Where Goes the Neighborhood?
Here’s a basic recipe for a vibrant, livable global city: take an extensive transit system and locate jobs, homes, and multiple amenities nearby. Now consider New York and Chicago, which have bragging rights as the top one and two biggest U.S. transit systems. Which one do you think has added more jobs within a half-mile of transit in the past decade? Which one has more people living near transit today than in 1960? As a Chicago resident, it’s not the answer I would have hoped.
While I am a proud advocate of the Chicago metropolitan region, I am frustrated and embarrassed that we’ve so bungled the chance to generate value from our extensive transit network. Yep, this is the place that has 386 transit stations but hasn’t yet managed to tilt the scale toward clustering office, residential, and retail development nearby to make the most of that asset.
- while the Chicago region’s population grew 65% from 5.5 million in 1950 to 9.1 million in 2010, transit ridership has plummeted by 61%, from 1.8 billion annually to fewer than 700 million rides per year
- between 2002 and 2011, the number of jobs located within a half-mile of transit in the Chicago region increased by just 15,000 during a time of sluggish growth; in comparison, that number grew by more than 500,000 in New York during the same time frame
- the number of people living near transit in the City of Chicago has dropped from 1.8 million in 1960 to 1.3 million today.
NOTE: Just 21 percent of the region’s jobs and 8 percent of its population are located within a quarter-mile of rapid transit.
Ironically, fixing this is not a question of residential demand. People in Chicago and nationwide are voting with their feet and their pocketbooks. The National Association of Realtors found that homes located within a half-mile of public transportation were so desirable that they were valued a whopping 41 percent higher than properties located in car-dependent neighborhoods. And no wonder, when those homeowners reap the benefits of living in attractive, amenity-filled communities and may be able to sell a car or even avoid car ownership all together.
But, there is a real tension between affordability and accessibility. The fear is that because this convenient housing located near transit is so desirable, it will push out moderate-priced housing for average working families. Gentrification is a fair concern, but one I’ve become convinced can be overcome.
How? By being intentional about connecting well-designed, mixed-income communities (including housing options for lower-income workers) with clusters of jobs that are currently inaccessible to these individuals, all near transit. This will increase prospects for job seekers while simultaneously expanding the talent pool for employers.
Take the case of two employment corridors located near Ashland Avenue, where Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed the first neighborhood route for “gold standard” bus rapid transit.
One growing employment node is the Illinois Medical District, located a couple miles west of Chicago’s Loop. It is home to four major hospitals and is the destination for 20,000 workers and 75,000 visitors every day. They either compete for limited parking spaces or crowd onto the Ashland bus, the route which carries the highest volume of riders in the city. The Ashland Avenue BRT will speed transit times by 30-50 percent and unleash the growth of these anchor institutions.
Another high-potential node is the Pilsen Industrial Corridor, one of six industrial corridors that will be served by Ashland BRT. The figure below illustrates that this southwest side zone, which follows the Chicago River, will then be accessible to 50,000 more adults within a reasonable 20-minute transit trip. Growing businesses like the Chicago International Produce Market – a Terminal Market that is home to 22 produce purveyors including some third- and fourth-generation companies – will benefit from greatly improved access and talent.
So let’s return to that recipe for a healthy region. Connecting good jobs and reliable transit is a key ingredient. So is attracting investors and developers who can execute on equitable development. Achieving this vision will require beefed-up incentives to encourage clustered mixed-use development in optimal locations.
The City of Chicago took an important first step with a new Transit Oriented Development ordinance passed in fall 2013. It allows for reasonable increases in density and cost-saving reductions in parking requirements for specific parcels a quarter mile from Metra or CTA rail stations. At least one proposed development, steps away from the Paulina Brown Line station, is making use of this new tool.
Cities like San Francisco – where 41.2 percent of jobs are within a half-mile of transit compared to only 31.6 percent in the Chicago region — have taught us that we must go further. The Metropolitan Planning Council will be working simultaneously to: strengthen the TOD ordinance’s incentives; explore development financing that supports TOD; map and market available parcels and work with the Cook County Land Bank to ease acquisition; and partner with hospitals, universities, and manufacturers on live-near-work-and-transit benefits.
These proactive steps will have measurable payback. Our ultimate success will be measured in expanded choices. Do moderate-wage workers have access to affordable homes near their jobs and transit? Do commuters have real choices about getting to work within a reasonable time? Have anchor institutions been strengthened by a bigger labor pool and more attractive campuses? By jointly pursuing accessibility and affordability, we’re on a path to answering yes.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Noting that house prices have been growing three times faster than incomes in the last two decades, OECD found that “housing has been the main driver of rising middle-class expenditure.” Moreover, OECD noted that the largest housing cost increases are in home ownership, not rents.
Housing largely determines the cost of living. For example, in the United States, more than 85% of the higher cost of living in the most expensive US metropolitan areas is in housing. Fundamentally, housing affordability is not about house prices; it is about house prices in relation to household incomes. Housing affordability cannot be assessed without metrics that include both prices and incomes.
OurStreets origins are rooted in capturing latent sentiment on social media and converting it to standardized data. It all started in July 2018, when OurStreets co-founder, Daniel Schep, was inspired by the #bikeDC community tweeting photos of cars blocking bike lanes, and built the @HowsMyDrivingDC Twitter bot. The bot used license plate info to produce a screenshot of the vehicle’s outstanding citations from the DC DMV website.
Fast forward to March 2020, and D.C. Department of Public Works asking if we could repurpose OurStreets to crowdsource the availability of essential supplies during the COVID-19 crisis. Knowing how quickly we needed to move in order to be effective, we set out to make a new OurStreets functionality viable nationwide.
The best nature-based solutions on urban industrial lands are those that are part of a corporate citizenship or conservation strategy like DTE’s or Phillips66. By integrating efforts such as tree plantings, restorations, or pollinator gardens into a larger strategy, companies begin to mainstream biodiversity into their operations. When they crosswalk the effort to other CSR goals like employee engagement, community relations, and/or workforce development, like the CommuniTree initiative, the projects become more resilient.
Air quality in urban residential communities near industrial facilities will not be improved by nature alone. But nature can contribute to the solution, and while doing so, bring benefits including recreation, education, and an increased sense of community pride. As one tool to combat disparate societal outcomes, nature is accessible, affordable and has few, if any, downsides.