Lack of Planning Along Orange Line Resulted in Missed Opportunities

Orange Line
CTA’s Orange Line runs within a heavily industrial freight rail corridor. Photo: Tripp, via Flickr

Ever since it opened in 1993, the CTA’s Orange Line has become the public transit backbone of the Southwest Side, with over 60,000 rides on an average weekday. But unlike the patrons of many other ‘L’ lines, who step out of their neighborhood stations onto commercial streets lined with restaurants, shops, and other businesses, Orange Line riders are more likely to see bus turnarounds, parking lots, and forbidding industrial corridors.

A new report by a University of Chicago graduate student, presented at this year’s Transportation Research Board meeting, suggests that those conditions are holding back the full potential of the city’s investment – and has serious implications for the rest of the Chicagoland region. The paper, by Julie Cooper, a graduating masters student at the Harris School of Public Policy, looks at the Orange Line’s effect on economic development in the neighborhoods around three stations: Western, Kedzie, and Pulaski.

It finds little evidence that the opening of the Orange Line brought job growth to the area around those stations, or that jobs in the area relocated to be near them. “Transit stations alone,” Cooper concludes, “will not definitely spur commercial development. Complementary and holistic planning is needed.”

The study identifies three factors that may be holding back job growth along the Orange Line. First, zoning was not updated when the line was built. Much of the land around the three stations studied is zoned for manufacturing, which prohibits the neighborhood-serving retail — like corner stores, hardware stores, and restaurants — that clusters around other ‘L’ stations all over the city. On top of that, most residential streets near stations were zoned to allow only single-family homes. This prevents the construction of three-flats and courtyard-sized buildings, which provide a large customer base that supports local businesses in other transit-oriented neighborhoods across the city.

Second, the stations were designed for riders to arrive by bus or car, not by foot. As a result, the entrances are often set back from the street, and face bus bays instead of sidewalks. That sort of isolation, writes Cooper, “will generally discourage riders from walking to and from the station and from patronizing nearby business establishments.” Interestingly, despite that design, a survey taken shortly after the line opened found that a quarter of Orange Line riders walked to the train – more than twice as many as the city had expected, if still a relatively low number.

Finally, because the neighborhoods around the Orange Line were built before the area had rapid transit access, they are much more car-oriented than communities that grew up around older ‘L’ lines. Population density is relatively low, which means fewer potential customers. Streets are wider and less pedestrian-friendly, with many existing businesses in strip malls or shopping centers that are most easily accessed by driving. That environment puts transit-oriented businesses, which depend on walk-in customers, at a disadvantage.

These findings could be a wake-up call for Chicago, where officials from Mayor Rahm Emanuel to local aldermen have promoted transit investments, in part to boost the local economy — but have frequently failed to create the kind of conditions that allow for that growth. Just last year, the Center for Neighborhood Technology released a study that found Chicago was the only American city with an extensive rail transit system that saw a decline in development around its transit stations, even as the property values around those stations grew faster than in the region as a whole.

There are some signs of progress: the transit-oriented development (TOD) ordinance passed last year reduces parking requirements for new residential buildings near rapid transit stations, which makes construction less expensive and encourages the new occupants to ride transit. A handful of new projects, from the “Tower of Pizza Hut” to the mixed-use development on the Children’s Memorial Hospital site in Lincoln Park, show a new willingness on the part of some aldermen to allow denser buildings near train stations, helping to boost ridership and support local businesses. And for several years, the city’s Department of Transportation has been carrying out “road diets” on streets that are dangerous or unpleasant to walk on, which often includes widening sidewalks, planting trees, and discouraging speeding traffic.

But the TOD ordinance only applies to buildings within 600 feet, or about one block, of a station entrance (or 1,200 feet along officially designated “pedestrian streets”), which greatly limits its effect. Moreover, the wrangling over a recently-proposed seven-story apartment building near the corner of Milwaukee and Division shows that it’s still a struggle for aldermen to balance the expectations of some of their constituents with the benefits of transit-oriented growth and economic development. And many ‘L’ stations still deposit their riders in areas hostile to walking, whether along the Orange Line or along the highway-median stretches of the Blue and Red Lines.

That’s not to mention the suburbs, where extremely low frequencies, pedestrian-hostile street design, and restrictions on development hold down growth around Metra stations.

In many ways, of course, the Orange Line has been a success. Ridership is high and growing, earning it accolades in a recent FTA report, and previous studies have shown that it has raised property values near its stations. But this report shows that on at least one key metric – job growth and economic development – it’s not accomplishing all that it could. With an unemployment rate well above the nation’s average, Chicago can’t afford to leave that kind of opportunity on the table. Its leadership should take notice of these findings to make one of our region’s greatest assets — our transit system — pay the kind of economic dividends Chicagoans need.

  • Alex_H

    I always think about this when I ride on the Orange Line. Thanks for the post!

  • I’d also expand this study to include blue line and red line stations that are located within the expressway median. What a worthless way to build transit!

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    I suppose the Orange Line could have been rerouted through southside neighborhoods at much greater expense, but it wasn’t. Opportunity missed? Well I suppose that arguement could be made. However, like most public projects, working within budgets hopefully to get the most bang for the buck.

    Changing zoning may have helped, but zoning isn’t always a magic bullet. Attractive zoning may entice investors, but maybe not. Take the Lake Street Green Line out west and wonder why with greater density its a pit.

    As for the forbidding industrial corridors, I certainly wonder if the household s supported by those jobs could exist on retail chain wages. Further, who has the money to do environmental remediation.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Money for the blue line was built because Rostenkowski was able to shift federal dollrs allocated to the unbuilt crosstown expressway. That expressway would have mowed down thousands of homes. I’m sure that was also a consideration when the decision made to locate the blue line where it is.

  • I’d like to know what the zoning was (and is now) surrounding the stations on Western, Kedzie, and Pulaski.

    Did the zoning allow for mixed-use developments, multi-family housing, or other transit-appropriate buildings?

  • Did not know that, thanks for the info.

    While better than a crosstown expressway, the center median of a 8-10 lane highway is a terrible place for transit.

  • Anton Cermak

    I believe that the results of this study are probably true, but in the case of the Kedzie Orange Line station those results aren’t contextually appropriate. That station is surrounded in all directions with active industrial users, and the City has shown a strong unwillingness to divest itself of industrial land in favor of commercial economic development.

  • Anne A

    Yes, it seems that routing along existing freight rail was likely the cheapest option for building the orange line, however, changing to allow for mixed-use, multi-family and other TOD-friendly developments probably would have helped along the orange line. Most of the stations are in distinctly bike- and ped-UNfriendly locations.

    Western and Ashland are HORRIBLE to reach as a ped or cyclist, and don’t even accommodate car drop-offs very well. Kedzie and Pulaski are a little better, but not by much.

  • Anne A

    You never realize how deafeningly loud highway traffic can be until you spend time waiting on one of the red or blue line platforms in the expressway median.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Okay. I got out my google map and looked at the area near Ashland31st/Orange line. Maybe in a decade or two a interconnected bike walking trail can be built along the sanitary and ship canal. But even if you rezoned all the old industrial property with a half mile, I don’t believe there is enough people willing to live in an area tightly bound by industry, train yards, the Stevenson expressways. Say to potential tenants/buyers that this is going to be TOD, and we are not going to let you have garage or parking for a car, you may not get many takers. Your expectation that the Orange Line trains and Ashland and Archer buses is sufficient transportation options for families basically stuck in a nearly no mans land. Eventually, this could be a delightfully area to live in. However nothing changes over night. For an investor to build TOD, you have to find someone in for the long haul who can wait out years till the investment can be recouped, and people willing to stay in an area long enough to wait out the changes to come with public transportation as their only mobility.

    Why should a developer choose that area when there is a lot more enticing areas of the city? Sure land cost may be more costly elsewhere, but building costs, labor and site prep will be relative. For you, it may be a swell place to live and wait out development to come. But how many people will bewilling to do the same.

  • The legend, repeated over at Chicago-L, is that Lipinski (who represented the SW side; Rosty was NW) sold his vote on the Contras to get the Reagan administration to fund the project:
    http://www.chicago-l.org/operations/lines/orange.html

  • Zmapper

    What percentage of CTA Orange Line customers connect to a local bus for some portion of their trip?

  • MLKendricks

    Western Ave area I think is the real missed opportunity. There’s a huge chunk of open land just NW of the stop. That would be a great place for a change in zoning to allow for something with more density and some first story retail. Pulaski also current has some open land. But yeah the idea that is was built along an existing industrial zone for the most part does hold it back.

  • DanielKH

    I believe the ridership survey from 94 cited in the paper said something between 50-60%, but I’d have to go back and check.

  • DanielKH

    For the most part, no. The zoning on main streets directly adjacent to the properties is mostly industrial; further away, more of it is commercial – but I think usually at least two full blocks away. The residential side streets are almost entirely RS-3, which only allows single family homes on standard-sized lots.

  • Is there not a more recent ridership survey? For any group of CTA stations?

  • Deni

    No kidding! When I worked at U of C I used the Garfield Red Line stop a lot. Awful. I would imagine the decibels there are an unhealthy level. How relatively inexpensive would it be to build sound walls at each freeway station?

  • Roland Solinski

    Where the zoning is commercial, it is usually the more restrictive and auto-oriented C district rather than the mixed-use B district.

    The huge vacant parcel at the Western station could see a large residential development in the future; it’s owned by the parent company of Lexington Homes (townhouse and SFH developer) and Village Green (multifamily developer). Industrial isn’t out of the question but the owners are not blind to the TOD possibilities here if a zoning change is politically feasible. The real issue is that home values in the area don’t really support new construction yet. However, we are starting to see new developments in McKinley Park, so it’s just a matter of time.

  • Roland Solinski

    The Orange Line approach was definitely an upgrade. The stations are infinitely more pleasant. Granted, many are in out-of-the-way locations, but many/most riders are transferring from a bus, as planners envisioned.

    The 1980s planning idiom was still very much a 20th-century one… planners realized that expressway medians were uniquely unpleasant, but they still didn’t grasp the concept of TOD… stations were intended to be interchange points, and residences/shops/businesses should not get in the way of efficient interchange.

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