2021 Project Achievement and Leadership Award Blog Series: NIRPC Report Finds the Proliferation of E-commerce


Pandemic Accelerates Impacts of Online Shopping in Northwest Indiana 

The award-winning NIRPC report finds the proliferation of e-commerce opens new opportunities for the Northwest Indiana region, even as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated online shopping trends. 

Begun prior to the onset of COVID-19, the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC) had already begun to look at the implications of e-commerce trends, given the region’s position on the southern shore of Lake Michigan in the greater Chicago metropolitan area. Little did NIRPC’s staff know at the time how relevant their work would become with the onslaught of the pandemic in the midst of the project, accelerating online shopping trends and the proliferation of deliveries. NIRPC staff quickly pivoted to include current COVID-era data and tailored the report to the reality that these super-charged trends in e-commerce would not be dissipating when the pandemic subsided. 

NIRPC’s report, “E-commerce in Northwest Indiana,” examines changing trends in the region accentuated by these new economic and travel patterns made evident during the coronavirus pandemic. Consumer trends have emerged, allowing planners to forecast land use and economic development needs.  

Slumps in brick-and-mortar retail, increases in freight traffic, and new economic opportunities are just part of data analyzed by NIRPC staff. Among the report’s findings and recommendations, NIRPC planners found a 12% decline in shopping trips in Northwest Indiana between 2008 and 2018, the closure of nearly 28% of consumer electronics stores, and growth of nearly 40% in urban freight delivery. City streets and highway traffic are particularly impacted. Transportation and warehousing make up 17.6% of the economy in Northwest Indiana – a higher percentage than Indianapolis – with warehousing and storage employment increasing 50% in just two years. After analyzing the data, planners identified areas in the Northwest Indiana region that were best suited for development for e-commerce-related business activity, based on proximity to municipalities, major highways, and other factors.  

The report offers recommendations for the region’s municipalities and businesses to allocate resources, plan land use and zoning for changing economic needs, anticipate the development of distribution facilities, and incorporate best practices to adjust to increased last-mile delivery and freight traffic.  It also offers recommendations for businesses planning to develop in Northwest Indiana as well as for existing businesses adjusting to a post-pandemic economy.   

These practical strategies include recommendations in the creation of loading zones to mitigate issues like double-parking that impedes the flow of traffic, maintaining delivery trucks safety in residential areas, and shifting toward Automated Vehicle (AV) trucks to relieve congestion.  Land use and retail recommendations suggest rezoning and rethinking for adaptive reuse, repurposing large vacant retail buildings, sensibly locating warehouses and distribution centers, incentivizing smart buildings, considering experimental retail, and redesigning large surface parking of vacant retail.  Further, the study points to next steps to develop sub-area plans that address transportation improvements and accessibility; establish redevelopment/reuse plans on the local level to provide the best possible solutions to repurpose vacant major retail; develop a regional real estate market outlook for warehouses, fulfilment centers, and logistics; and work with intermodal facilities and freight carriers to identify locations with high levels of freight movement to alleviate freight-related congestion. 

The various analyses NIRPC developed are now being made available to be adapted to other regional and local planning efforts as a means of improving planning capabilities. The report used a travel demand modeling cluster analysis that shows the congestion impacts on the transportation network of a potential newly constructed warehouse or distribution center employing 1,000 people, with clusters varying depending on which geographic site is chosen. The traffic model was based on traffic, population, employment, and land-use data to ensure that e-commerce-related facilities are suitable to other land uses in spatial relation to schools, residential areas, transportation hubs, and other uses.  

While brick-and-mortar stores are not going away – and rumors of a “retail apocalypse,” by most accounts, have been greatly exaggerated – the rapid growth of online shopping has created shifts in the way the region’s residents live, and shopping patterns will continue to change. The report acknowledges this has had a significant impact on the region’s retail sector and will have long-term implications for the way the region uses its land and highways. The pandemic has only accelerated what was already a growing trend in Northwest Indiana, and municipalities and counties within the region can use the insights from the report to make critical decisions for their communities, considering the best strategies for economic growth and quality-of-life. 

The report was approved by the NIRPC commission on November 19, 2020, and was primarily authored by NIRPC staff members Eman Ibrahim, Peter Kimball, Kevin Polette, and Scott Weber.  

NIRPC is the Metropolitan Planning Organization and Council of Governments for Lake, Porter, and LaPorte Counties in Northwest Indiana. Working collaboratively across the region, NIRPC coordinates regional comprehensive planning and programming for transportation, economic development, and environmental policy. 

Read the full report, “E-commerce in Northwest Indiana”: https://www.nirpc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/E-Commerce-in-NWI.pdf  

Written by Tyson Warner, Executive Director of Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission