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Despite its warts, Chicago is the sweet spot of affordability and good transportation access

3:27 PM CDT on June 2, 2022

The O’Hare branch of the Blue Line, as viewed from the top of the Robey Hotel in Wicker Park. Photo: John Greenfield

Here at Streetsblog Chicago, much of our job is to point out aspects of our city's transportation system that need improvement. Clearly there are lots of things that need to change, from dangerous driving to unreliable transit.

But now and then it's good to remember that, when it comes to mobility, urban planning, and public space, Chicago really does have a lot going for it already, at least by U.S. standards. Getting a non-Chicagoan's opinion on the subject provides a fresh perspective on the fact our city has "good bones," traits that make it an inherently decent place to live and get around without a car, as well as some smart recent projects and policies.

The video "Affordable Cities: 10 U.S. Metro Areas With Underrated Livability, Walkability, and Transit" by Las Vegas-based planner and engineer ("plangineer") and YouTuber Ray Delehanty, aka CityNerd, is just such a take. "This video tackles the question of not only what are the most affordable places to live in the U.S., but where good prices intersect with things city-lovers care about: public amenities, culture, sports, walkability, bike-ability, and transit service," Delahanty explains. He puts Chicago at the top of the heap in this category. Here are his rankings for metro areas over 250,000 people:

    1. Chicago
    2.  Philadelphia
    3.  Pittsburgh
    4.  New Orleans
    5.  Cleveland
    6.  Buffalo
    7.  Milwaukee
    8.  St. Louis
    9.  Twin Cities
    10. New York (Delahany argues NYC is underrated because a typical home price in its metro area is less than half of that in the Bay Area.)

The YouTuber says Chicago is "probably overrated by everyone who lives there" – fair game, bragging about how Chicago is the absolute best city in the entire world is a defining characteristic of Chicagoans – "but underrated by everyone who doesn't." Here's what he says our city's strong points are:

    • "Fantastic, even iconic transit, with great access to airports and stadiums"
    • "Great neighborhoods and, obviously, downtown"
    • "World-class cultural amenities"
    • "Airports with tons of nonstop destinations and great flight frequencies"
    • "Some of the highest Bike Score and Walk Score numbers of any city in the country"
    • "The lowest freeway lane-miles per capita of any metro area on this list."
According to CityNerd, chicago has the lowest number of freeway lane-mile per capita among major U.S. cities.
According to CityNerd, Chicago has the lowest number of freeway lane-mile per capita among U.S. cities over a million people.
According to CityNerd, chicago has the lowest number of freeway lane-mile per capita among major U.S. cities.

And Delahanty didn't even mention the fact Chicago has direct Amtrak access to just about every other major U.S. city.

"For a city that's still so affordable, Chicago does so many things right, just maybe not the weather," Delahanty concludes. Indeed, for some people Chicago's cold winters are a dealbreaker, but that helps keep our housing prices remarkably affordable compared to peer cities with cushier climates. (Of course, as in all big U.S. cities, unaffordable housing costs are still a major problem for many Chicago residents.)

Obviously we need to keep pushing for safer streets; better walking, biking, and transit; more vibrant public spaces; and more equitable housing policies. But let's appreciate the fact that, as American cities go, we've got it pretty good here.

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