Demand for urban office space is changing: cities need more flexibility

A co-working space. Image: StartupHub/Wikimedia Commons.

What does a good office look like? When cities are thinking about intervening in their city centre office market, the temptation will be to simply build more office space. This will be the right call in some cities, but others may already have a plentiful supply of offices. In these places, the quality of the existing city centre office space will be more important, as well as the extent to which it supports the growing trends for co-working and flexible space.

But before deciding how and when to intervene, cities need to first figure out the specific gaps in their local office market where private developers aren’t responding to existing demand. There’s no single national office market, and the quality of offices on offer varies a lot across the country.

The map below – using data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Building Blocks: the role of commercial space in Local Industrial Strategies – shows that while 39 per cent of offices in Southampton city centre is of a high quality, this drops to only 9 per cent in Coventry and Leicester.

Source: Non-Domestic Energy Performance Register 2018.

But while this data shows the quality of office buildings, it doesn’t tell us much about what occupiers want from offices. The value of offices is determined by the location, condition, and the amenities they are able to offer to occupiers, and understanding the services occupiers are demanding is key for any office market.

One growing trend in office space is the rise of co-working. Collaborative spaces such as WeWork have recently expanded in London and Manchester and in other large cities around the world.

These have two main advantages for businesses – knowledge spillovers and more efficient use of commercial space. Freelancers can rent desks in these offices, devour free snacks and coffee, and meet and do business with other enterprises who have sat down right across from them. Start-ups and larger firms also use the flexibility to easily acquire (or reduce) desks as their needs change, squeezing as much value as possible out of city centre locations by not paying for excess commercial space.

But it’s not just the big cities which are seeing office space change. In our research for the Building Blocks report, we were struck by how many other cities across England and Wales are already responding to occupier demand by providing features such as co-working or ‘easy in, easy out’ flexible leases. Warrington, Bradford, and Bristol are all embarking on co-working spaces of their own.


Demand for these innovations in office space is therefore widespread across the country. For instance, the non-profit IndyCube provides co-working office space in London, but also in cities like Wakefield, Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and over a dozen towns in Wales. Even in urban areas with very small economies such as Rhyl and Abertillery, it is possible to rent a desk, just as you can in the most up-to-date offices in large cities.

Each city should identify any weaknesses in their office market, and justify whether they should respond to them through their Local Industrial Strategy. In some places, this might be providing more high-quality buildings, and in others, it might just be more co-working and innovative space.

Crawley, for example, has a city centre which lacks large offices of 5,00m2 or more, while the average city has roughly a quarter of its office space in buildings in such large offices. Based on the evidence Centre for Cities laid out in our report on the Economy of the Gatwick Diamond, this suggests Crawley could perhaps justify intervening to supply more office space. Other cities such as Preston, by contrast, may have plenty of large offices – but have a shortage of high-quality buildings or innovations like co-working.

When it comes to interventions, cities should only act when it’s clear there is a market failure and the private sector is not responding to existing demand. Huddersfield and Derby have both supplied small amounts of new office space with features such as co-working, one step at a time so as not to swamp local demand, in response to a shortage of office space in the city centre and a lack of new private sector supply.

This is not to say that “build and the jobs will come” justifications for risky speculative office schemes will work – they won’t, as cities should be intervening in commercial property to respond to demand, rather than trying to create new demand. Improving skills and transport provision will be more important than shiny new skyscrapers in most cities.

But in cities where there is an existing kernel of high-skilled work, making sure this activity has the office space it needs in the city centre is an important step for improving local productivity. As work changes, cities should recognise that their commercial space will need to evolve too.

You can explore city-by-city data on office space with the Centre for Cities’ commercial property dashboard.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.