Sunday, December 13th, 2009

A Midwest Megaregion?

This is the last installment in my series on megaregions. The first was Mega-Skepticism, an earlier take I had the was down on the concept. The second was a review of the book “Megaregions”, edited by Catherine L. Ross.

In this piece I am going to look for potential applications of megaregional geography to the Midwest. Since my blog is about cities, I’ll primarily focus on the large urban aspects.

While there is not a truly hierarchical relationship between cities in the Midwest, it is useful to think of it like a solar system. Chicago is the sun at the center, and the rest of the large cities orbit around it like planets. The smaller cities of the Midwest orbit these other cities in turn like moons, creating a sort of three tier system. Is there a basis of collaboration across these cities (and their rural surroundings and states they are in) that would lead to synergies? Let’s see if we can find some.

Shared Best Practices

It’s no secret that the Midwest has struggled in the global age. Structural economic changes in agriculture and manufacturing have led to serious problems in many places. Not everyplace is doing poorly, but there are plenty of challenges to go around.

In his book “Caught in the Middle“, Richard Longworth not only documented the problems, he showed how these states and communities were basically dealing with the problems as islands. Not only were people not collaborating across state lines, they usually didn’t even know what was going on in the next city. I’ve seen this myself many times. People in places like Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Columbus are almost totally ignorant of what is going on in the other towns in that group.

Since the conditions and problems are similar, there is plenty of scope for sharing the “R&D” costs of looking for solutions. Longworth suggests a Midwest think tank would be a good place to start, and also a Midwest newspaper. Both good ideas.


Attempting to create a regional political block is one possibility. There are any number of issues affecting the Midwest – trade and industrial policy, environmental rules like cap and trade, transportation, and more – where having a common voice in Washington might be beneficial.

One way to do this would be through a sort of regional legislative caucus. I scanned the list of House caucuses and did not see anything that looked like a Midwest regional caucus, though I did find a “Friends of Liechtenstein” caucus. The closest thing I found was an Automotive Caucus. There’s caucus for Africa’s Great Lakes, but not the Midwest’s.

I don’t want to read too much into these member organizations, but clearly there would be plenty of scope to improve regional coordination on matters of mutual interest. Also, there might be some scope for joint lobbying efforts and that sort of thing.


The proposed Midwest high speed rail network is an obvious area of collaboration. Most of the proposed routes span states. They also involve multiple endpoint cities who need to agree on basic things. The governors of the Midwest states have already signed a statement endorsing a plan to coordinate their efforts on high speed rail and agree on a set of priority corridors.

From the standpoint of other modes, I don’t see as much collaboration possibility, other than traditional urban regional projects such as the Ohio River Bridges Project in Louisville. Local transit, airports, and highways seem to be very parochial. It is harder to draw out the common interest and synergies.

The four state study on I-70 dedicated truck lanes is a notable exception. Possibly taking this concept and scaling it up could create a Midwest with a superior freight network – possibly including things like extended trailer-sets and much higher weight limits – that would give it a competitive advantage within the country. If private money built these as toll lanes, even better.

Economic Development

This is a particularly interesting challenge. I would argue that in the golden age of manufacturing, the Midwest was in fact a true megaregion. The Midwest was a true hierarchical system in those days, with twin poles in Chicago and Detroit. There was a true hinterland relationship. It created “agglomeration economics” where the Midwest had natural resources, location, transportation infrastructure, physical and human capital that made it a true cluster in agriculture, automotive and other manufacturing, and metals.

Today that has all broken down as those industries have dramatically shrank. In particular, the global trade regime, very low cost labor, and dramatically lowered transportation costs have reduced the advantage of geographic proximity in these industries. Selected industries like financial and producer services retain the clustering advantage, but within a vastly reduced geographic scope restricted to isolated areas such as Chicago’s central core.

Tridig Banerjee in the “Megaregions” book categorized megaregions as mosaic (mesh) vs. network (hierarchy). The Midwest was a hierarchical network in that framework, similar to my solar system analogy. The question is whether or not there is some class of economic activity for which intra-megaregional geographic proximity is valuable without having to be of the daily face to face sort you find in Chicago’s Loop. In my view, one place to look is in that old hierarchical structure. Can we re-establish some hierarchical subdivision of production that is relevant to the modern age?

I wrote a series of posts in early 2009 called “Reconnecting in the Hinterland” in which I explored this very notion. I started out looking principally at Milwaukee and Indianapolis, the two closest major metros to Chicago. I also made a assumption we had high speed rail connections between the cities. What might this enable us to do that we couldn’t do before?

I identified two possible value points here. The first was expanded labor markets, which I wrote about in my article “Metropolitan Linkages”. The idea here is to target people who seen to be in Chicago semi-regularly (say a day or two per week) for face to face sessions but otherwise live in a place like Indianapolis. Read the original article for full details.

The other was “onshore outsourcing“. The Midwest is a perfect place for BPO in my view. Its small manufacturing cities in particular would make good candidates for service centers. I actually use the example of a finance and accounting center in Danville, Illinois. (With the South Shore connection already in place, South Bend might be a particularly well placed locale for Chicago-centric BPO). I also noted legal services, where lower cost firms in regional cities could partner with Chicago’s large firms to handle the more routine side of some legal matters. I can tell you of at least one reader of my blog who makes a good living as a patent attorney in Fort Wayne from work he gets sourced from Chicago because he is significantly cheaper.

I hypothesize that the Midwest has a unique cost profile. If you plotted the cost of doing business on say one of Richard Florida’s spike charts, I think you’d find a big spike in Chicago that plunges precipitously at its border. Where else in America can you go from a moderately expensive housing market like Chicago to Indianapolis, the cheapest big city housing market in America, in just a three hour drive? Figuring out how to exploit this cost gradient to me looks like the major opportunity area.

Another thing I might suggest is non-compete agreements. Indianapolis already has a fairly successful regional non-compete. Various towns in the metro area have agreed not to offer incentives to existing businesses to relocate within the region unless the current town of residence grants a waiver. I don’t have all the details, but it seems to work well in practice. And towns do in fact offer such waivers. Is there something similar that could be done across regions? It would probably be difficult. I’m not sure it could be done on a state level, but perhaps metro areas could do it, starting on a bilateral basis. It’s something to explore at least.


A good number of the major research universities in the Midwest are already part of the Big Ten conference, so know each other well and get along well in many respects. However, theses universities have programs that overlap heavily and are often directly competitive. Spin-off rules and such seem to privilege local environments.

If there were one game-changer in the Midwest from collaboration, it would probably be some sort of academic specialization, reciprocal in-state tuition, and more geographically generous technology transfer programs. You already see academic specialization and hierarchies within states, where it often works well. I think Indiana’s a great example. However, the prospect of this happening across states seems extremely low. We can always dream though.


The examples above illustrate the principles at work. Go down the list of functional domains in a city and ask if there is a way we can leverage the megaregional geography for something unique it enables. As noted in previous installments, value levers including things like specialization and the division of labor, fixed cost efficiency, diversification, and purchasing/monopoly/cartel power.

I’ve primed the pump with a list. I’d be very interested to hear any additional contributions from all of you, so please add your thoughts on additional applications in the comments.

Topics: Economic Development, Regionalism

26 Responses to “A Midwest Megaregion?”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    There’s already a Great Lakes Commission consisting of both US states and Canadian provinces.

    More to the point, where the Midwest could cooperate more closely even on local urban issues would be to pool resources in urban planning. On issues where there’s little expertise in the US, like mass transit, the Midwest would do well to have a regionally funded consultancy firm, staffed with foreign talent, to advise local governments on how to build the most cost-effective projects. Building the Midwest HSR network would be helpful, but getting the cities in the Midwest to build good mass transit would be even more helpful, and that requires not just funding but also good planning.

    Another advantage of resource pooling would be health and education. The Midwest should try to act as one state on both. On health care, it would unify regulations and the risk pool, in order to increase competition among health insurers and put itself in a better position if it decided to implement a regional universal health care system.

    On education, the Midwest should let students in each state study in other states’ public universities for local tuition. I believe such a reciprocal agreement already exists between Minnesota and Wisconsin; in Scandinavia, it exists on an international level between Denmark and Sweden. One factor that helps the Midwest implement this is that its states all have decent higher education systems. Michigan is somewhat better there than the rest, but the difference between Michigan and Illinois isn’t large by the standards of Georgia and South Carolina, or California and Nevada.

  2. Alon, thanks. The idea of using foreign talent is a good one. This is very contrary to how current practice generally works though. I can give one example, however. Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, Indiana hired a UK based engineer to assist the American engineering firm in designing a series of roundabout interchanges in his town since they were comparatively new in the United States. He was looking for a lower cost and land efficient European style design – and found it.

  3. Jon Speer says:

    I’ll just comment on one aspect: economic development. All the local and regional economic development groups throughout the Midwest are in a fierce competition with one another. My favorite advantages touted in Indiana are:

    1. The cost of doing business is less expensive.
    2. 80% of the population of the U.S. and Canada can be reached within a one-day drive.

    Do these Indiana officials realize they have accepted commodity status? Low cost is the best we have? I suspect other states tout similar messages.

    I wonder why economic development organizations in the Midwest haven’t though about working together? As you’ve said, a rising tide raises all ships. Of course the argument against collaboration will be tax revenue.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    I hadn’t thought of roundabouts, but you’re right, they’re an example of importable urban design.

    In cases of foreign expertise, another use of regional planning is that if the best solutions require changing federal regulations, a regional body can lobby for the change more effectively.

  5. David says:

    “Where else in America can you go from a moderately expensive housing market like Chicago to Indianapolis”

    DC to Richmond, 100 miles away, but worlds apart financially.

    Also, all the co-operation in the world among midwestern metros will not make up for union shop labor laws. Sioux Falls is growing like a weed (2nd fastest growing midwestern city > 100k, fastest growing midwestern metro) and has become a textbook case in how to attract business, but it offers employers right-to-work protections they don’t get around the Great Lakes.

    Metro Des Moines, Metro Omaha, Cass County, ND (Fargo), Burleigh County, ND (Bismarck), and Johnson County, KS (KS suburb of KC) all cold weather, all growing faster than the U.S. avg, all right-to-work. Metro Minneapolis-St. Paul and the Missouri side of KC Metro are in the same region, but are growing slightly below U.S. avg. rates and are in union shop states.

    Right-to-work doesn’t solve all problems, and Indianapolis Airport has become the 7th largest domestic cargo hub without it, but it would nonetheless help Indiana raise its profile as a place to do business.

    Lastly, regional competition can be just as successful as regional co-operation. One factor that has pushed Maryland into action is neighboring Virginia’s aggressive recruitment of new business. There’s a good amount of animosity between the two states, which has only improved each one’s efforts to attract new employers.

  6. Robert Munson says:

    As The Urbanophile points out and most Comments support, economic development probably is the chief challenge to a Midwest mega-region developing anything even approaching the power of its 20th Century industrial hierarchy.

    To replace that hierarchy, we should look at building 21st Century networks (or meshes). Given the fiscal ineptness of state government (my bias comes from paying taxes to Illinois), I think lasting solutions that have a significant multiplier effect will be very micro-micro-economic… and not glitzy infrastructure projects such as High Speed Rail.

    So let’s solve a fast-emerging failure of government’s primary justification: protecting public safety and private property.

    I’m speaking of the huge increases in flooding, particularly in suburbs. Flooding only will increase, given the onset of climate change. Stormwater systems are overwhelmed and a perfect example of a public service needing a micro-economic supplement.

    Solutions specific to one watershed should be shared with the larger watershed; creating the Midwest’s 21st Century economic mesh.

    Success starts on the household level by having a private service disconnect downspouts, install rain barrels and rain gardens and, then, train the household to manage them.

    Such routines are easily franchise-able, creating the entrepreneurial dynamic for growth.

    Plus there are multiple benefits and Urbanophile readers already know many.
    1) A public necessity is carried out without an increasingly expensive public bureaucracy.
    2) Research and best practices are implemented without costly reinvention of the wheel.
    3) The skill level is basic, so re-tooling labor is swift and solutions start to appear fast, giving the impression of a quick victory for economic recovery and, possibly, mollifying the superior force of Mother Nature.

    Of course, lots of other details need to be worked out.

    But The Urbanophile asked for ideas. This is mine. It is free to any entrepreneurial type who wants to start a franchisor and any public safety official who thinks outside-of-the-box. As for me, I probably won’t implement the business because starting one subtracts from my time in the blogosphere.

  7. Lance Uppercut says:

    I think our “Midwest megaregionality” was more apparent when we actually manufactured durable goods and relied on rail more.

  8. cdc guy says:

    Aside to Robert Munson: Midwestern suburban flooding has almost nothing to do with global warming, and won’t be solved by rain barrels.

    Suburban flooding mostly has to do with flat, glacial topography; 100 years of making rainwater go down drains like sewage (instead of respecting the precious resource it really is); excessive suburban hard-surfacing (mega-box parking lots); and higher suburban residential lot-coverage ratios inherent in the increasing value of suburban land (i.e. 6-8,000 square foot McMansions on quarter-acre lots with 3 or 4 car garages and the additional paved apron necessary to serve them).

    Rivers and streams that once served forests and fields just can’t handle Walmart-Best Buy-Lowes power-center parking lots and upscale suburban subdivisions.

    Substituting permeable pavement in parking lots, subdivision streets and driveways would go a long way to mitigating the problem. And that can only be done by fiat (zoning and infrastructure regulation) and/or large-scale conservation easements.

    Maybe that’s a place for the Midwest to lead: mitigation of sprawl effects.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    CDC Guy, Robert: if you want to consider flooding management, look to the success of Singapore’s drainage system. Singapore is flat, and has a tropical climate. It did not control sprawl well, and cut down most of its rainforests for urban development. It still doesn’t have flooding, because of its expansive government-built sewage and drainage systems.

    This doesn’t mean the Midwest shouldn’t be looking at sprawl mitigation, but the point is that it is possible for a capitalist country to prevent flooding with government-built drainage channels.

    David: all the new industrial cities that have sprouted in Europe and Asia operate in union-heavy environments. In Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland, the majority of the workforce is unionized; in all four countries, economic growth is higher than in the US. If I had to explain the growth of Des Moines and Fargo, I’d probably mention the lush farm aid their hinterlands get. Minnesota is a net tax donor; Iowa and North Dakota are net recipients, and North Dakota is in fact one of the top recipients in the country.

  10. As an original proponent of regional solutions to Midwestern problems, I’d like to put an oar in here.

    It’s necessary to be clear on the difference between megaregional problems and solutions, and microregional approaches to the same problems. If regionalism is going to frame our thinking, we must know which regions we mean.

    First, megaregional. Some problems really can be seen from an overall Midwestern regional perspective. Aaron names a few, and more come to mind. To recap:

    High-speed rail. This is an obvious case. HSR everywhere, especially in Europe, succeeds on a larger geographical scale, usually nationnal. The geographies involved are roughly the same as that of the Midwest, or at least the area enclosing major Midwestern cities. Putting Chicago within an hour of Indianapolis or two or three hours of Minneapolis transforms the region into a single economic unit.

    Global marketing. Each Midwestern state has an office in Beijing or Shanghai. Most Chinese have never heard of Iowa or Indiana. One joint Midwestern office in foreign capitals could draw trade and investment to the region.

    Politics. Aaron’s suggestion for a Midwestern caucus in Congress is vital.

    A Midwestern think tank. Our Global Midwest Initiative at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is a first step toward this goal. As Aaron suggests, we’re focusing more on “shared best practices” — between Midwestern community colleges, for instance — than on prescribing regional remedies. But we’re a forum where these remedies can be debated.

    Venture capital. Frank Samuel in Ohio is working on a paper for Brookings on a venture capital fund of funds for the Midwest — not so much to replace existing (and ineffectual) state VC funds as to support private VC funds across the Mdiwest.

    Education. All the ideas mentioned above are good ones. In the long run, sheer economic pressure will force more intermural collaboration. But one immediate shortcoming is the lack of academic study on the Midwest. Monmouth College just inaugurated a program of Midwestern studies — the first ever. So far as I know, no other Midwestern college or university even offers a course on the history, economic, politics, demographics or culture of the Midwest. No wonder we have trouble thinking as a region.

    A Midwestern newspaper. Probably less likely than when I first suggested it two years ago. Most existing Midwestern papers are dying. But in Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Louis, they’re being replaced by web sites, often run by refugees from failed papers. More are sure to come. Real collaboration and cross-linking between these sites could tell Midwesterners what’s going on across the region.

    A statistical base. Each state keeps its own economic statistics. But no central source exists. Since we don’t know where we are, we can’t think where we’re going. The Federal Reserve Bank is an obvious central source. But the Midwest has five Feds, and they barely talk to each other.

    These projects could work on a megaregional platform. Others can succeed only within smaller regions — between cities or parts of states with clear common interests.

    The most obvious is the Chicago economic region, a four-state megacity running from Milwaukee through Chicago to South Bend and Grand Rapids. All four cities have more to do with each other than they do within the states to which they nominally belong. They could exercise economies of scale and leverage strengths by taking joint action on transport (high-speed commuter lines), marketing, taxation, cooperation between universities, logistics and infrastructure. Other similar areas abound: the Quad Cities, the Rock River Valley, the I-380 corridor in Iowa, the old Auto Alley. Some projects are already underway, such as NewNorth in Wisconsin, stretching from Fond du Lac to Green Bay. The four states abutting Lake Michigan should be doing joint tourism promotion. Universities near the Great Lakes need to work together on freshwater research.

    Some projects will orbit around a dominant player, like Chicago. Others involve collaboration between more-or-less equal partners. Carol Coletta doubts the latter will work. Possibly, but Germany and France, working together, powered the early scucess of the EU, and some of Europe’s successful regions, like the Randstadt, lack a dominant center. Progress here relied on leadership, not hegemony.

    Aaron suggests that, given fast transit, some Midwestern cities could become inexpensive service centers for Chicago firms — “onshore outsourcing.” Maybe so, but most of these routine back-office operations seems more likely to go sooenr or later to truly inexpensive outsourcing locations like India.

    Richard Florida notes that Chicago has sucked much of the talent — financial, legal, intellectual — out of the rest of the Midwest. The challenge here is to turn the Midwest into such a cohesive region that this top talent — not the routine chores — could flow back out of Chicago while remaining part of this dynamic core.

  11. Thanks for all the great comments.

    I think unionization is a bit of a red herring. It affects certain industries like auto and Chicago’s convention business, but most of the industries the Midwest cities are targeting have limited union penetration. And union training programs and such can help give the Midwest workforce some skill advantage. (Chicago’s union plumbers are awesome for example – I use them for my house).

  12. cdc guy says:

    Indy-Chicago “in an hour” is only marginally possible physically. (180+ miles from downtown Indy to the Loop.)

    It is impossible socio-economically: there’s zero chance that HSR through Indiana would be funded or built without a stop at Purdue. Now we’re talking closer to an hour and a half with start/stop/wait times.

    Building on the strength of the region’s universities seems like a good place to start.

    Notre Dame might be a good (neutral) “strategic center” for the Midwest since it is not highly identified with its home state (as the Big 10 universities are). It might also be a good strategic emphasis for them to adopt, since the football emphasis isn’t working out too well any more.

    They would have to re-position themselves from a “national” university to a superregional one. Maybe even join the Big 10/11 as a sort of “senior partner”?

  13. Alon Levy says:

    Not all trains have to stop at all stations. SNCF believes that nonstop Chicago-Indy service would take 1:12.

  14. Paul says:

    With our current two prong passenger transportation system in the midwest, planes and automobiles, it is very difficult for me to see most of the midwest’s major cities functioning as anything other than islands with respect to each other. Depending on where one lives in the Midwest, and which airport one is closest to, Dallas, Atlanta or even Las Vegas may take less time to get to than St. Louis, Indianapolis or Columbus just because I can catch a non-stop flight to the first pair of cities but I have to connect to get to the midwestern cities. An extensive high speed rail system still seems at least a generation away.

    I see more potential in building from the core outwardly, along the lines of Richard Longworth’s Megacity with Chicago at its core. The ring cities involved seem close enough to Chicago and rail service already exists between all of them and the core, but building that alliance could be as tortuous to watch as reliving Bismarck’s Germany’s approaches to England about an alliance in the 19th century. The benefits to both sides seemed obvious, but how do you build the trust to bring the deal through to completion? What sort of small concrete steps could be taken that would start the process and put the issue in front of the public, another request by South Bend to move to the Central Time Zone?

  15. Re high-speed rail, both CDC Guy and Alon Levy are right. True HSR would put downtown Chicago and downtown Indianapolis within an hour-and-change of each other. But these trains should be as high-speed as possible, which means few stops between major cities, while serving the truly important cities of the Midwest. That includes university towns. So Chicago-indianapolis should include one stop, at West Lafayette, just as Chicago-Minneapolis should stop at Madison.

    Paul’s point also is well-taken, but inadvertently makes the case for true HSR in the Midwest. He’s right that we can get from the Midwest to Atlanta or Vegas now by plane as fast as we can get to St. Louis. True Midwestern regionalism demands an end to this tyranny of time and distance. So long as it’s easier for Indianapolis to do business with Atlanta than with Cleveland or Milwaukee, that’s what will happen.

    Building from the core means networks of light rail commuter systems. These are crucial — but as adjuncts to HSR. HSR will link hubs, and the light rail networks will fan out from the hubs. Building out from the core won’t lead eventually to a HSR system, because they’re two different, if complementary, animals.

    It may take a generation, but my bet is it can be done faster. Other countries did this. How to do it here? A good strong push from Washington might be the key. I outlined one possibility in a Policy Brief for our Global Midwest Initiative, entitled “A Midwestern Marshall Plan? Well, sort of.” It’s accessible on, or

  16. David says:

    Unions and right-to-work laws are huge among economic development authorities. Even though it sits in a college town, Ames, Iowa recently reported that 4 in 10 prospective employers raise right-to-work as an important issue. 44 of the 50 fastest growing counties are in right-to-work states, even though just 22 of the 50 states have right-to-work laws.

    @Alon Levy, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark’s GDP per capita are all about 25% lower than ours, France’s is 35%. Norway is slightly higher because of oil.

    Also, do you really think you’ll get HSR from Chicago to Minneapolis when you can fly there on Southwest for $79?

    Seriously, talk to a business considering relocation and they’ll mention lack of air service or too many regional jet destinations (and high fares) vs. mainline destinations. Latter is really becoming an issue in Cincinnati. No one planning to hire people in the MW cares about long distance rail unless it involves moving goods, not people.

    Midwest cities are denser than most of the sunbelt sprawl growth stories, and have lots of underrated appeal. Parts of Cleveland feel like the Upper West Side compared to downtown Dallas. But there has to be money to pay for these grand regional plans, which means a more realistic approach to winning employers who hire people.

  17. Alon Levy says:

    Richard, the more successful urban rail systems are precisely those that don’t fan out from hubs, but instead form a network. There are websites that show the maps of multiple cities’ transit systems, all to the same scale: Radical Cartography for North American maps, and Fake is the New Real for a more global list. The more successful systems – New York, Mexico City, Tokyo, Berlin, Madrid – all work as nets, with many transfer opportunities, and relatively little hub-spoke structure. The less successful systems, led by Chicago, are hub and spoke; they’re good at getting people from where they live to the CBD, but at little else. Monocentric transit can be good at feeding high-speed rail, but it’s not going to be useful otherwise.

    Commuter rail is separate from light rail. It’s usually not cost-effective unless you run it mostly on legacy rail lines, which fortunately the Midwest has plenty of. Tram-trains, which mix commuter rail and light rail, are only a good idea for small cities where the only important destination is the CBD – see explanation by Jarrett Walker about the Karlsruhe system. Otherwise, it’s important to serve multiple hubs, and maximize coverage with timed cross-platform transfers and stations in major neighborhoods. German S-Bahns and the Paris RER, which are effectively rapid transit on a larger scale, should be considered the epitome of good commuter rail; the Metra way, which assumes nobody would ever ride rail except peak-hour commuters to the Loop, is the epitome of bad commuter rail.

  18. Alon Levy says:

    David: Sweden has lower GDP per capita than the US because it had a lower GDP per capita in the 1950s. But its growth rate is higher: from 1993 to 2008, it averaged 2.1% real per capita growth, versus 1.3% for the US. Finland averaged 2.8%, and ranks together with Japan as one of the few countries that had Chinese income levels in 1900 but are first-world today. This wouldn’t have happened if unions had been poisonous for growth.

    Long-distance rail means different things depending on how good the service is. In European and Asian terms, Chicago-Cincinnati is a short-distance potential HSR corridor; SNCF’s plan calls for Chicago-Cincinnati service in 1:45. What you say about air service is only applicable within a country with poor passenger rail. When rail travel times shrink, so do business decisions. Both Lyon and Lille have had some reinvestment once the TGV drove them closer to Paris.

  19. cdc guy says:

    David, your \bad air\ argument doesn’t work for Indy.

    Precisely because Indy is NOT a passenger air hub, there is good service at good prices to almost all the other Midwest cities. Almost all of them are a hub for one airline or another: MSP, Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis [though American is de-emphasizing it], Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit.

    Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we \punch higher than our weight\ in the convention business.

    I agree with Alon about laying out urban transit in a network for Midwestern cities, and would shade Richard’s comments in that direction: unless and until the \second cities\ of the Midwest have good transit webs, HSR won’t serve as a regionalizing tool by connecting CBD to CBD. With a good web of intra-region transit, the actual HSR connection point becomes less important.

    The recent Brookings study shows an inexorable march of job share (if not jobs) out of the CBD in most cities, including the Midwestern ones. In other words, the suburbs and exurbs have much higher job growth, so CBD-centered \hub and spoke\ public transit would serve a lower and lower percentage of work commuters with each succeeding year in any given metro.

    There’s a reason cities still build ring roads and crosstown boulevards: they go where people want to go. Why not \ring trains\ and crosstowns?

  20. David says:

    @cdc guy, Cincinnati is the difficult one because Southwest doesn’t fly there. Most other large MW cities have Southwest, AirTran, or both. Don’t need the hub when someone else is both pulling down prices and flying in 737s, not 50-seat jets.

    Also, Amtrak’s CASM or Cost Per Available Seat Mile, (dare you to bring this up during happy hour when talking to a hot chick) is 23 cents vs. 9 cents for a discount airline. Moreover, airports can raise revenue bonds through PFCs. No chance this MW rail network would make it without a major operating subsidy from taxpayers.

  21. Alon Levy says:

    David, Amtrak is basically a steam railroad, running cross-country trips to make Montanans happy. That’s where the high cost comes from. On modern railroads, like JR-East, SNCF, and DB, costs are lower. Those railroads don’t have multiple conductors per train; they turn trains around more quickly than Amtrak, and use lighter, more energy-efficient equipment.

  22. Paul says:

    I wouldn’t say I inadvertently made an argument for a midwest high speed rail system. I’d very much like to see it come about and I think it is essential if a vibrant Midwestern Region can be established. I just have doubts that we’ll see it for many, many years,if ever. Some of the reason for my pessimism is that I think HSR, and some attendant consequences to HSR, will run into wall of resistance.

    First I think high speed rail holds the potential of greatly reshaping metropolitan Chicago from a sprawl to more dispersed, but concentrated, suburbs. I can easily imagine places like New Buffalo, Michigan, Michigan City, Indiana, or even Madison becoming the hot bedroom communities. But wouldn’t such a drastic change in the development scene threaten Illinois’ property interests?

    Second, I noted some heated opposition in Chicago’s suburbs to the Canadian National’s purchase of the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway. The CN intends to capture more freight traffic around the city but the diversion of freight to new routes produced a strongly negative reaction in the communities in line to pick up the traffic. To what extent will HSR result in significant rerouting of freight through the suburbs? Will HSR require reconfiguration of freight routes to bypass the Chicago freight “bottleneck”?

    For the foregoing reasons I fear that HSR will run into an orchestrated “not in my back yard” campaign in Chicago’s suburbs. Suburban homeowners may well be told that HSR threatens home values and will bring either a host of freight trains to their neighborhood, or noisy 110 mph passenger trains “blasting” through.

    Third (and disappointingly the Obama administration seems to be burying this), highway funding faces major fiscal problems as hybrid and high mileage vehicles become more common. Right now a pure electric car pays no highway use taxes (with the possible exception of Oregon). It seems apparent (to me at least) that tolls and congestion pricing for highways is “needed” to fund roads (or even a road use fee using vehicle mounted GPS and telematics). But politically these ideas are going nowhere, and the highway construction interests have a vested interest in the current transportation system and protecting its funding. HSR promises to worsen the situation for these interests by cutting further into available funds for highway construction.

  23. Alon Levy says:

    Paul, the SNCF plans for Chicago don’t mention anything about freight diversion. There isn’t a shortage of tracks or space for tracks anywhere in the Midwest, where there are two-track lines that used to be four-tracked. The freight bottleneck is about switching problems, I believe.

    NIMBYism is a problem, but one that California is already dealing with with reasonable success. High-speed rail can have many noise mitigations, such as sound walls. In the Chicago suburbs it might not even need them, as the trains would not be able to go at full speed. High-speed trains are designed to be aerodynamic, and electric traction is quieter than diesel traction, which means a high-speed train at 110 mph may not be any noisier than a low-speed freight train at 79 mph.

  24. Gingerman says:

    In addition to the Council that R. Longworth mentions, there already are a number of regional oriented policy institutes, such as the Northeast-Midwest Institute and the Restoring Prosperity Initiative. They don’t fit, exactly, the “Midwest” that’s being talked about here, but is there reason to proliferate regional think tanks? Let’s see if we can work with the organizational infrastructure we already have.

    Rather than simply compete on cost, the Midwest should concentrate first on innovation in fields that are close to home (e.g., metal technology, fresh water-related research, etc.) and that are new and have many dimensions to explore and are yet to be applied in many fields (e.g., nanotechnology, renewable energy, etc.). These are fields in which our great universities can give us an incomparable advantage.

    If we never dream it, it never will happen: reciprocal tuition, HSR connecting the universities and the cities where students come from and go to, joint projects, etc. And if we get bogged down in the details, it’ll never happen: e.g., whether it’s 60 or 75 minutes by HSR between Chgo and Indy. We should keep the big picture in mind.

    … and hooray for Monmouth! There is a distinct Midwestern sensibility connected to our physical region and its history. We should tout it!

  25. In response to Gingerman’s good comments…..

    There really are no Midwestern regionally-oriented policy institutes that not only look at the region as a whole, but try to link the various issues — urban, rural, transport, education, etc. – to each other and, especially, do this from a Midwestern base. That is, there hasn’t been until now. That’s the mandate of our Global Midwest Initiative, just getting off the ground, but trying to fill this gap in the same way that, say, the Southern Growth Policy Board, tries to do in the South. Check us out at

    This is not to knock the Northeast-Midwest Institute or Brookings’ Restoring Prosperity Initiative.

    The former does some valuable research, but exists mostly as a Washington-based lobbying organization for Midwestern and Northeastern interests, as defined by the state governments. As its name implies, it focuses equally on the Northeast. So far as I know, it’s never tried to put together a Midwest Congressional Caucus, which we so badly need.

    The latter is closely linked to Brookings’ Great Lakes Initiative, which published the invaluable report, The Vital Center. This was done by John Austin, who’s now back at Brookings and continuing this work. Anything that John does has to be good. But, like the Northeast-Midwest Inititive, this is Washington-based and, quite naturally, sees everything from a Beltway point of view — basically, how can federal policy impact Midwestern problems. This also is very valuable, but is no substitute for a program run from the Midwest, seen from the Midwestern point of view, and asking how the Midwest tiself can impact its own problems. GMI and Brookings are working closely together. John Austin is on our advisory board. Our goal is to complement each other’s work, not compete.

    in addition, Restoring Prosperity is aimed at revitalizing America’s older industrial cities. This is not a specifically Midwestern project, although a lot of Midwestern cities are under their microscope, for obvious reasons. It hs nothing to do with, say, rural issues or smaller cities or interstate cooperation or other issues that GMI embraces.

    GMI is not a regional think tank. We sponsor some original research. but we’re we very sensitive to the fact that thunderbolts of wisdom hurled from the Olympan heights of Chicago might not always be apprecited outside Chicago. Rather, we see ourselves as a forum, bringing Midwesterners together to talk about common problems. Brookings sees itself as more of a think tank, quite properly.

    As you can see, any number are playing. This is good. Until now, the Midwest has suffered from a deficit of regional thinking. So the more voices are heard, the better. Monmouth is part of this, and I hope they don’t remain the only college involved. Urbanophile is part of this, as are the many other Midwestern blogs. GMI and Brookings and other institutions are part of this. The more the merrier.

    Gingerman’s other points are also good, but I can’t resist pointing out that I made all of them in my book. At the risk of sounding like a book salesman, I hope he’ll get a copy.

  26. Gingerman says:

    OK … I’ll get the book. In fact, I should have bought it when it first came out. (The copies at the Harold Washington library — downtown Chicago, for those not familiar — were not shelved or were on loan every time I looked.)

    You make a good case for the shortcomings of the existing regional groupings (policy institutes, think tanks, what-have-yous) for the purposes under discussion in this and similar blogs.

    So yes, in general, the more the merrier in the discussion and in the thinking and action-taking — many ideas from many sources.

    I’m only wary of absorbing too many resources in building parallel structures and of balkanizing our thinking. Have you any idea how many people are reading this and the other blogs listed above? Ideally, we’re all sampling from a wide variety of them and not just sticking close to home. The capacity for building linkages being, of course, a hallmark of the internet.

    BTW: Your piece on your Global Midwest Blog ( on the possible uses of Wal-Mart for solving more than one issue in the City of Chicago is exactly the kind of “opportunistic” thinking that we need to overcome the boundaries on maps and in our minds that can get in the way.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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