Can Chicagoland Fix Its Sprawl Problem?

No bike access to/from train stations near Motorola's soon-to-be-abandoned Libtertyville headquarters
Motorola's Libertyville campus (the red pin) is three miles from two Metra lines, and there isn't bicycle or walking infrastructure to get there. Now the company is moving all these jobs to a much more transit-accessible location in downtown Chicago. Image: Google Maps.

Earlier this week we wrote up the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s report about how the Chicagoland region is falling behind other major American metro areas when it comes to focusing growth near transit stations. In Philadelphia, San Francisco, DC, and New York, most new housing is being built close to transit, but not in Chicago. Here, most growth is happening outside of walking distance to transit, and the “transit shed” is losing jobs faster than the car-dependent areas of the region.

Jacky Grimshaw, report co-author and vice president of policy at CNT, said she didn’t expect to find Chicago to be an anomaly. “Having worked in other places and being in Chicago with our transit system, we expected to see positive patterns, but we saw something very different,” she said. “The biggest surprise for us was that we were not developing around transit to the same degree as other legacy [train] systems.”

Chicago’s more sprawling development pattern increases traffic, limits people’s transportation options, and imposes higher costs on households. So how can the region change course and focus development around train stations, while at the same time ensuring that households with lower incomes have access to the benefits of living near transit?

CNT’s top recommendation is to create “TOD zones” — areas within a half-mile of transit stations that would encourage transit-oriented development. Currently, some zoning rules “do not explicitly allow transit-oriented development,” CNT writes, adding that “TOD should be allowed as a matter of right.”

In TOD zones, mixed-use development would be allowed, and incentives would be created for higher-density development, perhaps by letting developers build more units per building when they site housing near transit.

In addition to TOD zones, CNT made the following recommendations:

Match jobs and transit

It would be more efficient to “expand transit services to job centers, site new employers in existing transit-served communities, and promote incentives to commute through transit, biking, or walking.”

To some extent, however, this is outside the realm of public policy. “You can’t stop [job sprawl], Steven, this is a free country,” Grimshaw told me. She said the marketplace would fix this, though, and gave two examples of corporations that are changing their job centers to transit-served areas, plus one that didn’t.

Sears is the company that moved away downtown, where 55 percent of employees took transit to work, to Hoffman Estates. “Not everyone followed, so they had to train new people, increasing their costs, and build a new transit system of vanpools and shuttles,” said Grimshaw. “And now Sears has pretty much gone out of business.”

Meanwhile, United Airlines moved from Elk Grove Village to downtown. Now Motorola is following suit, reversing an earlier decision to move to the suburbs.

“If people want to go and build in the middle of farm land, they’re gonna do it,” said Grimshaw. “Motorola did that, built their cellphone factory in Harvard.” They then moved many of their software and computer engineers to Libertyville, she said, and now they are moving all 3,000 employees to the Merchandise Mart, with its own train station. It should be noted that all of these moves were partially influenced by tax breaks and credits.

Provide alternatives to car ownership

Even the most “dedicated” transit riders, CNT says, “are forced to buy cars to meet transportation needs” unfilled by transit. In response, the report authors say the region should beef up car-sharing services (which have been shown to reduce the number of cars per household), “build more extensive bicycle infrastructure, and establish more pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.” These changes would also reduce driving for the households that still own cars.

CNT recommends that at least one free car-sharing parking space should be provided at transit stations and at apartment buildings with off-street parking. Additionally, it recommends that organizations operate their car fleets through car sharing services. The Chicago Department of Transportation, for instance, uses car-sharing vehicles as part of its fleet. The report also lists carpooling as a way to provide alternatives to car ownership, a function already facilitated by Pace.

Jacky Grimshaw welcomes everyone
Jacky Grimshaw, CNT, speaks at an event in Union Station about reforming federal transportation funding and policy. Photo: CNT.

Preserve affordable housing

Mixed-income housing should be expanded “through a combination of policies that prioritize housing assistance to TOD communities” and enforcement of any existing requirement, CNT writes.

I asked Grimshaw to comment on a development situation in Uptown. In the Wilson Red Line Station transit zone, JDL Development has proposed 842 units on the site of the former Columbus Maryville Academy (810 W Wilson). The developer has asked for $32 million in TIF money – property taxes diverted from other property owners. Alderman Cappleman’s zoning and development committee is recommending that instead of using this subsidy to require the developer to build 20 percent of the units as affordable housing, 10 percent of the housing would be built as affordable and $8.4 million would go into the city’s Low Income Housing Trust Fund.

This fund is used to subsidize rents for people earning less than 30 percent of the area median income or to subsidize a developer’s mortgage loan. It doesn’t have to be spent in transit sheds.

She said that a pot of money is a pot of money. If you want it to go to a specific thing, then you have to create rules for it. “Will the fee be used to incentivize developers to build where it’s not attractive?” she said. “That’s a good thing. If it’s going to be used downtown, then that’s a bad thing.”

Parking minimums are not mentioned in the report, but Grimshaw mentioned that “for affordable units [in Chicago], the parking requirement is [already] eliminated.” Parking mandates do drive up the cost of other housing, however. Parking is an extremely expensive addition to development and Chicago requires a heavy amount of car parking spaces, the cost of which is often added to, or “bundled” with, the price of housing units. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning recommends the simple change of unbundling this cost so that renters and buyers can choose not to buy it.

In the city of Chicago, developers can halve their parking requirements if they build within 600 feet of a train station. This radius is too small and should be increased. Better yet, the parking minimums should be reduced to zero for all developments.

  • Anne A

    Yes, dense city neighborhoods without much green space are certainly part of the problem. Pilsen and Bridgeport are 2 more examples. Lots that used to have green space have been fully paved over, adding to the problem. The city has reversed some of that effect with the recent replacement of conventional pavement with permeable pavement and bioswales along Blue Island Ave. That makes a small dent in a big problem.

  • David Altenburg

    You’re right. That’s not how the world works. However, the way the world works regarding transportation and walkability is inefficient and unjust, so let’s change how it works in that manner.

    By inefficient, I mean that the choices people take regarding where to live and how to get around are informed not only by preferences and values, but by policy choices that guide those preferences – things like zoning, tax breaks for homeowners, tax breaks for certain transportation choices, and subsidization of all sorts of costs related to sprawl.

    Even leaving aside the fact the individual choices actually do have moral components, the choices people are making are not “free-market” choices. Policy makers are making those choices for people, sometimes without realizing it, so as stakeholders in society it is our responsibility to ponder what those choices should be (or when they should be made).

  • Kevin M

    Ha! I made the same point in an exchange I had with bedhead1 in your “Mistake By The Lake” article, John. :)

  • Kevin M

    I agree with you, and I live in Logan, too. And when my friends and I started a co-op and purchased a multi-unit building, we had the large concrete slab off the alley (on our property) removed. What once held up to 7 cars is now a garden that soaks up lots of rain water. “Big Yellow Taxi” in reverse.

  • Joseph Musco

    Reducing the time and expense it takes to get to employers is the opposite of elitist. Read about the plight of temp workers being bused to employers located in sprawl, a requirement that reduces their wage to below minimum wage, and then talk about elitism.

  • Anonymous

    Oh give me a break. You just dont like cars, that doesn’t make anything “unjust” or “immoral”.

    As best I can tell, you’re just another transportation snob who uses the term “sprawl” to describe the suburbs, while the people who live there are either oppressed or giant assholes. You’re happily engaging in the mental gymnastics to equate driving a car to a moral decision that oppresses society because you think that by turning int into a moral issue that this gives you the authority to dictate to others how they should live their own lives. If it’s not a moral argument, all the sudden you dont have the ability to tell others to stop, so you make the claim, however patently insane it may be. This is exactly what I was talking about in my original post, that the people who clearly use “sprawl” as a derogatory term are more often than not just elitist jerks who take their views to extremes and think they’re superior in every way to someone who lives in the burbs and drives a car.

  • CL

    It’s a moral decision in the sense that it has negative consequences for other people — the emissions contribute to pollution and global warming which is literally killing people, every car on the road increases congestion, and traffic and parking make areas less livable and walkable for everyone. That doesn’t mean everyone who drives is terrible — I drive, and I don’t think I’m terrible. I don’t think we can expect people to spend hours of their busy, stressful days on a bus for moral reasons when they’re living in a world that has been designed for cars. But decades of urban planning and incentives have made driving the rational option, and that is a moral choice we’re making as a country — which is much less defensible, because that’s where we have the power to move things in a positive direction by taxing and spending in a way that builds affordable, convenient alternatives. So that in the future, we’re not just saying, “Well gas is $12 per gallon now, so have fun spending four hours per day on the bus.”

    Suburban planning is going to hurt the most vulnerable people in the long run — the poor who can’t afford to drive, and the elderly who can’t after a certain age. I like being able to cruise to the store and park there, but as an occasionally ethical person, I wouldn’t support policies that incentivize this type of development over density and transit.

  • Zoning information for parcels can be seen here:

  • Anonymous

    No no no no no. The “immoral” stuff is a 100% bogus argument that people have selfishly concocted to try to give their position more weight, bless their own perceived superiority, and bestow upon themselves the power to tell people what to do. Saying it has negative consequences is your own argument stretched out to its most absurd. I could just as easily argue that you have personally negatively affected society – and me personally – by not choosing to live on a farm and grow organic vegetables and raise cage-free chickens instead of living in the city. And while you seem like a reasonable person from your posts, I have to laugh that you’re so quick on the draw with the morality argument, but you dont believe it extends to you personally. What a shocker.

    Driving is a rational option because driving is rational for many people, period. You act like a gazillion people are out of their minds for choosing this path, or like it’s some grand conspiracy theory. You’re basically fighting against a nonexistent boogeyman of “society” and “the free market” because you have different ideals. The cries of “your smog is causing global warming which is DIRECTLY killing people!!” always seem totally insincere to me, just made up gravitas by people who like bikes and trains.

  • CL

    I don’t like bikes and trains. I don’t even have a bike. I think it’s unfortunate that driving is not sustainable, but global warming isn’t something people made up to promote bike lanes. Same with rising fuel costs, traffic fatalities, the loss of mobility for people who live in these communities and lose the ability to drive — it’s just reality that driving has negative consequences.

    I’m from a suburban place, and I love visiting. Driving just 10 minutes to the mall, or the gym, or the grocery store and parking right in front, is pretty great. The best part is driving home and parking in the driveway. It makes life a lot less stressful. So I get it. I don’t think people who live in the suburbs have been brainwashed. City life is more stressful and more difficult — everything feels like a hassle sometimes. When my parents visited last month, my mom couldn’t believe how much of a hassle it was to go anywhere — how they had to circle to find street parking every time. She told me, “living like this would just exhaust me.”

    But if we had fast, frequent public transit, city life would be a lot better — and more people would want to live here, which would be good for everyone. You could still live in the suburbs if you wanted — it’s just about subsidizing the types of transit that are good for us, instead of pouring so much public money into driving.

  • Nathanael

    Yep. People are currently being FORCED to live in sprawled, suburban, car-dependent neighborhoods because various local governments have made it *illegal* to develop urban, public-transportation neighborhoods of the sort which were built in the late 19th and early 20th century. There’s been lots of articles about this on Streetsblog.

    Lots of people want urban living. Urban living should be LEGAL — instead, it’s against the zoning code most places.

  • Nathanael

    Well, hell, in Naperville it’s quite possible that people could cluster close to downtown and walk to the train station. Why should they be prohibited from doing so by zoning laws which don’t just prohibit high-rises but prohibit midrise buildings and prohibit rowhouses as well?

    (I haven’t actually checked the Naperville zoning code, but these prohibitions are typical of outer suburbs.)

  • Nathanael

    It is a reversible decision. That’s the thing. A number of things are causing massive cultural upheaval — not least, climate change and peak oil — and this is exactly the time to stop leaning on the highways we built in the 1950s, and to reverse the decisions we made back then.

  • Joseph Musco

    “The cries of “your smog is causing global warming which is DIRECTLY killing people!!” always seem totally insincere to me” – bedhead1

    It is insincere. It’s insincere of you to create from whole cloth a quote that was never said (please correct me if you can point out a source for your quote) and falsely place it in the mouth of your opposition in an attempt to paint them as irrational. But now that you’ve chosen to do so we can better gauge your sincere desire for honest debate.

  • Guest

    I sympathize with your argument that the tone of some of the advocacy here and in other like-minded places can be over-the-top on occasion. However, doesn’t it seem like you are being just a wee bit sensational yourself? I mean, nobody here is suggesting that we turn Mount Prospect into downtown Chicago, and we’re not exactly talking about forced relocation on the part of suburbanites. I don’t think anyone here would support the kind of heavy-handed approach you seem to be attributing to us.

    The discussion I tend to hear on this website and in my conversations with people face to face is that we need to fix the systemic problems (zoning, tax policy, transportation funding policy, etc.) that affect the decisions that everybody makes with regard to where to live and how to get around. People’s decisions don’t occur in a vacuum – an expressed preference for “sprawl” is also in some respect a function of policy decisions and a development framework within government entities.

    I’m sorry that the rhetoric seems a bit brash to you. I think because the active transportation community perceives itself as fighting against a system that actively ignores its needs, there’s a tendency toward hyperbole. That doesn’t alter the underlying argument.

  • Anonymous

    Fair points, good comment.

  • Anonymous

    Good comment, thanks. I agree generally about better public transportation but it’s tough when density shrinks. There are always going to be places where public transportation alternatives aren’t economically realistic, and many of those places are sprawl, ahem, the burbs. Like most things in life, it’s just a matter of tradeoffs.

  • Guest

    And for what it’s worth, I think it’s beneficial to request that people back up their claims and be careful with their word choices, so I appreciate your attention to this post. Sprawl is one of those terms (like sustainable) that I try to avoid because it’s so easy for everyone to attach their own meaning.

  • Anonymous

    While I agree it would be great for Beverly to have those vacant buildings and lots filled i just don’t see the business sense in doing so. Take a look around your area it’s all vacant. Very little new business has entered the area in the last decade, with a few exceptions on Western ave since Ginger left office. Beverly is not open for business and the area along the Metra doesn’t have the traffic to support many businesses. There are a lot of other places to go where businesses won’t have problems and do just as good if not better business. Just look how EP and Oak Lawn has expanded, what are they doing that Beverly isn’t?

  • Anne A

    Thank you for the link. As I expected, most of it is zoned B1-1, consistent with longtime use. Most of the existing properties are 1920s storefronts, 1-2 story buildings.

    Right now a block-wide parcel is on the market and the listing agent is hyping the size of the parcel. That one is a 1920s single story building of multiple storefronts (B1-1), most of which have been vacant for a few years. That one is right next to the Metra station, certainly a promising location for transit-oriented development, if a developer with vision is willing to take it on, put together a strong proposal and work to get the required zoning change.

  • Anne A

    EP has effectively sold its soul to the devil in ways such as 24-hour restaurant/bar establishments and lots of big box retail. That wouldn’t fly in Beverly. This biggest difference between Beverly and EP/OL is liquor licenses and the ability to get them. Many of us in Beverly feel that our community is shooting itself in the proverbial foot by not allowing liquor licenses east of Western. The most successful new businesses (and a majority of the businesses) are on the west side of Western, where liquor licenses are allowed.

    The point is that adding a large residential component would bring more nearby customers to neighborhood businesses. Many of our better independent businesses are those close to Metra stations.

  • Anonymous

    Leinberger’s point is that there is a demand for walkable urbanism that the market cannot meet because of public policy. Twentieth-century zoning policy prevents the market from providing all of the walkable urbanism in high demand here in the twenty-first century. A free market would allow more developers to build zero-parking developments near transit stations or along streetcar lines. He doesn’t argue for no regulation; just for at least allowing things that are good for the city–like some higher density, transit-oriented, mixed-use, mixed-income development.

  • Anonymous

    Okay, let’s take a million people from the burbs and replant them in the city. Their property taxes are used to buy public services like mass transit and schools. The more densely populated the city is, the more cost-effective it is to provide those services. A road gets slower for everyone as more people drive on it, but a transit system is the opposite: the more people use it, the more frequent service you get and the less it costs per ride to provide that service. WIth enough ridership, it actually saves money to upgrade from local buses stuck in traffic to modern streetcars in a dedicated lane.
    Real estate becomes more expensive with the convenience of rapid transit to work, safe biking to school, and a grocery store on the corner. But that expense is more than offset by not having to own a car–for those who make that choice. And in fact a lot of people are now choosing to invest more in real estate and less in driving.

    Actually, it’s hard to imagine a future in which Chicago doesn’t eventually get another million people; remember, we lost more than that since the mid-twentieth century, when the city was densely populated right to the city limits and interconnected by a thousand-mile network of electric streetcars.
    The question is, how should the city plan to accommodate whatever growth awaits? Should we plan for driving and parking or for transit and biking and walking? Should we segregate home from work from shopping, or should we promote mixed-use, transit-oriented development?

    There are real differences between these two choices and it’s important that we compare. Is there a moral difference between fossil fuel and renewable energy? Between economically sustainable strategies and wasteful ones? I try to compare the choices before us as a scientist and say one is better than another. If that sounds judgmental or moralizing or elitist to you, I hope you’ll excuse me.

  • Jack

    Read this book…..Sprawl: A Compact History by Robert Bruegmann… One of our professions from University of Illinois wrote it, but it isn’t so popular in the College of Urban Planning because it doesn’t align with the standard topics and the media influenced myths that are common beliefs among the far left leaning profession…….I’m sure the residents of Libertyville are really struggling and devasted by this issue of urban sprawl (that’s been going on since humans existed), despite their average household incomes being double that of Chicago…..Maybe they need more affordable housing to try and solve the problem!! That worked really well in Highland Park!!

  • Jake

    Just because a certain lifestyle is a “choice” doesn’t make it acceptable. Consuming far more land area, energy, and resources than is needed to live a comfortable lifestyle is hardly equitable or sustainable. It is an irresponsible way to live. Sprawl is a serious problem, and although it has a specific meaning, it certainly makes sense for it to be used as a derogatory term.

  • Anonymous

    The maliciousness of response does more to argue my point than I ever could – thank you. Keep patting yourself on the back though, I’m sure it feels good.

  • Jake

    Why such hostility? My comment wasn’t malicious at all, I was simply looking at the reality of the situation. My whole point is you are defending sprawl as a lifestyle choice that people are welcome to make, which is a serious problem. Replace “sprawl” in your comment with a “life of crime” and try to defend that. Just because something is a choice doesn’t mean it is beneficial for society.

  • Jake

    I think you’ve missed the point that not all suburbs are alike. Some suburbs have dense development in a grid pattern with sidewalks and access to transit and safety for bikes; those are sustainable. Other suburbs have detached houses on large lots in cul-de-sacs, where walking is dangerous and impractical and transit is inaccessible; those are unsustainable.

  • Jake

    Using “sprawl” as a derogatory term is NOT an elitist thing. It is acknowledgement that sprawl is a serious problem. It has nothing to do with anyone being superior to anyone else. It is about how suburban areas have developed and what we can do to improve it. It is especially about, as David mentioned, zoning and tax breaks and subsidies.

    You need to realize that sprawl and driving a car solely for transportation both DO oppress society, as you put it. There has been tremendous amounts of research on this. It’s not some kind of baseless assumption out of a smug desire to reduce someone’s environmental footprint. The environment is just one of many factors in the issues surrounding sprawl. Other issues include social and economic inequity, segregation, road safety, urban blight, and transportation inequality. These serious issues are hidden behind the apparent tranquility of green lawns and picket fences.

  • Jake

    Wow. You seriously need to do some research if you really believe “the immoral stuff” is unfounded. There are thousands of books and published articles on the issues plaguing sprawl. It has nothing to do with assumptions or feelings of superiority.

  • Jake

    What do you mean by compromises? It is great that there is affordable housing near public transit. I personally would much rather live in a small apartment near a transit station than in a large house far from transit.

  • It’s not about the residents of Libertyville, it’s about the workers at the job sites there who must drive to Libertyville, expending a large portion of their income on transportation, when regions can be built in such a way that such a large expenditure isn’t needed.

  • Anonymous

    Steve, that’s sort of the debate though – the “must” aspect of it. Are people being forced to drive to Libertyville to find work? I dont know, although for the most part I suspect not. Shouldn’t those people be glad there are jobs in Libertyville, since the assumption seems to be that they cannot get a job closer to home? Isn’t a job preferable to no job? Should everyone live someplace dense, so as to economically justify more robust public transportation? Are salaries higher in places like Libertyville to offset the cost of commuting (I genuinely have no idea)?

    I still think it boils down to choice. I bet that people could probably find a job closer to home if they truly wanted to, but they’ve weighed the pros and cons of the Libertyville job, including the costs of commuting, and it still makes sense. My wife used to do the reverse commute out to Lincolnshire and she got so sick of the commute that she quit after nine months and found something in the loop (btw, she took all public transportation up there, and boy was it miserable, so you’re right about there being better ways to build it). I guess she was lucky, but she was never forced to do anything. Maybe others aren’t fortunate enough to have options like that, but again, in that case, shouldn’t they be glad there’s a job in Libertyville for them?


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