Report: Chicago Falling Behind Peer Cities on Transit-Oriented Growth

Among the five American regions with more than 325 train stations, Chicago is the only one to see population grow more slowly in the "transit shed" (red) than in the region as a whole (blue), between 2000 and 2010. Graph: CNT

Transit-oriented development in the Chicago region is falling behind cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, according to a report released in May by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a local “think and do tank.” In “Transit-Oriented Development in the Chicago Region” [PDF], CNT warns that Chicago’s failure to focus housing and jobs near transit is creating additional financial burdens for households who have no choice but to shoulder the costs of car ownership.

Transit-oriented growth has myriad benefits. It cuts pollution. It reduces traffic. It promotes public health by enabling people to walk more and lowers household costs by letting them drive less. But despite the region’s extensive transit system, Chicagoland is not capturing these benefits. In recent years, most housing development in the region has essentially continued to follow a sprawling pattern, beyond the reaches of existing transit.

In the report, CNT compares Chicago to the four other regions in the United States that have transit systems with more than 325 stations — Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco — looking at how much development is occurring within a half-mile of transit stations (the “transit shed”), and how much is being built farther away.

Only in Chicagoland did CNT find that housing is growing more rapidly outside the transit shed than inside. From 2000 to 2010, most growth in the region happened in places unreachable by Chicago Transit Authority and Metra trains:

Urban sprawl has continued to be the dominant development pattern in the Chicago Region, with households increasingly dispersed around the Region and a growing proportion of the Region’s households living more than a half-mile from a transit station.

This means that new development has tended to generate more traffic, pollution, and household expenses, instead of fostering walkability and lower costs of living.

The report also notes that Chicago’s share of families living near transit is declining faster than in other cities. Chicagoland had the largest decreases in average household size compared to its peer regions. Even new housing built within the transit shed tended to be small, “one- and two-bedroom condos marketed to empty nesters and professionals,” according to CNT. A big factor, the authors write, is the elimination of 5,703 households on Chicago Housing Authority property.

Des Plaines
Housing built near suburban train stations is typically high-end. Photo of Des Plaines, IL: Andy Tucker

Housing and transportation are the two biggest components of household spending. Living near transit offers residents more travel choices and decreases household transportation costs. However, housing costs in the transit sheds of Boston, Chicago, and New York increased faster than outside the transit sheds. Affordable housing must be preserved or built in the transit shed, concludes CNT, so that “low- and moderate-income households can benefit from the Region’s investment in public transit, as well.”

While combined housing and transportation costs remain lower in Chicago’s transit shed, they are increasing faster near transit than in the region as a whole. This was true in Boston and New York as well. According to CNT, “if this trend continues it means moderate- and lower-income households (i.e. young singles, families, renters, affordable housing beneficiaries) will increasingly have difficulty living in the transit shed.”

From 2000 to 2010, housing and transportation costs as a portion of household income increased more in the transit shed than in Chicagoland as a whole. Graph: CNT

The report notes that the median household income rose more in the Chicago transit shed than in the region, which could be a sign that lower-income households are being displaced. This was also the case in every peer region except Philadelphia, but Chicago saw the greatest disparity between the increase in median household income in the transit shed and in the rest of the region.

Oddly enough, another issue in Chicagoland is that driving is increasing more in the transit shed than in the region. CNT says one possible explanation is that median incomes are higher in the transit shed, and this may lead to higher car ownership and more driving. Thankfully, though, residents in the transit shed still drive less than people outside – this was consistent across all five regions.

Finally, there’s the issue of where jobs are located. The rate of job loss from 2000-2010 was significantly higher in the transit shed (-1.3 percent) than in the region as a whole (-0.5 percent). The report mentions the historical trajectory of transit and job access in Chicagoland. While downtown is the core location for jobs, satellite job centers have appeared, “developed in locations underserved by transit, which is restricting employment to those who own cars and are willing to drive to work.” Job sprawl goes hand in hand with housing sprawl: As people search for cheaper housing not served by transit, they then have no choice but to shoulder the expense of car ownership and drive long distances to work.

Jobs are moving away from the central business district faster than transit is. Most of the transit shed – 80 percent – is in Cook County, the home of downtown Chicago. But the collar counties are experience greater job growth than Cook County, and it’s “this disconnect,” the authors note, that makes it a challenge for cities “to provide employment for people who may not be able to afford the transportation costs associated with suburban employment.”

So those are some of the alarming development trends in Chicagoland. In a follow-up post, we’ll look at the solutions and how Chicago can promote more equitable growth near transit.

  • Anonymous

    Could that mostly be explained by the demolition of high-rise housing projects in the transit shed in that time period?

  • Joseph Musco

    Great piece Steven. CNT does quality work. I believe that lower-income Chicagoans are being pushed out of the transit shed, they aren’t jumping on their own. My own aldermen is proposing a waiver for a TIF project in transit rich Uptown to reduce the low income component for development. It stinks.

    Note: Can you please include a link to the study?

  • If I recall correctly, the Chicago Housing Authority did not fully replace the number of housing units it eliminated. This was, I believe, part of the Plan for Transformation. The housing units not replaced would be supplemented by vouchers for residents to live in a “market” household.

  • The link was accidentally removed.

    Can you provide more information? That news about waiving the requirement for low-income housing on a taxpayer-supported project may be relevant to my followup post about solutions to this problem.

  • Anonymous

    Right, and loads of the people ended up moving out of the transit-shed if I remember what I’ve read correctly, this is also is a big part of the loss in population in general in Chicago from 2000-2010.

  • Joseph Musco

    The JDL Maryville site on Clarendon and Montrose is set to get $32M in TIF funding. The developer is going to include 10% affordable housing of the required 20% affordable component and buyout the other 10% with a 100K per unit donation to an affordable housing fund. But units built with that fund are not likely to be as central to services and jobs as the site in Uptown.

  • That’s right: Chicago lost 200,000 residents from 2000-2010. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates an increase of 8,837 people from 2010 to 2011. At that rate, it’s not enough to make up for the loss in the previous decade.

  • Anonymous

    While the data from CNT isn’t positive, I’m not sure it’s instructive without context. It’s basically a population growth chart and nothing else.

    Chicago is growing in some areas and shrinking in others. Since most of the city is in a transit shed, it’s going to look like a wash. See this Census chart from the Reader:

    A more information question to see answered would be one that zeroes out demographic trends like, what percentage of new development is in the transit shed?

  • Jakub Muszynski

    So I know it is a weird article to mention this in, but since we haven’t been investing in CTA heavy rail and just started a few BRT projects has CTA considered street trams or trolleys that run on rails in the street? Looking at Chicago in google earth we do not have many options for traditional CTA trains, street trams might be a good alterative (especially if they have sections that also run in dedicated lanes). I love the trams in Krakow, Poland. In the tighter parts of town they run in the streets and when they can they are separated from road trafic.

  • The CTA considers trams and other rail technologies when performing alternatives analysis (a planning process required by federal law when receiving federal funds) but has always eliminated them because of maintenance incompatibility with thousands of existing vehicles.

  • The first chart addresses your question: the number of households added to the transit shed is less than the number of new households added outside the transit shed.

  • CL

    Yes — the Clark Street trolley:

    Unfortunately, it will probably never happen, but if it did happen in an alternate universe, I could step outside and board a magical fast train to anywhere in the city, that is on Clark street, without the hassle of walking or driving or taking the extremely slow 22 bus.

  • Elliott Mason

    What we really need are more subways and elevateds … London and New York are digging new tunnel as we speak, but I doubt Chicago considers them politically or economically feasible. Like a moon shot, it’s a huge initial outlay for an astronomically huger compound payoff down the line, but we don’t have the stomach for that kind of project in Chicago lately.

  • wonder wheat bread

    ideally if the CTA/state/city had any money, the Ohare Blue Line and Dan Ryan Red Line would be replaced by subways running under Higgins/Halsted (or Ashland). L stops in the highway median pretty much kills any chance of dense, neighborhood-y development around those types of stops.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think it does. It says that the shed added 9000 households but demolished 6000 occupied CHA units, which, “significantly affected the housing stock growth rate”, which is what the chart shows.

    It’s likely that none of the other five cities demolished 18,000 units in their shed. I’m not saying this is inconsequential, but it’s clearly a special circumstance. The point of my comment was that it might be more instructive to look only at the growth of new development, not net, which is 9000 minus 6000. Chicago’s shed growth would slightly surpass the region growth on this chart if you consider nothing else and ignore demolished units.

  • BlueFairlane

    That makes no sense. The O’Hare Blue Line already has dense, neighborhood-y development around it. The portions of the Red Line that don’t lack it for reasons that have little to do with the location of transit.

    If CTA had money and the will to build new lines, I’d rather them build totally new lines than redo lines that already exist.

  • I think it’s better to look at how many households exist in each location in 2010 versus how many households existed in each location in 2000. That’s what the chart is showing. And it’s showing that the change from 2000-2010 was great AWAY from trains than near trains.

  • Anonymous

    Bridging the perceptual gap between the neighborhood and the transit stop is more important to improving transit oriented development around the CTA median stations. That being said, there is a plethora of sites along the Orange, Green and Pink Lines which are perfect for transit oriented development. The issue is how to spur development along these lines, if we figure that out, we could make up all our lost ground in TOD.

  • Anonymous

    Well, where to begin?

    “The report also notes that Chicago’s share of families living near transit is declining faster than in other cities.”

    Well, this is the pitfall of defining a problem based on a very diverse situation. 100 percent of this decline is based on the elimination of a lot of public housing.

    Secondly, you can remove San Francisco from this group. Due to its unusual geography of being a tiny peninsula, its transit oriented growth is completely distorted. As by your definition, ANY growth in SF is going to be transit-oriented. This is reflected as well in NYC.

    And lastly:

    “Jobs are moving away from the central business district faster than transit is”

    They are?

    “Chicago now is outperforming the surrounding area by almost any measure—jobs, income, retail sales and residential property values, to name a few—despite the loss of 200,000 people in the 2010 census.”

    In addition:

  • The report looks at regions, not cities, so it considers more than the City of San Francisco. Note the caption that says the chart reflects changes in regions that have more than 325 train stations.

    As for jobs not being where transit is, the report strongly documents this. That Chicago is now performing better than suburbs in job growth doesn’t discount the documenting of job growth in suburban areas that don’t have transit service.


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