Elevating Chicago

Land Use Archives

Lies, Damn Lies, and Chicago's Congestion "Problem"

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

The Texas Transportation Institute's Urban Mobility Report is always good for a few screaming headlines, and this year's release doesn't disappoint. Chicago and Washington, DC tied for the longest commuter delays,* totaling 70 hours per commuter per year in 2009 (the most recent year for data). That's pretty awful, especialy when you compare that to the 64 hours per commuter per year we wasted in 2008.  And since 2009 was a worse year economically, this number certainly won't improve as more people (hopefully) get back to work, many of whom will commute by driving themselves.

Except that TTI's rankings are a crock. When a rough draft of this report came out last year, Chicago's own CEOs for Cities responded: their "Driven Apart" report is the most thorough debunking of TTI's methods I've ever seen.  Briefly, TTI has 2 main ranking systems, and both of them have fundamental flaws.

  1. "Delay Time." Chicago ranks #1 in the nation in total delay hours, but what is a delay? Well, anytime you travel on a highway below 60 mph or on an arterial below 30, you're adding to the delay.  Nevermind that most expressways around here have 55 mph speed limits and arterials are often 25 mph!
  2. "Travel Time Index" This is the one that really rankles, because it produces a score which state DOTs can use like a cudgel to convince politicians to waste taxpayer money on highway capacity increases that never solve congestion problems. I'll let David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington (our brethren at #1) take it away:

Consider two hypothetical cities. In Denseopolis, people live within 2 miles of work on average, but the roads are fairly clogged and drivers can only go about 20 miles per hour. However, it only takes an average of 6 minutes to get to work, which isn't bad.

On the other hand, in Sprawlville, people live about 30 miles from work on average, but there are lots and lots of fast-moving freeways, so people can drive 60 mph. That means it takes 30 minutes to get to work.

Which city is more congested? By TTI's methods, it's Denseopolis. But it's the people of Sprawlville who spend more time commuting, and thus have less time to be with their families and for recreation.

Of course, who needs a hypothetical when there's a perfectly good real-world example of this: according to the report, Chicago and Houston have the same Travel Time Index of 1.25 (which ranks us 5th among very large cities, for the record). However, Chicago drivers only need an average of 13.5 miles to reach work, while Houston's average commute distance is 22.1 miles. We are desneopolis, and that's a good thing.

*Really, Jon Hilkevitch? You're gonna fall for TTI's trap too? I know you saw the CEOs for Cities report back in September--you wrote about it very cogently. So why the regurgitation of TTI's press release now? I'll give you credit for not stooping to repeat TTI's claim that "in the end, there's a need for more capacity" and instead pointing out how much worse it would be if Chicago didn't have good public transportation. But why not mention Driven Apart and say that although TTI is (unfortuantely) the standard, there are serious problems with it? Help make us an informed citizenry and all that, right?

Officially Going to 2040

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

Yesterday, leaders of the 7 counties that broadly make up Chicagoland voted on the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's (CMAP) final version of their Go To 2040 regional plan. Not surprisingly, it passed unanimously. Now what? Well, it's now up to the cities and counties in the region to get on with implementing the strategies CMAP has outlined, and funding and building some of the projects Go To 2040 calls for. First though, let's remind ourselves exactly what we're left with.

Because CMAP is regional, Go To 2040 tries to build toward a scenario where all of Chicagoland prospers equally in the next three decades. The plan talks about local municipalities partnering together to create livable communities, where water is preserved, human capital is attracted and retained, and people can get to and from their jobs in a timely fashion. When CMAP discusses competition, it is against other metropolitan regions--both nationally and internationally.

CMAP 2040 Capital projects

Image courtesy CMAP

If CMAP's models prove correct, Chicagoland will add 2.4 million residents by 2040. Many of them will be of working age. However, the plan makes no preference or prediction for where those jobs will be. This leaves us to mull over the likely outcomes: in one scenario, the region experiences a massive decentralization--the jobs move out of the current urban core and, in harmony with the livable communities CMAP advocates, people will live near where they work. In another scenario, jobs continue to accumulate as they have for the previous three decades--mainly near the loop, with suburban office parks (like those near O'Hare) dotting the periphery.

Note that neither of these scenarios is inherently better than the other. They both have their positives and negatives, and recognizing that the relationship between the city and its suburbs is symbiotic--not parasitic--is crucial to any kind of regional success in the next three decades. But in both cases, there will be winners and losers. Yes, a prosperous region is not a zero-sum game, but the past is instructive. The entire post-World War II era has been prosperous for America as a whole and the Chicago region in particular. But it would be foolish to argue that Chicago itself felt that prosperity as thoroughly as its suburbs have.

So how will this growth and prosperity shake out in the next generation? Without either a massive infrastructure change (which CMAP readily admits we don't have the money for) or a sudden, similarly massive change in how people do business (say, a continually growing emphasis on the service industry and a daily telecommuting approaching 50% of the workforce) I don't see any evidence for a fundamental deviation from the status quo. The vast majority of new jobs in the region will be where they are today: inside Chicago's city limits, and mostly in and around the loop. And in order to keep those business functioning (and ideally to attract new ones) people have to reach their jobs efficiently. Perhaps, with a good urban infill program, people will move closer to the dense core (a kind of melding of the two scenarios I outlined above), but for several reasons* that likely won't be enough.

What then, will be enough? Better transportation, simple (and as complicated) as that. Go To 2040 has listed just about every conceivable project Chicago could hope to undertake in the next 30 years here. I'll get into it in the future, but to put it simply: the questions over how our limited funds will be distributed for these projects will determine the shape and prosperity of the region. Will the West Loop Transportation Center add core capacity to the L (as opposed to simply being a high-speed rail hub)? Will the city spur development around the proposed red line expansion, or waste these new stations as park-and-rides? (Or, perhaps go another route all together--Gray Line, anyone?) Will the expansion of IL-53 grow as a real urban boulevard, or just a slightly prettier version of US-41? Will the Mid-City Transitway ever be real? These are the battles that will make a difference.

*the liquidity (or lack thereof) of housing and the state of public schooling in Chicago, just to name two.

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?

While You're at it, Gov. Quinn...

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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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CNT's Housing vs. H+T Indices on the South Side. Click to Enlarge.


The Pedestrian Safety Act isn't the only bill languishing on Governor Quinn's desk right now that could fundamentally change Chicago's livability for the better.  The Housing + Transportation Affordability Index Act will help citizens and civic leaders make more informed decisions housing decisions.

Back in March, Chicago's own Center for Neighborhood Technology came out with the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, which quantified a basic truth: we spend a lot of money on transportation, and both how we get around and how far we have to go is a direct result of where we've chosen to live.   So if we're going to talk about a city or neighborhood being "affordable" the current method of only looking at the going rental rates or the latest house sale price is truly folly.

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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.

Central St. Tree Grates.JPG

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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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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Securing the RTA's Fiscal Future: A Land Value Tax?

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

Right now, the Regional Transit Authority--the organization which oversees the CTA, Metra, and Pace--is mandated by law to collect 50% of its revenue from fares.  The other 50% is a combination of state and federal grants and assistance, investments, and in particular, sales tax revenue from the 6 county area. (That's Cook, McHenry, Lake, Dupage, Will, and Kane counties.)  As we've seen recently though, sales tax revenue is volatile and cyclical with the economy.  When sales tax receipts fall, the RTA is left in the lurch, often for millions of dollars.  Short-term, there's no great way to fix this without pain.  Now is a great time, however, to introduce a measure that could improve the RTA's financial situation long-term: the Land Value Tax.

LVT Example Chart.jpg

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