Elevating Chicago

Density Archives

More Chicago transit data than you can handle

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

The folks at the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) have done transit nerds yet another huge favor.  First it was their H+T Index, which was rolled into Abogo, their walkscore-esque tool that helps you measure your carbon footprint.  Now, they've gone and put an enormous collection of data online in an open, easy-to-use Transit-Oriented Development Database.  For lack of a better phrase, this is data porn.  Specifically, transit data.  You can look at every type of data imaginable for the areas within a quarter- or half-mile of any individual train station (what CNT calls the "transit zone" for that station) or collection of stations (the "transit shed").

I'll be rummaging through as much of the data as I can in the coming days and weeks (especially the job density statistics), but for now, here are a few tidbits to hold you over:

-- Based on 2000 population estimates, only about 1.15 million people live within a half-mile of L stations.  For reference: Chicago's population was about 2.9 million in 2000.  But keep in mind those 1.15 million include residents of Cicero, Oak Park, Skokie, and Evanston, where the L extends past Chicago's borders, so in reality an even smaller part of the city's population is transit-oriented.

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-- Although average density can be a very misleading statistic, it's useful in this sense: ideally, the areas near train stations should be significantly more dense than the city as a whole.  (Unless you're dealing with a uniformly-dense place like Manhattan, where even the low-density areas can support transit.)  Chicago's average density is about 13,000 people per square mile.  But as you can see above, nearly half of the 142 L stations have local densities (within 0.5 miles of the stop) under 13,440 people per square mile.  Granted, some of these stops are like O'Hare or Midway, but many of them are not.

-- 26 of the 27 densest stations by population are on the Red/Brown/Purple north side.  The lone outlier is Damen, on the Pink Line.

Much more to come, or add your own findings in the comments.


Serendipity City

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

Sometimes my life can be terribly mundane.  Eat, sleep, work, blog, repeat.  Sure, there are some days when work is pretty interesting, or I'll make an amazing dinner (I'm a great chef, just ask me), but most of what I do on a day-to-day basis is something I've done countless times before.

And then there are weekends like the one I just had that reminds me why I choose to live in a city--and why, regardless of the environmental benefits or the aggregation of economic talent, it's the fun and serendipity that makes a dense city so livable.

Saturday morning my friend and I saw the nice weather and decided to put it to good use by mostly staying inside.  I walked over to the farmer's market down the block from me, grabbed some Italian sausage, and rode the bus over to his new apartment; we grilled it, drank some beer, and watched the Germany-Uruguay World Cup consolation match.  One of our college friends was visiting some family in town this weekend, but he joined us after the game and we played Risk.  (You laugh, but drinking and trying to take over the world are incredibly fun. Word of advice though: grab hold of South America early.)

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Ultimately, we got tired of wasting time inside.  Fortunately, his new apartment looks out on a park where we saw people out and about, so we dug out a soccer ball and headed over.  We started kicking it around a little, which drew a few strangers over.  In short order, we had an impromptu 4-on-4 barefoot game that kept going until darkness sent us scrambling to the nearest watering hole.

Sunday I rolled over to a pickup roller hockey game with a bunch of people who I know almost exclusively by first names or nicknames.  I almost certainly never would've met them were it not for this game, and we all get along swimmingly, even if we rarely hang out separately from these games.  I played long enough to sweat out Saturday night's shenanigans, but returned home in time to shower and ride my bike over to another friend's place for the Netherlands-Spain final.

As I rode back home I totaled up what I'd done this weekend: I'd had a good time seeing a large chunk of my friends and acquaintances, run around a lot despite almost none of it being organized or sanctioned in any way, drank my fair share, and didn't have to drive once.  Maybe one day my priorities in life will change and I'll want to make it easier to avoid other people, but that day certainly hasn't arrived yet. 

Go To 2040... Better (Part I)

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

As one of the United States' major metropolitan areas, Chicago is required by law to have a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).  In the past, the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC) along with the Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS) were responsible for this planning.  They merged in 2006 to form the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which is responsible for the next 30-year plan, known as Go To 2040.  CMAP came out with their draft plan last week, and it will be formally accepted by the city CMAP Board of Directors and Policy Committee in October.  In the meantime there will be ten open houses where you can share your comments, starting this past Tuesday in DuPage County, and finishing in Chicago on August 3 at the CMAP office at 233 S. Wacker Drive, Suite 800.  If you can't make any of the meetings, you can also submit written comments to them via email.

There's a lot to go over, so I'm going to break down my thoughts into a few installments over the next week or so.  They've split it up into 5 sections: Livable communities, Regional Mobility, Human Capital, Efficient Governance, and Context and Best Practices.  Although vital to the ongoing success of the entire Chicagoland area, the last 3 are less germane to what we're doing here, and so I'll address them together later on.  First up though: Livable Communities.

Although this is a regional plan, you can see right off the bat Chicago's imprint on it in the definition CMAP uses for livability: a "healthy, safe, and walkable" community that has "a sense of place."  (Page 5) I'll drink to that.

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And don't let it be said that CMAP doesn't understand the land use problems facing the region.  There's the chart above, showing how much we've spread out as a region, especially over the last 50 years.  And though they don't call it out in very strong language, CMAP tells us we can't continue that way: "'Greenfield' development is, in the long run, more costly by many measures."  (Page 49) That's a pretty sharp--and true!--statement, but this draft then spends most of its time softening that blow.

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500 Acres of Beautiful Brownfield Redevelopment

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

One of the items on the docket yesterday for the City Council Zoning Committee was the first step toward changing the face of the South Shore for generations to come.  McCaffery Interests is trying to develop the nearly 500 acre site of the old US Steel South Works site along the lake between 79th and 87th.  As the Tribune first reported, the Zoning Committee approved both a development proposal for the first 77 acres in the northwest corner of the property, as well as an overall zoning plan for the entire development.

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The first phase of the development covers the northwest corner of the now vacant land. Copyright McCaffery Interests.


This is an incredible chance for the city to transform an entire area into a local hub--not to mention add to the string of lake front parks that already covers most of the shoreline.  The first 77 acres alone will add a million square feet of retail space plus plenty of residential units.  When finally completed (maybe before I die?) the 500-acre project calls for 17,000 dwellings--potentially a density of over 30,000 people per square mile, or roughly the same as Lake View.

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Fisking Andres Duany

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

"The teenagers and young people in Miami come in from the suburbs to the few town centers we have, and they come in like locusts.  They make traffic congestion all night; they come in and take up the parking.  They ruin the retail and they ruin the restaurants, because they have different habits than older folks.  I have seen it.  They're basically eating up the first-rate urbanism.  They have this techno music, and the food cheapens, and they run in packs, great social packs, and they take over a place and ruin it and go somewhere else."

"I've known for 10 years about this destructive monoculture that's condensed in the suburbs.  These people would normally be buying real estate by now.  And we designed for them.  We kept saying 'aha, these kids, between 24 and 35, will be buying real estate." But guess what? They aren't.  Because they can't afford it.  But they're still using the cities--they're renting and so forth.  These gen-Xers also discovered the cities-they're buying in a proper way.  The Millennials are the ones we're talking about.  And they love cities desperately. And they're loving them to death."

Andres Duany is a man whose time has come and gone.  In the 1970s he founded New Urbanism, and helped set the stage for the revitalization of cities we're seeing across America today.  Unfortunately, when asked to survey the current state of affairs to The Atlantic's "Future of the City" project, he gave the two responses you see above. Here he is, complaining that Urbanism has essentially sold out, and the people that like it now and use it and live in it don't get it.  In fact, he sounds an awful lot like the apartment-renting hipsters he hates so much, who sigh that they knew about all the cool bands "before they were big."

If he'd only given the first quote in isolation, I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt.  He's essentially lamenting the bridge-and-tunnel nightlife of Miami, where kids drive into town and don't really heed the culture that's already there.  If he's complaining about teenage mallrats who have chosen to run around in urban neighborhoods instead, that's an argument that might have merit.  Still though, to complain that they congest traffic and take up the parking is to forget what he's worked his whole life for: urbanism that allows people to come from far and wide to enjoy a new part of town entirely without a car.  If these kids require a car to get there it is not their fault--the city has failed to build the infrastructure necessary to sustain Mr. Duany's urbanism.  Even more importantly, to complain that they're ruining things simply by dint of being of a different generation, one that has "different habits than older folks" and enjoys "this techno music" is to engage in petty, get-off-my-lawn-you-darned-kids fogeyism.

Tragically, the second quote makes no mistake about Mr. Duany's misunderstanding of the world as it is.  He's right that a destructive monoculture has condensed in the suburbs--it's exactly why all these people around my age lust for the vibrancy and diversity of cities!  Part of that destructive monoculture though is the direct result of people buying houses on large lots at the end of cul-de-sacs and only coming into the cities for work and the occasional fancy dinner or show.  Instead, our generation has chosen the city for work, for play, for our entire lives.  For the time being--until the supply of walkable urbanism catches up with the demands of our generation--living in cities will be expensive.

Like every generation before us, our lives between college and marriage/children of our own are fluid, and so renting makes more sense.  (Also note that our generation tends to marry and have kids later, so this urbanism-starved age group is growing.)  And besides this fundamental truth about life in your mid-20s, what the hell is "buying in the proper way"?  As best I can tell, mindlessly buying property because it's the "proper" thing to do--whether or not you can really afford it or it makes sense for your station in life--is a direct cause of the housing bubble/crisis we're all enjoying so thoroughly right now.  I'd count our choices in this regard as a net positive for society, and I'm not sure I'd be so eager to celebrate our older Gen X brethren for this.  (I'm also not ready to condemn them, because I haven't seen data that points to whether their home-buying habits are rooted in urbanism or sprawl.)

So, Mr. Duany: welcome to 2010.   When you build walkable urbanism in a dense, diverse city, you don't get despotic control over how it is used and by whom it is used.  That kind of central planning belongs somewhere else you're familiar with: the McMansion-filled subdivisions in the monocultural suburbs and exurbs.  Perhaps you fancy yourself ahead of the curve again and wish to retire there?

In Praise of Tree Grates (Yes, really)

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

Last fall, Scientific American made a splash with an article combining environmental biology with sustainable transportation ideas. (We're animals, after all, so this made a certain amount of sense.)  Their fundamental point was that women on bicycles are an "indicator species" for the degree to which a city is bikable (and by proxy, livable.) For city planners, this yielded very powerful advice: if you want to improve your city's bike infrastructure, make it more female-friendly.

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Although I don't have the extensive data at my fingertips that Scientific American did, I think there's a similar "indicator species" for the walkability of a neighborhood: tree grates.  How can this be so? Well, let's look at the four basic levels of non-industrial development we see throughout most of Chicagoland.  One is Urban Core.  Here we have busy sidewalks and extremely tall buildings.  There isn't nearly enough consistent sunlight at street level to support trees, and who wants them there, anyway?  The shade trees provide is already taken care of by skyscrapers, and the views people come to Chicago for involve towering sheer faces of steel and glass, not leaves.

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The Walk to School

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

As I've gotten older it's become more evident how interconnected all facets of life truly are.  Besides the fact that we live in a very "small world," we live in a society much like Newton's Law: "every action has an equal and opposite reaction."  While this law is primarily in terms of physics, it's also the case with day-to-day life in Chicago.  One wrong turn by a car, one poorly implemented law, one misrepresented neighborhood, or even one inadequately lit street, can be the difference of a livable (literally) city and an unlivable city.  A livable city is not one where children cannot walk to school without the fear of gang violence.  Giving kids a safe route to school won't necessarily stop Chicago's gang related violence of this past year, but it's a crucial start.

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Patiently Promoting Progress

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

One of the issues I keep harping on is the creation of infill density in Chicago, especially in areas well-served by public transit.  These projects are vital to sustaining a functioning built environment, and aldermen play key roles in the process.  An alderman's job generally requires him to do two things, in my view: one, they represent their constituents views on issues common to the entire city; two, they do their best to deliver projects to their district which will do the most good.  When it comes to infill development, the latter requirement is clearly the important one.  This can sometimes mean residents and an alderman will disagree.  Often times, the alderman's political incentives win the day over the ward's economic or aesthetic well-being.  While this is a lamentable state of affairs, it's not an entirely surprising one.

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City Knows How to Improve L Station Neighborhoods, Chooses Not To

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

One of the most effective ways to solve the last mile problem is transit oriented development, or TOD.  Or, if you're the CTA and the City of Chicago and just want to be different, you call it Transit Friendly Development, and you publish a toothless "guide" to improving the immediate vicinity of L stations around the city.  Without a single mention of "last mile" and putting forth only non-binding zoning considerations, the CTA, CDOT, and the Department of Zoning and Planning (DZLUP) have proven they can effectively give lip service to one of the most fundamental aspects of livability.

Leaving aside (for the moment) the issue of what--if any--actions the city will take going forward, it's important to see exactly what the city is advocating for.  First, the seven "typologies" they've outlined are Downtown Core (DC), Major Activity Center (MC), Local Activity Center (LC), Dense Urban Neighborhood (DN), Urban Neighborhood (UN), Service Employment District (SD), and Manufacturing Employment District (MD).  Stations are labeled not as what they are today, but as what the city sees them as becoming.

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How will we make it the "Last-Mile?"

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

In the past I've done a lot of CTA bashing, and even some Chicago bashing.  I don't intend to seem one sided.  I love my city, and think that as a whole it does many things well.  Today I want to talk about something that Chicago transit does better than some, but if they try hard enough, can do better than most; that is the concept of the "last-mile," in terms of transportation.


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West Loop NIMBYs: No Walkable Development, Thanks

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

There's a parcel of land in Chicago that is within a half mile of two different L lines, sees two bus routes roll by, has a grocery store across the street, and is within a mile and a half of a ton of jobs and cultural opportunities.  It currently features a big ol' surface parking lot.  Actually, there are probably quite a few parcels like this.  They are a blight on any urban landscape, and represent millions of dollars in missed economic opportunity--for the businesses that could potentially spring up there, as well as any tax income the city would yield if people lived, worked, or shopped there instead of just parking there.

Today, it's worth focusing on one that actually has a very real potential for development: the West Loop block bordered by Madison, Halsted, Green, and Monroe.  Two weeks ago Skokie's Taxman Corporation came forward with an idea I hope we'll see more of, especially as the economy (eventually, hopefully) recovers: they want to build on the current parking lot--and build densely.

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The Gateway as seen from Monroe and Halsted. Drawing courtesy Antunovich Associates.

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3 Million Missed Opportunities

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

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Drowning in a sea of parking: the United Center's 6000+ parking spaces, and the proposed Madison & Paulina L stop in red. Image via Google Maps.

Tomorrow night the Blackhawks start their quest to bring the Stanley Cup back to Chicago for the first time in almost 50 years.  As it has been all season long, the United Center will be standing room only--20,000 committed fans.  And if you've ever been to the sea of asphalt surrounding the United Center, you know that the vast majority of them will arrive by car.  They'll clog the Madison exit on the Kennedy and the Damen exit on the Eisenhower.  They'll mostly arrive a few minutes before faceoff (or tipoff in last night's case,) they'll shell out at least $20 for parking, and when the game is over, they'll get back in their cars and curse the traffic as the neighborhood streets overflow.

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Raise the Parking Price...it will help.

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

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I want to start the discussion about parking in Chicago (mainly street parking).  Those of you who lived in Chicago last summer are well aware of the day that Chicago gave a private company control of our street parking.  It was a joyous day when all the electric meters/pay-boxes broke and remained broken for weeks.  It made me so happy to drive to the beach and attempt to pay the meter, but instead have to write a note on my windshield asking the meter maid to spare my car a ticket because the pay-box was out of order.  These types of annoyances, however, are the least of our worries regarding parking.  The Chicago street parking system is a mess and needs major modification.


The main issue I want to discuss in our first post about parking is the need to raise prices.  Many Chicagoans' first response to this idea is that parking is expensive enough, and in this economy it will be detrimental to make us pay more.  Yes, parking is expensive, but raising prices will be very helpful for Chicago and its economy in the long run.  We saw in 2008 that when gas prices rose, driving (and thus parking) was more elastic than Americans initially expected.  As a country, we drove less, used public transportation more, and rode our bikes.  This was great for political reasons because we were becoming less reliant on countries and people who hate us.  It was great for environmental reasons because less carbon dioxide was emitted into the atmosphere.  But it was also great because it limited congestion in our cities.


Congestion is a huge problem.  When there are more drivers, there are more people on the streets.  I believe that if it costs more money to park, there will be fewer drivers and freer streets.  Freer streets will enable us to share-the-road more, allow for faster/more-reliable public transportation, and potentially decrease the number of accidents.  In fact, street parking rates in Chicago have risen recently.  However, I don't believe this is enough.  Another option for revamping parking-payment is to do what New York has started to do, install a performance parking system.  Performance parking enables the electric meters to increase and decrease parking rates at peak times and to manage demand, to ensure that there will always be about 15% of parking spaces available.  The primary purpose of this is to eliminate all of the drivers that constantly circle the block looking for parking.


I'm a driver, and for my own financial reasons I don't want to pay more out of my pocket, but it's time for us to stop thinking about ourselves and instead think about the greater good for all Chicagoans.  Raising prices will not fix the entire problem, but it will be the first step of many more to come 


On Density in Chicago

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

Density.  Without it, a city is no longer a city, an engine of growth for the entire nation.  Jane Jacobs understood this back in 1961 as America began a half-century slide away from it.  Tourists instinctively get it when they visit--they come for the "energy" and the "excitement," not the weather.  And if you want to get all pointy-headed about it, you could even say that "agglomeration raises per capita consumption growth"

So now that we're agreed on the advantages of this nebulous "density" concept, the question remains: density of what? Grocery stores? Bars? 16" softball diamonds? Those are all well and good, but without people, the groceries go sour, kegs sit untapped, and infields are given over to weeds.  So, we certainly need a critical mass of people.  Chicago has that in spades, as the 5th most dense metro area in the country by population.  We've got density of jobs, too: more than 471 per square mile (compare to 538 for the DC area and 318 for the Dallas area,) employing not just Chicagoans but our suburban and exurban brethren as well.  There's both transit density--nearly 2,300 miles of bus routes and 222 of L track for our 606 square miles--and parking density--we have about 36,500 metered spaces alone inside the city limits.

But again, while each of these specific types of density is necessary for a working city, no single one is sufficient.  And one of the things we have to be careful of as a city is that we're matching all these different densities with each other in a way that makes Chicago more livable.  For instance: does putting an L station in a highway median encourage growth if no one can live or work within 200 meters of the station? (hint: not really.) Or: how many parking spaces should a high-rise condo building in the South Loop have in its garage? What about a medium-rise in Rogers Park?  I'll explore these ideas more in the weeks and months ahead, but for now it's worth recognizing that nearly 3 million people (and growing every day) live on this little slice of land next to Lake Michigan, and it's up to us how well we share it.
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Infographic by Shane Keaney for good.is


Bonus!
Last week, this image was floating around the internet.  While no one is suggesting we all get together and live in a neighborhood as tightly-knit as Brooklyn, it's a good thought experiment.  But Brooklyn has a density of 34,917 people per square mile, almost triple Chicago's 12,649.  At Chicago's density, the entire country could fit snugly into West Virginia.  Or, if we wanted to spread out a little more and have a coastline, we could use South Carolina.  So who wants to trade blizzards for hurricanes?

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