Big Data Potholes

They’re having a big pothole problem in Indianapolis this spring.   They have a big pothole problem every spring, but this year is particularly bad…maybe the worst ever.  From what I’ve heard, they’re eating cars.   People are looking to the city to reimburse them for damages.  Good luck with that.

Large Pothole

There’s a natural tendency in the Midwest to blame the weather for potholes.  It’s cold here.  But when you explain to folks that it’s cold in places like Minneapolis and they don’t have quite as many car eating potholes as Indy, then the story shifts.  It’s not the cold as much as it is the freeze-melt-refreeze cycle.  OK, how about Columbus Ohio and St. Louis, then?  They both have the same weather patterns and yet their pothole problems have not morphed into the crisis they have in Indy.   We have very few potholes here in Des Moines and we’ve been freezing and thawing since the middle of January.

So the weather plays a part but so does shoddy construction and a propensity towards half-assed maintenance.   That’s what a local television outlet discovered while out and about.  Apparently the city has this Gazillion Dollar Big Data Pothole GIS system where potholes get flagged when concerned citizens call them in.  The callers claimed that the repairs weren’t being made and so they notified the TV people.  The city argued that The Gazillion Dollar Big Data Pothole GIS system showed that the repair had been made and so that was that.   Apparently nobody bothered to check. I assume that’s because it’s more fun changing red dots to green dots on a computer screen than it is to actually grab a shovel and head out into the cold-wet-dark to fill potholes.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not knocking big data.  I’m knocking people who buy these solutions and implement them without understanding how to use them.  I’m mocking people who don’t train their people because they don’t know what they’re doing themselves.  I’m mocking poseurs and pretenders who want people to think they’re high tech when they obviously do not have a clue.  The proof is right in front of their eyes.

As I understand it, the pothole problem in Indy has gotten so bad that many of the city’s streets are going to need to be rebuilt from the ground up.   Officials don’t know where the money is going to come from.  They should have thought about that a long time ago, but maybe it’s not too late. I have a suggestion.  It won’t cover all the costs, but at least it’s a start.  Sell the Gazillion Dollar Big Data Pothole GIS system and buy some shovels with the proceeds.


Grapes of Wrath Unwind

This map came across my feed this morning and if it’s accurate I have to assume that the  exodus from California is just beginning.   This is obviously going to be news to people in Colorado, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, and to a lesser degree Texas and Utah.  These states have been overrun with Californians in recent years.

cost of living US_0

But if the map’s right, it has merely been the opening act.   141% of the national average is not sustainable unless you keep adding to your personal debt load and you can only do that for so long before you have to unwind.   Unwinding is ugly.  It often involves bankruptcy.  Bankruptcy, in turn, involves a fresh start…often far from where it all went bad.  It doesn’t have to be that way but it usually is.  I think it just feels better.

New York, New England and the mid-Atlantic states are in a similar (though not quite as dire as California) bind.   People will flee as they figure out their lives as they’ve built them are not sustainable.   Where will they migrate to?  Neighboring states for sure.  Low cost of living states, too, although every state is a low cost of living state if you live in California.

I think that as the trickle becomes a torrent, many will naturally reverse migrate to the Motherland…the states they were born and raised in.  That means Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois (maybe not so much) and other Rust Belt states.   As they do, those states will boom again and costs will rise.  The ones that have the highest quality of life offer the most allure.  Californians are used to a certain level of government services.

I have no doubt it will catch these states by surprise.  They have been beaten down for so long that I think many people there have lost sight of the fact that the pendulum swings both ways.  They are now at the point in the cycle where time is their friend.   Those who prepare for it are going to prosper.  Those who don’t are going to be overwhelmed.

When I look at maps like this, certain things stand out.  Mostly, Michigan stands out.  I like Michigan’s future a lot.  Michigan is blessed with geography and location.  It’s a natural wonderland.  It’s a port of entry.  It has huge advantages.

I could see the downtown Detroit boom spread to the city’s still largely abandoned neighborhoods.  Other parts of Michigan appear to be even more attractive.  Grand Rapids is on a tear.  I’d give GR serious consideration if I was younger.  The city has invested in quality of life initiatives.  It’s clean, relatively safe and attractive.  The proximity to Lake Michigan, Chicago and Detroit is awesome.   You’re one air connection away from anywhere in the world.  The upper half of the lower peninsula is full of recreational opportunities that rival Colorado in many ways, but without the traffic chokepoints and crowds.

Speaking of recreation, Missouri is covered with inland lakes and forested hills.  They will thrive, too, I think.  People will gobble up waterfront and prices will rise.  They have a similar situation to Michigan in that much of this real estate is located between Kansas City and St. Louis and that’s very good in terms of doing business.

I think a lot of these west coast refugees will be looking to meld low cost of living with high quality of life.  That’s not easy to do anywhere but it’s easier to do in the Midwest than the rest of the country.   In USNews recent best state rankings, the Midwest dominated quality of life rankings with five of the top ten spots (North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa).  Unfortunately, low cost states like Ohio, Illinois and Indiana have abysmal quality of life rankings (#40, #47 and #48 respectively).

Still, it’s not all uniform.  There are spots in Indiana with awesome quality of life and it can be had for a song.  Just as the Okies overwhelmed California when they moved west during the Dust Bowl, the refugees fleeing California may very well overwhelm the new states they call home.  They’ll certainly change them.  It will be interesting to watch as it unfolds.

Midwest Population Shifts in Pictures

I found these maps online earlier this week.  They paint a picture that meshes pretty well with my understanding when it comes to recent growth and migration across the Midwest.   Take western North Dakota, for example.  There wasn’t much growth there from 2002-2008, but then it really took off as oil and gas workers poured in to work the Bakken formation.


Another thing that these maps show is the mass exodus from Illinois.   The city of Chicago has been shrinking for well on 60 years now.  It’s down over one million people from peak population, but most of those folks have historically moved to nearby suburbs.  Not any longer.  You can see suburban growth clearly in the first map, but it’s gone in the second map.  It looks like a lot of those people are moving north and west along the I-94 corridor to Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Rural Illinois also continues to bleed residents as well.   It looks like Kansas on the second map.

Midwest growth has slowed since 2010.  This makes sense.  The economy has stabilized and so not as many people are on the road looking for work.

With the exception of Illinois, college towns and state capitals continue to grow.  Ames, Iowa City, Madison, Columbia, Columbus, Lincoln, Lafayette are all continuing to draw new residents.  Grand Rapids is neither a college town or state capital, but it is a surprising bright spot in a state that has seen more than its share of struggles.   Cities who want to grow might want to look at what they’re doing there.

The rural Midwest continues to lose population.  While the popular mythology of the day says that urban areas are the beneficiaries, these people are moving mostly to the suburbs.  You can see this in the Twin Cities, Indianapolis and Columbus on the maps.  Some suburbs are urbanizing.   Eden Prairie MN and Carmel IN come to mind.

So what does the future hold?  I see two things happening.  One, the rural exodus is going to end at some point.  Rural quality of life appeals to far too many people for it to continue. Communities that invest in state of the art connectivity will attract new residents, many of whom will telecommute to jobs in the big city.   If I was looking for real estate now, this is where I’d be focused.   Pick a high quality of life community with engaged citizens.  Settle into the flow of life.  You’ll be rewarded for your risk taking, not only financially but in terms of quality of life.


Urban Indianapolis.  This building has been redeveloped since I left.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that there are hundreds just like it that haven’t.

The other thing I see is the end of the urban renaissance “fairy tale.”  I’m worried for cities like Detroit, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Cleveland.  They’ve seen a lot of new investment in their cores, but I don’t get the feeling that it’s sustainable. Not enough of it is organic.

Of these cities, I know Indianapolis best and it just feels contrived and overbuilt to me.  The new units coming online are priced at levels not historically seen.  The core is still surrounded by large swaths of abandoned and neglected neighborhoods.  Crime is off the charts.  The urban school district is failing.  It’s not a recipe that attracts families with children and without children a city has no future.

Time will tell…


Recreation and Economic Development

I know a lot of economic development officials across the Midwest who hate winter.  They’re convinced that it makes their jobs harder.   They say so…on the record.  They seem to believe that nobody in their right mind would come to their city or town when the temperature is hovering around freezing and the snow is flying.

This says more about them than it does the people they’re trying to attract.  As I look around the world at cities like Amsterdam, Quebec and (closer to home) Denver and Minneapolis, I see people embracing winter and finding a way to enjoy themselves outdoors.


Skaters and walkers on a canal, Amsterdam.  Photo: PA


The Katy Trail connects the entire state of Missouri to the state capital in Jefferson City.  Photo: Pedalfree


Our small towns are magical places that have the potential to draw people like magnets.   Photo: Pedalfree

It’s all about recreation.  This is another example of how we in the Midwest sell ourselves short.  We tell ourselves we can’t complete with places that have mountains and oceans, but we can.   It’s simply a matter of identifying our unique recreational strengths.

Like what?   Well, let’s start with our lakes.  They’re Great…literally.  The largest collection of freshwater on the planet.   Five inland seas.  Nobody else anywhere has anything that even comes close.  It terms of scope and potential impact, they’re not much different than the Rocky Mountains.

There’s more.  The Midwest is criss-crossed with abandoned railroad lines.  In some cases, these have been converted to trails with much success.  We could do more.  We could make it a regional imperative to connect them so that people could travel by bicycle from, say, Chicago to Kansas City or Cincinnati without a hitch.

Imagine if we did this.  Imagine a series of inns and cafes every thirty miles or so along rural trails.   Imagine being able to leave cities like Indianapolis or St. Louis and cycling deep into a national forest or an inn by the sea.  Would that put us on even ground with places like Colorado and Florida?   I think it would.  It might give us an edge.  In many ways, these other states are a hot mess.

And so I think it’s way past time that our elected and appointed officials stop apologizing for our lack of geographical diversity.   We can compete with anyone but we have to first want to compete.  We have to stop being so bloody myopic and think bigger.  We need to act with courage.   I think it’s high time we start.



HQ2 Probably Isn’t Coming to the Midwest (And That’s Just Fine)

I’ve been thinking about Amazon’s HQ2 lately, mostly because of a constant barrage of news stories coming out of Indianapolis about how much it would mean to the city if Amazon were to choose them.  It’s really sort of embarrassing, this pleading.   I wish Indy had a little pride, you know, like San Antonio.  Alas, wishing doesn’t make it so.  They’re actually starting to believe they have a shot.


Chicago is big enough, but is it right for Amazon?

Why do I care?  Mostly because I have family there and I think it’s reckless and irresponsible to waste time on this nonsense.   A big part of success when it comes to this sort of thing is being able to take an honest look in the mirror and assess both your strengths and weaknesses.   For whatever reason, Indianapolis isn’t doing this.   If they were, they wouldn’t be all in.  They wouldn’t be in at all.  I mean, the city can’t even maintain its grid of streets which are crumbling so badly that they will likely have to be rebuilt from the ground up.  If you can’t get the basic stuff right, it’s a disservice to the people who rely on you for leadership to be chasing after pure blue sky.

Other Midwestern cities still in the mix include Chicago and Columbus.  I think they’re long shots as well.  Chicago certainly has the bandwidth to support Amazon and they snagged another Seattle company (Boeing) a few years back so I simply cannot rule them out.  They just strike me as a city of the past, whereas Amazon is the future.  Columbus is the site of a major research university, but then again, so is Austin.  I can’t think of any reason why Columbus would have an edge over Austin.

I’m not saying Austin is going to win the sweepstakes.  In fact, my money is still on Atlanta, Toronto or Washington DC.  That said, one thing I really like about Austin is how much energy is directed inward as opposed to the sort of outward begging so popular elsewhere.   They’ve had a great deal of success in terms of fostering an environment where UT grads can start companies that grow and prosper.  Michael Dell comes to mind.  There have been others as well.   If they lose, it won’t be as devastating to them as it will be to a place like Indianapolis.

I think Midwestern cities like Indianapolis and Columbus should be focusing on internal growth (like Austin) instead of chasing after elephants like Amazon.  Bet on your own people instead of the sexy outsider.  Empower them.  Make it easy for them to risk and succeed.  Great cities don’t chase after everything that glitters.   They bet on themselves first.  If losing HQ2 causes Midwestern cities to change their mindset of needing validation from outside the region, then it’s going to be a good thing for them going forward.  If not, then it’s 100% their own fault.


A Tale of Two Midwests

USNews and World Report released their list of the best states in America yesterday.  Generally speaking, such lists are meaningless clickbait.  That said, lists released by USNews have historically been more relevant than most.


Wheatsfield Cooperative, Ames Iowa.  

The good news for the Midwest is that it snagged four of the top ten spots on the list.  Iowa and Minnesota were ranked #1 and #2 respectively.   North Dakota was #4.  Nebraska was #7.  No other region of the country did as well and that says a lot about what the future might look like here.

The bad news is that the Rust Belt continues to lag.   Ohio (#40), Michigan (#37), Illinois (#35) and Indiana (#33) have yet to emerge from the malaise that first gripped the region in the early 1970s.  The reasons varied to some degree.    Ohio, Illinois and Indiana were all bottom ten states in terms of quality of life.  Michigan was marginally better.  Healthcare and education also appear to be problems in these states.

The remaining states fall in between, although there is clear delineation between Wisconsin (#11) and South Dakota (#14) versus Kansas (#29) and Missouri (#30) that suggests the former should be included with the top states while the latter should be grouped with the Rust Belt states.


Two Midwests


Taken together, the rankings paint a picture of two different Midwests.  It makes for a nice, clean, easy to understand map.  In reality, the issues that give rise to the differences are complex.   Some can be easily fixed, others, not so much.  I don’t want to spend time on the “whys” mostly because in the end they really don’t matter.  What matters is where you are and what you’re doing about it. The red states have some work to do.   If they’re game, they don’t have to look far to see what works.





The Wild Midwest

Most of the officially designated wilderness in the United States is found in the Rockies and Pacific coast states including (especially) Alaska.   In the Midwest, the only significant wilderness area is Boundary Waters Canoe Area in far northern Minnesota.    There are some smaller areas scattered throughout, but they don’t really amount to much.


Midwest population pressure declines as you move west and north.


I rousted these deer from the grass along the trail.  They didn’t go far before they stopped and eyed me with curiosity.


The Raccoon River valley near Jefferson Iowa


Not sure if these are snow geese or swans.  They were in a prairie pothole on the Greene/Carroll county line.


I love this country.


No matter the weather…

That said, there’s an incredible amount of wild country out here in central Iowa.  In terms of wildlife habitat, we pretty much have it all.  I’ve seen everything from Bald Eagles to bobcats on my daily bicycle rides in and around Jefferson.  The eagles and other raptors are a common site.  I’ve learned their patterns.  I think back to a trip we took to Pittsburgh a few years ago and how people were scanning the bluffs for a glimpse of eagles.  I get that pretty much every day here.

This is no small thing to me.  I love nature and wilderness.  I think it’s a necessary part of a full and happy life.  I think when we’re removed from the natural world for too long, things start to break down and we start to suffer.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that designating a place as official wilderness is not necessarily a good thing.  Many wilderness areas are not doing so well.  As much as it pains me to admit it, many bikers and hikers don’t seem to understand that if they don’t actively work to protect these areas that they will cease to exist.  Colorado,  in particular, is a major disappointment.  The state’s obsession with growth is destroying the very thing that made it special.

Out here on the far northwest fringes of metro Des Moines, we don’t have much population pressure and that’s critical to wilderness survival.   We have agriculture and that means chemicals, but there aren’t a lot of people and the land seems to endure.  Whereas in the suburbs you might have 4 houses per acre, out here you’re likely to find one house per every 160 acres.  That’s a scale of magnitude of 640x.

And agriculture is slowly changing as well.   Family farms still prevail around here and more and more farmers are concerned with the long term viability of the land.  They understand that goosing production comes with a cost and that cost is future production.  Deplete the soil and it will eventually fail.  Maintain it and it will support generations to come.  It’s not perfect.  I’m not saying that.  It is getting better, though, and that’s good.

We also have a wide river valley prone to flooding.  It’s heavily treed and undeveloped and it is as starkly beautiful in its own way as any place that I’ve been in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah or Wyoming.

I feel a profound sense of gratitude for getting to live in this place among the eagles and other critters.   When I’m out on the bike, I am overwhelmed by the silence and the simple beauty of the land.