerable to breaks.

In February of 2021, a series of severe winter storms triggered a crisis across the state of Texas.  Four-and-a-half million customers were without power, but what was less reported was that 12 million people had their water service disrupted due to freezing and bursting pipes.  Numerous buildings were damaged, fire hydrants became unusable, and streets were flooded.  The City of Austin lost 325 million gallons of water to burst pipes, and “boil orders” were common across the state. [5]

In New Orleans, the majority of the city’s 1,600 miles of water mains are more than 80 years old.  The city spends roughly half of water system resources to fix breaks, which are so numerous that nearly half of the treated water in the system never reaches customers. [6] 

In Las Vegas, New Mexico (550 miles east of the other Las Vegas), wildfires triggered a different kind of water crisis.  The hillsides around Las Vegas were burned this past spring by the largest wildfire in State history, affecting more than 340,000 acres.  That was followed this summer by torrential rains which washed soot, soil and charred debris into the Gallinas River which in turn polluted the Bradner Reservoir which supplies the town with drinking water.  The ashy sludge in the reservoir cannot be effectively filtered by the current treatment plant.  Plus, when chlorine used for disinfection is added to carbon infused water it can become carcinogenic.  The city has identified a second lake that could be used as a source for water, but that will only buy a few more months before a more permanent solution will need to be found. [7]

There are more examples I could cite, but I’m not trying to play Chicken Little – the vast majority of public water systems are going to continue to supply plenty of safe water for us to drink, cook and shower with.  The point of this brief list is that there are multiple ways in which water systems can fail.  Problems with the source, the treatment plant or the distribution network can each cause a major disruption.  The overarching issue is that many of these systems are closer to the brink of disaster than most people know.  All it may take is an unexpected natural disaster or an unfortunate system malfunction to create a new “water crisis” story in your city.  It doesn’t need to be this way and, given our dependence on water systems for our way of life, it shouldn’t happen as frequently as it does.  

The Source of System Fragility

Almost every water crisis has a relatively straightforward solution that could have been implemented prior to the crisis ever occurring.  The reason they are not implemented is almost always a lack of money.  Treatment plants could be fortified against the effects of flooding and the subsequent decline in water quality.  Old water mains could be systematically replaced before they break.  Severe cold snaps, wildfires or droughts are all predictable events that should have been anticipated and addressed with contingency plans.  If only there was enough money to get those things done before the crisis hit.

The reason there isn’t enough money boils down to two basic reasons.  The first is simple human nature – we are much more inclined to respond to a crisis than to prevent a crisis by doing maintenance.  Replacing a 100-year old water main or worn out water pumps before they break will never be preceded by a fancy ribbon-cutting ceremony or followed by a story in the newspaper lauding the wisdom of local politicians.  

Despite the warnings of professional staff that deferred maintenance often ends badly, it will almost always seem preferable to use maintenance money to reduce utility rates or to build some new amenity that taxpayers will be happy to remember the next time they vote.  And water systems are not unique in this regard.  Deferred maintenance is a problem with virtually every category of public and private infrastructure.  We do it ourselves when we delay replacing the roof on our house or the tires on our car even though we know we are risking our own personal crisis.  Why should we expect any better from our politicians?  

The second reason is more significant and more difficult to resolve.  Cities across the country have created their own financial fragility by allowing (and even chasing) low density growth that has leapfrogged over vacant land in seemingly random ways.  This sprawling development pattern results in an equally sprawling pattern of roads, water lines, sewer lines, and other utilities that saddle cities with long-term maintenance obligations and underwhelming tax revenue.  The City of Jackson, for example, nearly tripled in size geographically between 1960 and 2020, but only increased 6 percent in population. [8]  Is it surprising that Jackson’s municipal revenue didn’t keep pace with maintenance needs?

The devious part of this pattern is that it is popular with individual residents or businesses hoping to build, while at the same time appearing to be at least fiscally neutral to city officials.  The subdivision of expensive homes on half-acre lots or the big box shopping center surrounded by acres of parking seem like a significant new source of revenue.  At the same time, much of the initial infrastructure is provided by the developer so costs to the city seem minimal.  At first, the new revenue helps cities resolve existing problems in other parts of the community.  But over time, roads must be widened and traffic signals installed to serve these outlying developments.  New fire stations are needed, additional police patrols are added, and new parks are planned.  At the same time, disinvestment is taking place in the older parts of the city leading to the early signs of blight and to falling property values.  

That “new revenue” which was so enticing earlier is now insufficient to cover all of the costs, and so cities chase more development even further out from the edge of town.  At some point, that once new infrastructure needs maintenance but there is no money available so that work is deferred and fingers are crossed.  Welcome to what Charles Marohn calls the “growth Ponzi scheme.” [9]  The bottom line is that, absent exceptionally high taxes, sprawling low-density development will never cover the long-term cost of the infrastructure needed to support it.  Thus, cities all across the country are becoming financially fragile and the seeds of the next “crisis” are being planted.

The Antidote

It is tempting to tell the citizens of Jackson (or the citizens of other cities facing some type of crisis) to simply exercise some fiscal discipline in other parts of their budget so that more money can be spent fixing the water system (or whatever system is broken).  The problem is that in almost every case all of the simple fixes have long since been implemented and still haven’t been sufficient.  Cities that are in crisis mode have painted themselves into a corner and the only fixes left are drastic ones, such as raising taxes or cutting essential services such as police and fire protection.  Those kinds of changes are likely to cause existing residents and businesses to flee to other locations which, in turn, accelerates fiscal shortfalls rather than solving them.  To prevent a crisis situation, there are three things to remember.

Bigger is better.  Most utility systems operate more efficiently if they are regional in size rather than municipal.  Cities often want the control that comes from having their own water and sewer systems but they pay a high price once they are boxed in by other cities and the “growth Ponzi scheme” is broken.  A regional system doesn’t guarantee that a crisis won’t occur but it reduces the odds because the governing body of a regional utility tends to be more focused on the needs of the system and less likely to shortchange maintenance needs.  In addition, regional systems can often take advantage of economies of scale which can reduce unit costs.  Politicians that argue for “local control” are generally seeking the ability to implement policies which favor developers at the expense of a sound financial foundation.

Focus inward, not outward.  The development focus of many communities is on outward expansion.  Instead, more emphasis needs to be placed on the health and adaptive potential of existing neighborhoods.  Infill development and selective redevelopment can often meet many of the needs of a growing population or a changing commercial environment without the need to expand road and utility infrastructure.  For most communities, outward expansion will still occur  but it should be as a response to needs that cannot be met internally rather than as an end in itself.  The problem is that new development on the edge of town is always easier than the redevelopment of existing neighborhoods, so political pressure and expediency tends to push cities into building something new and shiny rather than nurturing what they already have.

Rethink the rate structure.  In most cities, water rates consist of a connection fee (usually based on the size of the connection) and a water usage fee.  The problem is that the cost of delivering water to the customer is largely determined by the number of customers per mile of water line – a factor that is rarely included in the rate structure.  This means that residents in a subdivision of 5-acre lots where there are few customers per mile of water line pay roughly the same as residents in a subdivision of 8,000 square foot lots.  In my opinion, the connection charge should account for the majority of a typical user's bill and should be based on the size of the property divided by connection size.  Although this type of change would make water rates more closely reflect the actual long-term cost of providing service, it is such a radical change that I doubt it will be adopted in very many jurisdictions.


We all know that everything we build will eventually break and will need to be either fixed, replaced or abandoned.  Given how much I like drinking water, taking showers and flushing my toilet, I’m really hoping that the “abandonment” option is off the table in Kansas City.  The fact is that our society and economy are both dependent upon cities which, in turn, are dependent upon water systems and other utilities which are frequently hidden from view and taken for granted.

Our tendency to take a casual approach to critical systems is reinforced by the long lifespan that the initial installations tend to have.  When we build things that last for decades it is pretty easy to ignore or shortchange routine maintenance until a crisis is upon us.  We know we shouldn’t do it but our human bias toward the short-term often overwhelms the more prudent part of our brain that tells us that planning for the long-term is the smart play.  Get ready for more sad stories in the news similar to the one playing out in Jackson because I don’t see any reasons to assume that our political decision making will suddenly improve.  Just hope that it isn’t your city making the headlines.


  1.  Benji Jones; “How Jackson, Mississippi, ran out of water;” Vox; September 2022;

  2. Anna Wolfe; “ ‘A profound betrayal of trust’: Why Jackson’s water system is broken;” Mississippi Today; March 2021;

  3. R.L. Nave; “Bills, Bills, Bills:  Jackson Residents Confused by New Water Systems;” Jackson Free Press; November, 2015;

  4. Jesse O’Neill; “Massive New Jersey main break leaves Neward in water emergency;” New York Post; August 2022;

  5. “2021 Texas Power Crisis”; Wikipedia;

  6. Racheal Wolfe; “Jackson Water Crisis Puts U.S. Cities on Alert;” The Wall Street Journal; September 3, 2022.

  7. Ella Nilson; “City with just 20 days of fresh water left finds backup source – but they aren’t out of the woods;” CNN; September 2022;

  8. Charles Marohn; “Financial Fragility is to Blame for Jackson’s Water Crisis;” Strong Towns; September 2022;

  1. Charles Marohn; “The Growth Ponzi Scheme;” Strong Towns;

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Post 30: What Big Data Says About Rush Hour's New Normal

 Surely you’ve noticed: Rush hour traffic is different now than it was before the pandemic.  

People have theories about the underlying causes and what happens next, but few seem to have taken a deep dive into data that could give a reasonably precise understanding of what is really going on.  That makes it difficult to make meaningful adjustments to transportation policy, because the safe play for city planners and transportation officials is to fall back onto what they knew before the pandemic with the assumption that eventually things will return to normal.

Kansas City Traffic - 8 a.m. on a Monday
My goal with this post is to take a detailed look into pre- and post-pandemic transportation patterns because I think it is unlikely that things will return to “normal” anytime soon.  I also think it is likely that transportation policy needs to change.The better we understand what is going on, the more refined those policy adjustments can be.  

This article will focus on high-level vehicular patterns, but there are other related issues that I will address in later posts.  I will also focus on Kansas City, because it is the urban area I know best, but I will bring in data from Indianapolis and Chicago for comparisons and to underscore certain conclusions.

An Analysis With Big Data

Much of the data that I’m going to be using comes from Replica (, a company that builds large-scale models of mobility activity to better understand how, why, when and where people move around.  Replica data is used by transportation officials across the country to improve their understanding of what is really happening as people move from place to place.  This helps taxpayer money be spent more efficiently to get people where they need to go safely and on time.  By comparison, traditional data sources are crude, incomplete and often out of date.

So how does Replica work?  To begin with, Replica gathers massive amounts of de-identified data from three primary source types:  public use demographic data (e.g. Census Bureau surveys of population, income and household characteristics), proprietary data from commercial sources (e.g. locational data from GPS-enabled systems or transactional data from credit card systems), and field observation data from public agencies (e.g. traffic counts or transit boardings and departures).  From this data, a “synthetic population” is created that mimics the activities and movements of residents, visitors and commercial vehicle fleets for a typical weekday and weekend day in a  given season.  For this article, I will be using weekday data from the Fall of 2019 and the Spring of 2021 (supplemented by more recent data from other sources).

Replica data faces limitations from data sampling, the impacts of data privacy rules, and the simplifications and assumptions needed to build such a massive data model.  Still, it is far more accurate, detailed and inclusive than any alternative product I know.

COVID, Work-From-Home and More

The COVID-19 pandemic was a massive disrupter for urban areas around the world, and the ripple effects are likely to be with us for years.  It is important to point out, however, that the changes we are dealing with now were amplified and accelerated by technological and societal trends that have nothing to do with the COVID virus.  Here are four trends that should be kept in mind:

  1. The shutdowns of many businesses, schools and institutions slashed the number of trips of all types and for all purposes.  Transportation facilities everywhere were almost empty as people canceled anything that wasn’t essential.  Commuting habits changed, and the use of online shopping and home delivery services soared.
  2. The work-from-home trend, which had been growing slowly before the pandemic, absolutely exploded during the pandemic.  Workers tried it as a way to stay employed and businesses encouraged it as a way to stay in business.  Many workers liked the time they reclaimed from commuting and the extra flexibility it gave their daily schedules.   Even as business locations have reopened and workers have forgotten their fear of public spaces, the percentage of office workers actually in the office is still at historically low levels.  Recent surveys have indicated that 90 percent of companies allow office workers to have some type of hybrid or remote work schedule.  The average number of days that workers are allowed to work remotely is 2.3, but that likely understates reality since many companies are not actively enforcing their stated policies. [2]

  3. Transit ridership in major cities all over the country – including Kansas City, Indianapolis and Chicago – plummeted during the pandemic and is still well below pre-pandemic levels.  Problems multiplied as the pandemic dragged on and transit workers either fell ill or decided that the risk of coming to work was too great.  Many systems were so short-staffed that routes had to be cut which hurt ridership even more.

  4. The labor force has been shrinking for the past few years and took a big drop during the pandemic.  The labor force participation rate is now just over 62 percent, down a full percentage point from the fall of 2019.  That equates to 1.6 million workers who are no longer interested in working full time.  On top of that, many workers have shifted from traditional employment to freelance work in what is known as the “gig economy” [3]  and many others simply changed jobs for the sake of greater flexibility in their work schedules.

The net effect is that fewer people are making the traditional commute to work now than just a few years ago.  And despite the recent rants against work-from-home by some high-profile CEOs like Elon Musk and Jamie Dimon, traditional office work five days a week seems unlikely to become the norm that it once was.  A recent poll of major employers in Manhattan showed that less than 40 percent of office workers are actually in the office on a typical day and less than 10 percent are in the office five days a week. [4]  In the Midwest those numbers are likely much higher, but still well below historical averages.  Consequently, many companies in cities across the country are down-sizing their office footprints in recognition of this new work reality.

The Impact on Traffic

In Kansas City, the estimated number of vehicular trips for a typical weekday [5] fell by approximately 5 percent from the fall of 2019 to the spring of 2021.  During the morning rush hour, however, the decline was roughly 15 percent for both the peak hour (7 a.m. to 8 a.m.) and for the broader morning commute period of 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.  The drop in trips to work was responsible for nearly all of that decline – falling from 45.2% of trips during morning commute hours in 2019 to only 37.7% in 2021.

The effect of these morning rush hour reductions is predictable – congestion has been noticeably reduced.  Kansas City has a traffic flow monitoring system known as Scout that tracks traffic volume and speed on major highways around the metro. [6]  To double check what the Replica data was suggesting, I looked at Scout data for two different locations and three different dates.  The three dates were Thursdays in October of 2019, April of 2021 and August of 2022.  The two locations were both highways leading into Kansas City’s downtown loop that used to be routinely congested during the morning rush hour (neither has been widened during this time period).

At the site where I checked average travel speeds, traffic in both the spring of ‘21 and the summer of ‘22 averaged 12 to 15 percent higher speeds than in 2019 during the morning rush hour.  In both ‘21 and ‘22, vehicles were traveling near the posted speed limit throughout the 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. period.

At the site where I focused on traffic volume, morning rush hour volumes were down 20 to 25 percent in April of 2021 and still down roughly 18 percent in August of 2022 compared with October of 2019.

Of course Kansas City’s downtown loop, like many downtown areas, is heavily biased toward office jobs where work from home is possible for many workers.  So seeing a drop in the morning rush traffic in-bound to the downtown loop is not surprising.  In fact, when I isolated just the downtown’s Census block groups as the trip destination in the Replica model, total trips between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. dropped by 40 percent in 2021 compared with 2019.  Work-specific trips dropped even more. Traffic near industrial or retail districts might be less affected, although work-from-home is widespread enough that I think rush hour congestion has declined just about everywhere.

The Evening Rush Hour is Different

In contrast to the morning rush hour, evening rush hour volumes are nearly back to pre-pandemic levels.  For both the peak hour (4 to 5 p.m.) and the evening rush period (3 to 6 p.m.), vehicular traffic volumes in the spring of 2021 were only 3 to 4 percent below the fall of 2019.  What is different is the nature of those trips.  Traditionally, the evening rush is dominated by workers on their way home, although other trip purposes have always made the evening rush less focused than the morning rush.  But now, the diversity of trip purposes has grown noticeably.

In 2019, the proportion of trips with “Home” as the destination was 43.0%, and the combination of secondary trip purposes – Shopping, Errands, Social, Eating and Recreation – was roughly equal at 43.8%.  In 2021, home bound trips dropped to 39.7% and the combination of Shopping, Errands, Social, Eating and Recreation jumped to 49.2%.  As you might expect from this shift in trip purpose, both average and median trip length has fallen.

The KC Scout data for out-bound trips from the downtown loop during the evening rush period was consistent with the data from Replica.  I used the same locations as for the morning rush – limited access highways just outside the downtown loop – except I looked at the side with predominantly out-bound traffic.  The segment that I checked for average vehicle speed showed that speeds in April of 2021 were 6 to 8 miles per hour faster than in October of 2019, although that difference had declined slightly by August of 2022.

The out-bound point that I chose for a comparison of traffic volumes showed a roughly 14 percent reduction in 2021 compared with 2019.  That difference, however, shrank to approximately 6 percent by August of 2022.

I suspect that the shift in trip purpose has caused a corresponding shift in traffic away from traditional commuter routes onto more localized thoroughfares where retail shops and services, bars, restaurants and similar destinations tend to be located.  Thus, even though evening traffic volumes are still down, there may be selected locations where the evening rush hour traffic actually seems worse.  I also suspect that this growth in secondary trip purposes is largely powered by the work-from-home set that is taking advantage of their flexible work schedules to do things during the afternoon that they previously would have deferred until later in the evening or the weekend.


The Kansas City and Indianapolis metro areas are similar in many respects, including the way that traffic patterns have changed over the past couple of years.  Total vehicular trips fell by 6 percent, and trips during the morning rush period fell by 11 percent.  During the evening rush period, total vehicular trips were down by a little over 3 percent.  The evening rush had the same type of change in trip purpose as in Kansas City, with trips Home falling by 2.5 percent and trips for Shopping, Errands, Social, Eating and Recreation increasing by 5 percent.  Finally, trips into the downtown area during the morning rush fell by over 40 percent between the fall of 2019 and the spring of 2021.


It is one thing for two mid-sized metro areas like Kansas City and Indianapolis to have similar traffic changes, but what about a much larger metro area like Chicago?  It turns out that things aren’t much different there either.  Using the same Replica data and filter definitions, total vehicular trips are down by 5 percent from 2019 to 2021.  Morning rush period trips are down 18 percent, but the evening rush period has bounced back so that trip volumes are roughly equal in the two periods.  Again, however, the evening rush shows a more diversified array of trip purposes.  Between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., the proportion of trips Home dropped from 43.5 percent of all trips to 40.8 percent.  At the same time, the secondary trip types of Shopping, Errands, Social, Eating and Recreation grew from a combined percentage of 45.1 to 50.1 percent.  As with the other two metro areas, vehicular trips into the downtown area during the morning rush fell by nearly 40 percent.


So what does it all mean?  Long-term predictions are tricky because there are multiple forces pulling traffic patterns in multiple directions.  It is almost impossible to know which forces will become dominant and which will fade into obscurity.  I am fairly confident, however, that going back to the way things were is not very likely.

In the short run, I think the morning rush hours will continue to be less congested than normal, but that traffic levels in the middle of the day and during the evening rush will slowly return to pre-pandemic levels.  The nature of those trips, however, will continue to be more diversified with “errand” types of trips making up for a continued dip in trips from work to home.  This means that while congestion may return, the location of the congestion might well shift.

More and more companies will begin to pressure employees to work more regular hours in the office.  Some will push for five days a week, but most will accept some hybrid solution averaging somewhere between two and three days each week.  Younger employees, in particular, will push hard for the flexibility and focus that work-from-home allows.  Companies that want to attract the best talent will be hard pressed to refuse.  In addition, many companies have already downsized their office footprint and are realizing significant savings.  I can’t see them reversing course any time soon.  In the end, I think the number of white-collar workers back in the office will rise slowly, but it will plateau at some point significantly below pre-pandemic levels.

On the other hand, labor force participation rates are showing signs of bouncing back toward previous levels as the effects of the pandemic pay-outs wind down and fears of serious COVID infections fade from memory.  Growth in the number of jobs is currently strong and seems likely to remain that way absent a major recession.  That means there will be more people with jobs to commute to.

The strength of the work-from-home trend suggests that rush-hour traffic should remain significantly less congested than before the pandemic, even if job growth stays strong.  The wild card, however, is transit utilization.  In cities with historically low transit ridership (such as Kansas City and Indianapolis), the impact will be muted.  In cities where transit has historically played a more important role (such as Chicago and New York City), the impact is much more serious.  During the height of the pandemic, someone who had to work could logically have switched from transit to a private car.  It would have seemed safer from a COVID standpoint and the highways were so empty that there would have been little if any time penalty.  But as people return to the workplace, transit needs to rebound to something close to previous levels or congestion could skyrocket.

Finally, it is important to remember that human behavior is difficult to predict in a complex system (like urban transportation).  People will adjust when they travel, how they travel, and the route they take based upon the perceived ease of different transportation options.  This is the force behind “induced demand” – the often misunderstood phenomenon of traffic volumes increasing when a road is widened to the point where congestion is nearly as bad as before.  I suspect that reduced congestion now will entice people to drive more in the future, but I have no clue exactly how that will play out.

In the end, I think transportation planners need to reconsider upcoming expansion plans in light of the new rush hour reality created by the reduced number of office workers and by the increase in midday trips for a variety of non-work purposes.  Once proposed, road projects (and transit projects) tend to have their own momentum that can move them forward even when they no longer make sense.  For the sake of our cities and the people who live in them, we need to rethink our priorities.


1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; August, 2022;

2. Jena McGregor; “Just 4% of Employers are Making Everyone Return to the Office Full Time, Survey Finds”; Forbes; May 2022;

3. Velocity Global; “44 Eye-Opening Gig Economy Statistics for 2022”; May 2022;,via%20an%20online%20gig%20platform.

4. The Partnership for New York City; “Return to Office Survey Results”; May 2022;

5. Source:  Replica, Inc.  The model was filtered to show trips that both originated and ended in the 8-county Kansas City metro area (i.e. excluding pass-through trips) and to show only trips by private auto, commercial freight vehicles, and taxi/TNC trips (i.e. excluding trips as a passenger, or trips via transit, biking or walking).  Similar filters were used for Indianapolis and Chicago.

6. The KC Scout system is operated by the Missouri Department of Transportation and is based on dozens of speed and volume sensors located on major highways throughout the Kansas City Region.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Post 29: Trends Part 8 - The New Normal in Commercial Development

 I try to have the title of my posts be a good indicator of the content, but in this case I’m afraid it is a little misleading.  Yes, it is about the changing world of commercial development, but the title implies that I know what the “new normal” will be which is at best an exaggeration and at worst an outright fabrication.  Commercial development over the next five to ten years is going to be buffeted by forces that are still taking shape and I doubt that anyone has a firm handle on what the future holds.

Part of the problem is that there is a great deal of experimentation going on as the owners and developers of commercial property try to figure out what will really be marketable over the long haul.  There are a lot of short-term distractions – pandemic recovery, runaway inflation, war in Ukraine, supply chain disruptions, labor shortages, etc. – that make it difficult to identify the long-term trends that will be fundamental to success.  Businesses are trying all sorts of things simply to survive.

What I think is most likely is that there will be a lot of churn in the market as various experiments are tried and evaluated.  Some of these new commercial formats will fail quickly, others will seem promising at first but fail after a few years, while some will prove successful enough to last.  The end result will be a commercial environment that is more diverse and specialized than in the past.

My goal with this post is to identify the forces that will be most influential in shaping future commercial demand, and then take my best stab at predicting the physical form that demand will take.  Finally, I will make several suggestions about the steps that cities should take to adapt to the changing commercial environment.  As always, it is important to keep in mind that cities change slowly and commercial property is often renovated several times before it becomes so obsolete that it is torn down.


If I were a real estate investor, I would probably focus on industrial property.  This sector has been relatively strong in recent years, driven by major expansions in warehousing space needed for the boom in online shopping.  Warehousing will continue to expand for the foreseeable future, but I also think that more traditional manufacturing space will make a comeback as well.

This positive outlook is fueled by two major forces that I think will shape industrial development for the next ten years (and perhaps more).  The first of these is a growing geopolitical struggle to unseat the U.S. as the world’s undisputed economic and military top dog.  China and Russia are both flexing their military muscles, and those two plus a wide variety of European, Asian and Latin American countries are emphasizing economic nationalism instead of the focus on globalization that has dominated the world economy in recent decades.  The COVID pandemic, and the supply chain disruptions that followed, underscored the dangers of relying too heavily on a single foreign producer for key medical and technological products.  The same can be said for the “just-in-time” manufacturing systems that rely on uninterrupted transportation networks and far-flung sources for raw materials and cheap labor.  The fact that China has shown little interest in resolving the long-standing economic complaints lodged by the U.S. (and others) is another reason that many companies are rethinking the role that China plays in manufacturing.

BNSF Intermodal Facility Near Kansas City
Source: HDR

The second force is the absolute explosion in industrial innovations, particularly in the fields of bio-science, material science, robotics and genetic engineering.  These innovations are likely to fuel a wealth of new products that will create new demand and may necessitate new manufacturing facilities and processes.  I could bore you with dozens of examples, but the key point is that the scope of innovations coming out of the “idea economy” is staggering.  And since many of these innovations will help companies address the ESG concerns of their shareholders, I expect the adoption rate of the new products to be relatively rapid.

The end result is that I expect demand for industrial space – both manufacturing and warehousing – to be relatively robust for the foreseeable future.  Companies are going to diversify their supply chain so that no single country can disrupt their manufacturing processes.  Some companies will actually bring factories back to the U.S. after decades of “off-shoring” in search of low labor costs.  Other companies are altering their business plans to include strategic stockpiling, which means increased demand for warehouse space.  For example, in just the past two years, the 10 largest national retailers have acquired more industrial space than in the preceding eight years combined. [1]

This increased demand, however, does not mean a revitalization of the rust-belt factory towns of the early- and mid-20th century.  Expect both manufacturing and warehousing facilities to be highly automated, driven by the need to both reduce labor costs and minimize problems with labor shortages.  The warehouse automation market, for example, is expected to grow by 50 percent by 2025 to $37.6 billion.  What employment there is will likely be much more technical in nature than the traditional blue collar factory worker of decades past.  Geographically, I think the bulk of new construction will be clustered in the South where unionization rates are relatively low and around multi-modal transportation hubs in order to simplify logistical issues.


Not surprisingly, office occupancy rates got hammered during the pandemic.  Occupancy rates have generally been positive for the most recent quarters, but building owners are going to have to dig themselves out of a deep hole.  The National Association of Realtors says that as of February, 390 of the metro areas they track are experiencing an increase in occupancy.  But they estimate that there is about 110 million square feet of office space that has been left vacant since the pandemic started and that it may take until the end of 2024 for that backlog to be reabsorbed. [2]

The currently vacant 1400KC
office building
High-tech metros (Boston, San Jose, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle) and metros in the south and west (Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, Houston) are bouncing back fastest, while some of the largest metro areas (New York, Chicago, Washington DC, Los Angeles) are still struggling.  Office asking rents are also trending up, although at modest rates.

These numbers obscure an interesting phenomenon – buildings may be technically occupied (ie. leased) but the number of workers actually in the office is much smaller than before the pandemic.  In some metro areas, that percentage is still below 50% which has had a huge impact on the service and retail businesses that used to cater to those workers.  Many restaurants, bars, salons and boutique shops in office-heavy districts have gone out of business and are not being replaced.  It also means that many companies currently have more office square footage than they really need.  The return-to-work push has been somewhat more successful in the midwest than on the coasts, but no place is anywhere near 100% which means that more changes to the office environment are likely in the future.

The slow pace of workers returning to the office is problematic for office building owners and developers for two reasons.  First, there is a record amount of office space with leases set to expire in 2022 – 243 million square feet nationwide.  This is up roughly a third from pre-pandemic levels. [3]  Second, there is a glut of subleasing space available as firms downsize their office footprint.  Office sublease availability increased to over 150 million square feet in Q1 2022 – up from roughly 90 million square feet in Q1 2020. [4]  These two factors explain the sluggish rebound of the office market and suggest that new office building construction is likely to be modest (and in some places nonexistent) for the next several years.

Companies are facing a conundrum.  On the one hand, they want employees back in the office because they are easier to manage, it is easier to build corporate culture, and it is easier to promote collaboration and creativity.  On the other hand, employees are pushing back against full-time, in-office work.  A recent report from Microsoft concluded that:

The experience of the past two years has reshaped our priorities, identities and worldview, drawing a bright line between what’s important – health, family, time, purpose – and what’s not.  As a result, employees’ “worth it” equation – what people want from work and what they are willing to give in return – has changed. [5]

In the end, companies have two priorities that they cannot ignore:  (1) they must retain their experienced employees in the face of the “great resignation” that has roiled labor markets across the country; and (2) they must attract talented new workers coming out of college if they expect to grow in the future.  There are, of course, several different strategies that companies could try but I suspect that many firms will end up settling on hybrid work schedules as at least part of their strategy.  Hybrid schedules give GenZ workers the flexibility they crave and it gives older workers the ability to rebalance their work/life priorities.

The next question, of course, is what will hybrid work and the rebalancing of personal priorities mean for office design and office space utilization.  I think the most progressive companies will significantly reconfigure their office space and perhaps even relocate to find space that is more suitable for their perceived needs.  For some firms, this may result in a significant reduction in floor space, but I don’t think that is necessarily true for all firms.  Even if only 50 or 60 percent of workers are in the office at any given time, the days of packing workers into row upon row of cubicles is a thing of the past.  

It may also result in a ‘flight to quality,’ as companies trade floor area for higher rents in buildings with aesthetic appeal, better technology or better amenities.  Inviting lobbies, comfortable common areas, and concierge-like services may be seen as essential techniques for making employees want to return to the office.

Keep in mind that new office layouts are essentially competing with “home” as a place to do work, but with an emphasis on collaborative activities that are hard to accomplish through Zoom meetings.  If an employee is expected to simply keep their head down and grind away, they might as well do that from their home.  Hybrid work is going to put the focus of in-office time on collaboration, creative brainstorming, and team building activities.  This means that office designs should accommodate a wide range of group activities with an equally wide range of spaces for both formal and informal gatherings.  In addition, employee concerns about personal wellness may push companies to make their offices more spacious.

Finally, advances in technology will play a larger role in office design than ever before.  Ventilation systems will push far more fresh air into work spaces and that air will be filtered with far more sophisticated HVAC systems.  Office buildings will be loaded with sensors that automatically adjust lighting and room temperature as people enter or leave rooms, or as the amount of sunlight changes throughout the day.  Facial recognition software will improve security systems and make buildings more “touchless” and “smarter.”  Think of an elevator, for example, that recognizes your face and takes you to the correct floor without any action or instruction on your part.  The end result will be an environment that makes employees want to come into work – at least part of the time.

The problem is that I have no idea how many companies will actually make significant changes to their office layouts, how many will make a few cosmetic changes and then pretend that they have done something significant, and how many will do nothing and simply insist that their employees return to the office.  The companies that make major changes may be the exception that gets all the media attention, but those that do nothing may be the norm.  Only time will tell.


In my mind, the commercial sector with the murkiest future is retail.  The pandemic hit the brick-and-mortar portion of this sector hard with a record 12,200 store closures in 2020, resulting in vacant storefronts in shopping centers across the country. [6]  However, 2021 was a bit of a bounce back year as openings exceeded closings, with retailers taking advantage of rent reductions and consumer wallets full of federal stimulus money.  Consumers who had switched to online shopping in 2020 reverted back to in-person shopping in 2021, at least in part, as pandemic restrictions eased.  Stores such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Best Buy and Macy’s reported online revenue falling while sales at brick-and-mortar locations grew. [7] 

Unfortunately, there are still storm clouds on the retail horizon.  The euphoria of pandemic spending is winding down and the reality of high inflation is settling in.  A variety of major retailers have reported disappointing revenue results in the first quarter of 2022 and retail stock prices have generally been weak.  Analysts at UBS are predicting 40,000 to 50,000 store closings over the next 5 years, which is better than what was expected a couple of years ago, but still not great. [8]  In short, I think there will be a lot of adjustments and experimentation over the next few years as retailers search for ways to survive – and perhaps even thrive.

One possible adaptation would be for stores to increase the amount of inventory they carry in stock.  This might be particularly crucial in light of current supply chain issues which are not likely to abate any time soon.  It would also allow local stores to provide fulfillment services for online ordering instead of relying exclusively on warehouses and distribution centers.  Buying online for in-store pick up is also proving to be popular.  This “omnichannel” approach to retailing has been one of the most successful ways that brick-and-mortar stores have fought back against the online giants such as Amazon.

A second adaptation is to ditch inventory almost entirely and become a showroom for orders that are shipped directly at a later date.  Indochino is doing this successfully with men’s suits and Yardbird is doing it with outdoor furniture, to name just a couple of examples.  The result is a much smaller store footprint and an ability to be much more responsive to changes in customer tastes.  This approach may even end up reshaping the way that new cars are sold.  Ford now reports that a third of their sales are vehicles that have been custom ordered, with the customer waiting for the factory to build and ship the vehicle several weeks later.  The CEO of GM, Mary Barra, has stated that inventory levels will never return to previous levels. [9]  Think of what this means for car dealerships that recently relocated to an 8- or 10-acre site (assuming the need for acres of inventory) when 3 or 4 acres might be sufficient in the future.

The headwinds facing the retail sector are going to be brutal in weeding out poor performers and poor commercial locations or layouts.  Here are the factors that I think are particularly important:

1. Labor shortages.  Retailers across the spectrum, but especially food service and hospitality businesses, are struggling to find enough workers.  These jobs were already perceived as being generally unrewarding, but in light of the pandemic they are now perceived as unsafe and underpaid.  Consequently, progressive retailers are automating as rapidly as possible.  Self check-out lanes are being installed nearly everywhere, and some stores are experimenting with facial recognition, RFID tags and cameras powered with artificial intelligence to track the items you pick up in real time so that there is no check out process at all – your credit card is simply charged for whatever you walk out with.  Expect to see AI-powered robots in the next few years assisting customers looking for advice or performing repetitive tasks such as cooking french fries.

2. Inflation.  At the moment, inflation and high interest rates are consuming all (or at least most) of the wage gains for the average worker.  This means that consumers are going to be
very price conscious, and the free spending of 2021 is likely to be a thing of the past.  The rising cost of housing, food and gas are going to crowd out spending on discretionary items. such as clothing, furniture or housewares.  Mom-and-pop stores and small chains are particularly likely to have a hard time being profitable enough to stay current with technology trends and product selection.

3. Online shopping.  Although the rush to online shopping that resulted from the pandemic has abated somewhat, the pressure on brick-and-mortar stores is not going to let up in the long run.  Some retailers are finding creative ways to go online themselves, but that takes IT talent and resources that many retailers simply don’t have.  In addition, Amazon, WalMart and other online giants with deep pockets are going to continue to simplify the buying process and expand same-day and next-day delivery.  Brick-and-mortar stores selling commodity products from worn out facilities in secondary markets might as well start their “going out of business” sale now.

The bottom line is that some stores will thrive, but many others will struggle and a fair number will fail.  This means that even high quality shopping centers will be continuously filling vacancies.  Class B and C locations may not be able to stay anywhere near full or will need to resort to lower quality retailers or non-retail users paying lower rents.  This will be the beginning of a slow, death spiral that most shopping center owners refuse to recognize until it is painfully obvious and the blighting impact on the surrounding neighborhood is well underway.

Impact on Cities

Cities are in the unenviable situation of knowing that the nature of commercial development is going to change, but not knowing exactly when, where or to what degree.  This is particularly true for midwestern cities where the tendency to hang on to the status quo is particularly strong.  I will be making some predictions about what this “new normal” might look like, but as I noted at the beginning of this post I’m not confident that my predictions will be very accurate.

Perhaps the best place to start is to identify those areas where failure is most likely.  To begin with, there are several retailers that were struggling to stay current with changing retail trends and consumer preferences before the pandemic (e.g. Sears, KMart, Nine West, Mattress Firm, The Gap, etc.).  The pandemic made things worse which means that they are likely to close many of their stores, and a few may cease to exist entirely.

Vacant Big-Box Retail Store
Where things will really get bad is where struggling stores are paired with retail formats – such as enclosed malls, department stores or stand alone big box stores – that are falling into obsolescence.  These combinations are not only likely to fail, they are likely to be difficult to redevelop without a great deal of creativity.  Department store owner Hudson’s Bay Company (Saks Fifth Avenue, Hudson’s Bay, Lord & Taylor) plans to convert many of its empty stores into co-working office space run by its Convene subsidiary. [10]   I’m skeptical of how successful that will be, but it is better than doing nothing.  For cities, the conversion of a department store or an enclosed shopping center into office space, a medical services mall or an Amazon fulfillment center means a hit to sales tax revenue but it is better than the blight and property tax default that can result from extended vacancies.

Another potential trouble spot will be districts that are almost exclusively office buildings, particularly where many of those buildings are 30+ years old.  This could be either a traditional downtown area or an aging suburban office park.  I recently spent some time in Cleveland and I was impressed with the number of major office buildings in their downtown, along with nice public open spaces, large hotels, three major stadiums, and several civic attractions.  But the area was weirdly devoid of people.  As companies fight to get employees back to the office, mixed use areas containing residences, retail shops, bars and restaurants, and activity spaces that attract people at least 18 hours a day will be a far more compelling location for office workers.

Cleveland seemed to be coming up short on the residential part of the equation, but at least it had most of the other pieces in place.  Many other cities have downtowns or office parks that have almost no other uses and I fear that they will have a hard time keeping their buildings leased.  Large older buildings, in particular, may need to be converted to other uses as the demand for office space is reset over the next few years and companies take advantage of soft rents to move to higher quality buildings or to buy a smaller building that they can fully control.  The problem with converting office space to something else is that it is expensive – which means the value of the building must fall substantially to make it financially feasible.

I mentioned earlier that industrial space is likely to be a bright spot in commercial real estate.  Unfortunately, not every city will benefit and those with old factory districts hoping for a rebound may be disappointed.  Older factories and warehouses are unlikely to meet modern needs which will emphasize automation, a high-tech workforce, and access to inter-modal transportation options.  Another growth area that cities need to be prepared for are warehouses near population centers.  The rise of same-day delivery will mean that companies will try to shorten the distance between fulfillment centers and the consumer.

Exactly how all of this will play out is anyone’s guess.  Cities will need to be especially vigilant for obsolete commercial properties that are falling into blight and encourage those owners to consider redevelopment into something else rather than hoping for a tenant that never materializes.  In addition, cities need to be extremely cautious about using public money to subsidize commercial projects.  An uncertain market combined with the typical hyperbole of real estate developers is a recipe for projects that fall far short of expectations.  At the same time, cities should be open to unconventional projects that may require development approvals that are outside the norm.  Several smaller projects that result in creative places may lead to more long-term value than one mega-project that depends on a lot of public money.

Thoughts?  As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at  Want to be notified whenever I add a new posting?  Send me an email with your name and email address.


Special thanks to Hank Simpson of AREA Real Estate Advisors in Kansas City for sharing his insights and wisdom.

  1.  “The Future of Industrial Real Estate:  Trends for 2022 and Beyond;” Newmark;

  2. Scholastica Cororaton; “Commercial Weekly:  Office Occupancy Rose in 84% of Metro Areas as of 2022 Q1;” National Association of Realtors; February 2022;

  3. Konrad Putzier and Peter Grant; “Office-Lease Expirations Pose Risk to Landlords”; April 13, 2022; The Wall Street Journal.

  4. “Leasing of Sublease Space Gains Momentum, but Availability Grows in Q1 2022”; May 3, 2022; CBRE;,in%20the%20past%20six%20years

  5. “Great Expectations:  Making Hybrid Work Work”; Microsoft Corporation; March 2022;

  6. Phil Wahba; “A Record 12,200 U.S. Stores Closed in 2020 as E-Commerce, Pandemic Changed Retail Forever”; January 2021; Fortune;

  7. Peter Rudegeair, Charity Scott, Sebastian Herrera; “More Online Shoppers Are Taking It Offline”; April 16, 2022; The Wall Street Journal.

  8. Lauren Thomas; “UBS expects 50,000 store closures in the U.S. over the next 5 years after pandemic pause”; April 13, 2022; CNBC;

  9. Paul Eisenstein; “With Dealer Lots Bare, Car Shoppers Turn to Build-to-Order”; February 2022; Forbes;

  10. Konrad Putzier; “Saks Owner HBC Bets Flex Space is Future of Work”; April 13, 2022; The Wall Street Journal