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UIC’s Urban Transportation Center starts its fall series with a seminar on transit inequity

The Chicago skyline and south Red Line tracks as seen from Englewood. Photo: John Greenfield

The Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago kicked off its fall 2022 seminar series on Thursday with a virtual event titled “Tackling Transportation Inequity: A Candid Conversation.” The discussion was hosted by Stacey Swearingen White, the new dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, and Edward Bury, the public information coordinator for UTC. The panel was well attended, with between 50 and 60 people present through the whole hour-long event.

The seminar featured three key speakers: Ellen Partridge, senior policy advisor at the Shared-Use Mobility Center; Audrey Wennink, director of transportation at the Metropolitan Planning Council; and Rochelle Jackson, chair of the transportation/infrastructure committee at the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council. After a brief welcome and introduction from Swearingen White, the three speakers each gave a short presentation on their organizations and work. 

Partridge of the Shared-Use Mobility Center said equity and sustainability are at the heart of all the work the think tank does. She cited safety (more bicycle and pedestrian crashes happen in Black and Brown neighborhoods), law enforcement (seven times as many tickets have been issued to people biking on the sidewalk on the west side of Chicago as in Lincoln Park), access to opportunity, and cost (lower-income households spend more than 30 percent of household income on transportation) as major transportation equity issues.

Partridge argued that increasing multimodal transportation options could go a long way to addressing these disparities. She also emphasized the importance of meaningful community engagement and of tailoring strategies and solutions to each neighborhood and place.

Wennink a CUPPA graduate, said MPC takes a holistic approach to addressing the Chicago region's challenge, with the focus on equity, walkability, ADA accessibility, and climate resilience increasing in recent years. The organization has been involved with We Will, Chicago’s first citywide plan.

Jackson described herself as an “experienced expert” on transportation equity, having learned about theses issues years of life experience as opposed to formal urban planning education. The NLCCC is almost seven years old and was formed to work on a comprehensive plan for improving quality of life in North Lawndale. The council is made up of community leaders, neighbors, and other local stakeholders. She emphasized the importance of giving residents a voice and avoiding one-size-fits-all plans, arguing that community members should tell city officials what they want to do to improve their neighborhoods, rather than simply accept what is offered."

Most of the meeting was devoted to a question and answer format. The UTC reps started out by asking the panelists a few prepared questions, and then asked questions submitted by attendees via the Zoom chat box. The Q & A broke down some of the biggest challenges to improving transportation equity: politics, money, and car-centrism. Allocating more public money for transit would have many cascading positive effects. Buses and trains are crucial for lower-income residents and people who don’t have cars (more than a quarter of Chicago households), and helps reduce greenhouse gases. But to make transit a more practical and appealing alternative to driving, we need to better fund it.

In terms of infrastructure, we need to design our roadways to protect vulnerable users and prioritize walking, biking, and transit. Wennink said 35,000 people per year die on U.S. highways, 1,300 people per year die on Illinois roads, and drivers killed 174 people in Chicago last year. For every one of those victims, there were another 13 who survived but were severely injured. 

The panelists noted that owning a car is a huge financial burden. People who can live car-free – those who have access to efficient and safe public transportation – have more money to invest in other things. In order for low-income families to build wealth, they need to be able to spend less on transportation. 

An inspiring portion of the seminar was when the panelists described their biggest successes in improving transportation equity. These insights provided a picture of possible paths forward to push for even more advancements. Talking about transportation inequity can be repetitive and depressing and it can all seem so vague and conceptual, without practical solutions or even first steps. Hearing even a few success stories is hopeful and clarifying. 

A #157 Streeterville.Taylor bus. Photo: April Alonso
A #157 Streeterville/Taylor bus. Photo: April Alonso
A #157 Streeterville.Taylor bus. Photo: April Alonso

Jackson described the years of advocacy to get the #157 Streeterville Taylor bus route reinstated on the West Side.To support North Lawndale, the CTA initially offered to bring back the route as a six-month pilot. After even more pushing by neighbors, the bus line is now permanently restored. It runs between the Pulaski Pink Line station and Streeterville. 

Partridge noted two big City Council successes: the equitable transit-oriented development ordinance, which will encourage the construction of more affordable housing and less parking near transit stations, and the ride-hail tax differentiation, which taxes Uber and Lyft at different rates for single-user rides and pool rides. The impact of the latter has been hard to quantify due to the major dropoff in ride-hail use during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wennink mentioned the Fair Transit South Cook Pilot, in which Cook County is subsidizing Metra fares, and the Rebuild Illinois capitol bill, which increased gas and vehicle taxes and allocates 20 percent of that new revenue for transit. 

The next event in the UTC Fall Seminar Series – “Free Bikes and Shared Scooters: Expanding Mobility for Chicagoans” – will focus on the history and future of micromobility in Chicago and feature speakers from the Chicago Department of Transportation and the transportation planning firm Sam Schwartz. This is a virtual, free event and will take place on Thursday, October 13, from 12pm to 1pm. Register here

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