Annexation: A tool to boost Chicago’s population, yes, but efficiency and integration are more important

Unless Chicago can stem its population losses, there is likely only one way for the city to beef it up and that is annexation. In a commentary published by the Chicago Tribune, author Edward McClelland (bio) argues it is time the city annex smaller suburbs to raise its population and those suburbs fortunes. Lower taxes and improved services makes this process worthwhile. Nevertheless, this approach to population growth fails to address the more ingrained problems stalling Chicago’s and the surrounding region’s growth. Annexation has its place in the box of tools for bettering the region and maintaining its place in the nation and world, but this has to be done hand-in-hand with a larger program of transformational reform.

The benefit of annexation is surprisingly compelling. Many of the region’s inner-ring suburbs are struggling with the same plight as some of the city neighborhoods–crime, joblessness, de-industrialization, crumbling infrastructure are all issues in Dolton or Burnham as they are in South Chicago or Englewood. The difference though is Chicago neighborhoods benefit directly from wealthier neighborhoods elsewhere in the city. Due to their size, small suburbs are on their own to address many ingrained issues. To stay afloat they must exploit whatever revenue sources possible, even beyond economically sustainable levels: Taxes go up more, residents and businesses move, and infrastructure never gets better, thus producing a nearly impossible to reverse cycle.

That is until Chicago comes in and saves the day. With lower property taxes and a larger arsenal of resources, annexation by the city could be a the much-needed booster shot for communities at the city’s edge. According to Curbed Chicago, annexation of just a handful of suburbs would likely push Chicago’s population over the 3 million mark for the first time in decades. Such an increase (a growth of about 300,000 individuals, the size of Anchorage or Cincinnati) would also raise Chicago’s clout in Springfield and Washington by an expanding legislative and congressional contingents from the city. This alone would be a boon for the city, since it could push for more city-friendly legislation.

And, of course, it would also allow new Chicago residents to finally tell off snarky Chicagoans (this blogger included) to shut up about whether they can say they’re from Chicago or not. (Ah ha! One of the great divides between city and suburb is slowly dissolved).

Nevertheless, this is far from a sure-fire solution. Considering the state is mired in unending political gridlock, it seems unlike an annexation program would find itself high on the agenda in the statehouse. Annexation and consolidation could be boons for the communities that embrace it, however. This mostly has to do with how annexation fits in with local and state tax policy.

Government in Illinois is not efficient. Period. And, this is in part to its fractured nature and many layers. (Although the obvious corruption does nothing to help.) There are simply too many layers of government and services provision, often at too small as scale, to be fiscally sustainable. This means lots of layers of administration, which adds up. These costs then gets funneled away from actual services.

Plus, in Chicagoland, there is the problem of the many small suburbs. Here, it is not the replication of services by unnecessary layers of government that is straining the breadth of tax dollars (keep reading for that), rather it is an unnecessary number of governments. Regardless of size or wealth, most Chicago suburbs provide the same services (police, parks, libraries, fire safety). While it might make sense for a town of 5,000 residents to provide all these if it is isolated in a rural Downstate Illinois, one has to ask if it makes sense for Park Ridge (population 37,608), Rosemont (4,305), and Des Plaines (58,390), all adjacent to pay for three sets each of libraries, police and fire?

 

LACityCounty

Fig. 1: This shows the proportion of Los Angeles County residents who live in Los Angeles (city). Although more Los Angeles County residents live in suburban communities (i.e. not Los Angeles) they are split between fewer municipalities than Cook County.

ChiCookCityCounty

Fig. 2: This shows the proportion of Cook County residents who live in Chicago. Although a smaller proportion of Cook County residents live in suburban communities (i.e. not Chicago) than in Los Angeles County they are split up in a larger number of municipalities.

Thus, there are two issues at play here, both of which are affecting how far every Illinois and municipal tax dollar can stretch. First, the statewide problem of layered governments mean costs are skyrocketing, because of the replication of administrative services as well. At the local level in Chicagoland, the sheer number of government mean residents are paying for the same services more than 200 times over, because of the number of municipalities in the region. In Cook County specifically, that means the 2.5 million residents who live outside Chicago pay for the same kinds of services provided in the city, just 130 some odd times over for each municipality in the county. Los Angeles County has only 88 municipalities including the City of Los Angeles and a population of close to 10 million. (See Fig. 1 & 2.)

 


 

The prime example of the limitations posed on the Illinois tax dollar is education. A recent report from the Metropolitan Planning Council targeted the state’s incredible number of school districts. Their numbers result in huge administrative costs that funnel funds away from classrooms; per pupil, Illinois spends more than twice the national average on administration to a tune of over $1 billion annually. If this amount were brought down to the national average an incredible amount of funding could be returned to where it’s needed the most: the classroom. The savings produced by lowering the administrative costs would release $4.6 billion over the next decade without at current taxing rates. This is more than the $3.5 billion in funding needs identified by the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission.

As MPC explains, there are “more than 850 public school districts in Illinois…not including regional and special education districts…On top of that, nearly 100 high school districts covered the same geographic areas served by more than 370 elementary school districts. In those areas, residents were served by (and paid taxes for) two school districts.” Merging school districts so high schools and the elementary schools that feed them are in the same district is one way to eliminate this administrative largess. It also stands as an example of how consolidation (read: plus annexation) is an economically sustainable option.

Addressing how school districts are determined is practical and necessary. It will only go so far though if the many other layers of government and administrative divisions that restrict the efficiency of Illinois tax dollars stay in place. This includes contending with the ramifications of the hundreds of municipalities in Chicagoland. Thus, the push for annexation, which would lower the number of municipalities, and according to McClelland make service provision more efficient where it occurs.

Take tiny Hometown. Wedged between Chicago, Oak Lawn, and Evergreen Park in the Southwest Suburbs, it has a population of just over 4,400 and median household income just shy of $45,500, which is lower than Chicago’s. Nonetheless, the city provides many of the same services as Chicago. Annexation into Chicago along with two dozen other communities would roll these services into the city’s larger infrastructure. Although this would increase the area covered by each service, it would also mean more residents paying for the services, ideally taking the pressure of each tax dollar coming out of the annexed communities. Additionally, the median household income in Chicago would increase after the annexation, resulting in more wealth to pay for these now shared services.

Suggesting Chicago annex anything more than a handful of suburbs is doubtless a gigantic no-go for most. Indeed, there are other ways the county could make government and service provision more efficient without annexation: consolidating services between municipalities or taking on a greater role as a service provider for larger services (like roads) would achieve many of the same ends as annexation. It still leaves well over a hundred communities though and the many sets of administration it takes to run them. This does not mean annexation is dead on arrival. While a community may be averse to annexation by Chicago it may not be averse to annexation, rather consolidation, with other surrounding communities.

 


 

While it might make the most sense for Hometown to join Chicago, residents in a village like Lincolnwood would probably balk at the idea. I live near and have worked in Lincolnwood (for the village for that matter) and I am confident in this assertion. The reason Lincolnwood attracts families is the proximity to the city without the “problems” of city (schools *cough*). And it is significantly wealthier than many surrounding communities. Residents would likely use that wealth to fight annexation. But, what about consolidation with Skokie, Niles, and Morton Grove?

A new city created out of the consolidation of these four municipalities seems more realistic due to their proximity and similarities. They would benefit from the consolidation of services paid for by a larger, more diverse tax base. Moreover, a city the size of one formed out of this consolidation would also be large enough to fully support a single school district serving that city alone, as is the case in Chicago. Finally, like Chicago, it would have greater political clout.

ChicagoAnnexationAndSuburbs

Fig. 3: Chicago and its suburbs shown after a series of annexations and consolidations to reduce the number of municipalities in Cook County.

Annexation is a solution to explore for Chicago and between suburbs, because it achieves many of the same ends. Using demographics and high schools districts as a rough measure, I created a map (Fig. 3) showing how Cook County could be reduced from 142 municipalities to less than 30, thus reducing the number agencies, authorities, departments, and districts serving these municipalities to around 30 as well, thus reducing administrative costs in all types of governments to (hopefully) serve residents better.

Annexation is a solution to explore for Chicago and between suburbs, because it achieves many of the same ends. Using demographics and high schools districts as a rough measure, I created a map (Fig. 3) showing how Cook County could be reduced from 135 municipalities to less than 30, thus reducing the number agencies, authorities, departments, and districts serving these municipalities by the same amount, thus reducing administrative costs in all types of governments to (hopefully) serving residents better.

School districts, for example, could be reorganized around municipal divisions and not archaic township boundaries, as they currently are. There is still wiggle room to for making government run more efficiently. Certain services could still be provided exclusively by the county, like public health services. It would also result in a more uniform tax policy, regardless of measures taken by the county or state, simply because more people and businesses would be paying the same municipal taxes.

This is an area where fewer municipal voices would also help the county and region. Tax policy is a big driver behind the region’s sprawl and economically unsustainable competition. It is also making the region an undesirable location for investment, because more taxes go to fewer and worse services. While the smaller number of municipal voices would make it easier to design unifying policies, the increased size of the different municipalities would also each more clout. While Chicago’s population would increase as well post-annexation, Lincolnwood would no longer be a village trying to make its voice heard, rather it would be part of a city of almost 130,000.

 


 

A major fault of McClelland’s (and many others’) argument that Chicago’s dropping population is a sign of the city’s decline is that it focuses just on the city’s population and not that of the region, which has a population greater than 9.4 million. This number puts it ahead of Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston (the two largest metros after New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago) by more than 3 million people. That difference is the equivalent of metropolitan Seattle-Tacoma or the Twin Cities.

It also ignores the city and region’s resources. Chicago is lucky to be flush with major cultural and educational institutions and (by American standards) amazing infrastructure, that put it well ahead of cities like Dallas or Atlanta in terms of global influence. And in any event a metropolitan region’s size has little correlation with the quality of its resources. Metropolitan Vienna and Berlin are both smaller than metropolitan Dallas and Atlanta, but both are known globally for a number of things the latter two cities are unlikely to be known for any time in the near future. Chicago has the same positive things working for it.

While annexation may not have any direct impact on the future of something like the Lyric Opera or Art Institute, it should be approached and implemented in a way that makes the region function better. This is not to say the region should be deprived of its uniqueness, nerve, and talent, rather that the way it works should not deprive its uniqueness, nerve, and talent from reaching its potential. What McClelland misses in his initial argument about annexation is that there are reasons the population is dropping. (Although I would be shocked if he was unaware what these reasons are.) Some of the reasons are the product of externalities out of the city and/or state’s control. Those that are within the control of regional government, however, need to be addressed, so that in spite of the city’s tough winters, people still feel ready, willing, and happy to stay and invest their time, money, and well-being in this city and region.

 


 

The last two metropolitan areas mentioned (Seattle-Tacoma and Minneapolis-St. Paul) have shown greater regional cooperation than experienced in Chicagoland. The lack of this is one of the fundamental ailments afflicting the region. McClelland’s proposal for annexation to be used again should be to address this as a root problem hurting the region and not as vain way to make the city look amazing on paper. Population is ultimately merely a number and it does not really matter if the individuals who make up that number are unable to flourish and create more vibrant and interesting places.

Personally, I say bring on annexation, consolidation, and regional government in Chicagoland. The impracticality of how the region is governed needs to end. (Figures 4 and 5 show this perfectly, but showing the incomprehensible number of administrative, government, and municipal boundaries in the region.) And while I hope that the improvements I think can come from such efforts and policy changes would both encourage people to stay and come to the region, if the end game is just increasing the population than the whole point of improving the city and region gets missed, because if the city and region focused more on quality of services and quality of life and number just numbers then the outcome would be what makes headlines: population increases and not those that come from changing lines on a map.


The chart below outlines which municipalities would be merged through a program of annexations and consolidations in Cook County. It includes theoretical new names (usually based off the largest municipality in the merger process or the township name) as well as the populations after the merger. 

ORIGINAL MUNICIPALITIES NEW MUNICIPALITY POPULATION
Evanston, Glencoe, Kenilworth, Northfield, Wilmette, Winnetka North Shore 130,955
Lincolnwood, Morton Grove, Niles, Skokie Skokie 128,225
Glenview, Golf, Northbrook Glenbrook 75,735
Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Rosemont Des Plaines 100,720
Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights, Wheeling Prospect 183,875
Inverness, Palatine, Rolling Meadows Palatine 96,830
Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, Schaumburg Schaumburg 159,610
Bellwood, Berkeley, Broadview, Hillside, Maywood, Melrose Park, Northlake, Stone Park, Westchester Proviso 126,190
Oak Park, Forest Park, River Forest Oak Park 78,850
Lyons, Summit, North Riverside, Riverside Riverside 36,475
Brookfield, La Grange, La Grange Park, Western Springs La Grange 60,480
Countryside, Hodgkins, Indian Head Park, McCook, Willow Springs Willow Springs 17,090
Hickory Hills, Justice, Palos Hills, Palos Park Palos Hills Park 48,475
Alsip, Chicago Ridge, Crestwood, Palos Heights, Robbins, Worth Chicago Ridge 74,045
Orland Hills, Orland Park, Tinley Park Orland Hills Park 106,260
Country Club Hills, Hazel Crest, Markham, Midlothian, Oak Forest, Posen Oak Forest 90,700
Homewood, Flossmoor Homewood 28,845
Park Forest, Olympia Fields, Matteson Park Forest 41,125
Chicago Heights, Ford Heights, Glenwood, Sauk Village, South Chicago Heights, Steger Chicago Heights 69,295
Calumet City, Lansing, Lynwood Calumet City 74,780
Dixmoor, East Hazel Crest, Harvey, Phoenix, South Holland, Thronton Harvey 62,430
Chicago, Bedford Park, Berwyn, Blue Island, Bridgeview, Burbank, Burnham, Calumet Park, Cicero, Dolton, Elmwood Park, Evergreen Park, Forest View, Franklin Park, Hometown, Merrionette Park, Oak Lawn, Riverdale, River Grove, Schiller Park, Stickney Chicago 3,313,095

 

Oh, The Weather Outside is Frightful! But the City is So Delightful!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: weather–winter weather especially–should not be a major player in determining where people live. It is high time cold climate cities embrace the winter as an asset and chide it. This discussion may become an annual tradition on this blog (I wrote about it last year too); so, as long as the annual threat by Northerners to move mid-winter continues, so will my call for a more positive mentality towards the chillier months–and in this installment for better design for the winter.

In the previous post about winter I focused on a mix of methods to improve a residents’ experience of our cold climate city. (This was done with help from the Project for Public Spaces.) Suggestions ranged from incorporating winter markets into the seasonal calendar of events to creating little league hockey and other winter sports opportunities.

The suggestions weren’t entirely focused around a single theme. After getting back to Chicago this year, I re-recognized the importance of design in getting residents through the winter. Most of this realization happened using the “L”, which is where most Chicagoans probably get extended exposure to the winter elements. This, and walking and biking mid-winter in the city.

The weather is made uncomfortable mostly due to wind and snow. In a city like Chicago it is hard to avoid both. It’s called ‘lake effect’ and the Great Plains. There is nothing to stop or slow any inclement weather. Sadly, the design of a lot of the city’s public spaces and amenities doesn’t seem to account for this. And in terms of design, this is what the Chicago needs to begin considering.

So, to make winter all the more lovely in Chicago there are three areas where design holds the solutions: transit stations, sidewalks and bike lanes, and parks.

  • Transit has to be made weather proof. It is insane that the CTA and Chicago’s DOT haven’t made it a standard policy to build stations that includes weather proofing. Chicago is unique having a rapid transit system that is almost entirely above ground; or, at least this is unique among cold climate cities. Yet, station design doesn’t reflect this reality. While the airy elevated stations are great in the summer, they don’t hold up in the winter.
    • Use the Cermak-McCormick Place Green Line station as a design model for future stations and renovations. The station, wrapped in a tube like structure, protects passengers from the elements while waiting for trains. While it isn’t enclosed fully to keep it heated, it keeps passengers dry and moderately warm.
    • Install glass windows along Blue and Red Line stops in the medians of highways. The canopies of many of these stations (e.g. Harlem and Cumberland Blue Line stops) are ideally designed to allow such installations. This would not only help keep platforms insulated from the weather, but lessen noise caused by traffic passing so close to the platforms.
    • The same applies to stairwells along segments of other L lines. Enclosing them in glass would go a long way to improve the station experience while allowing light in still. Take the Brown Line: most of the stairwells at the Brown Line’s elevated stations are only enclosed with fencing. This allows snow and ice to build up on the stairs making for wet and dangerous ascents to and descents from platforms. Put up impermeable walls and problem solved.
    • Invest in bus stops that actually keep the weather at bay. The CTA’s JCDecaux bus stops are purely aesthetic and fail on a functional level. The gaps between the glass walls and roofs let in snow and rain and the open fourth side lets wind and cold in easily. A good example of a weather proof bus stop were those I’ve seen in Winnipeg. It was enclosed on all four sides and included an easy to push open swinging glass door to keep the weather at bay.
  • winnipeg-bus-stop

    This bus stop in Winnipeg is fully enclosed. This design could also include ticket machines or be incorporated into prepaid boarding schemes. 

    Using permeable pavement is another solution to deal with snow and ice. Shoveling, or lack thereof, is an annoyance for pedestrians and cyclists in Chicago. Bike lanes only get partially cleared and crosswalks are usually blocked by piles of snow, ice, and sludge kicked up by snow plows. This decreases the likelihood of winter biking and causes inconveniences and safety concerns. According to a Water Environment Federation report on porous pavement the amount of salt needed to keep streets and sidewalks clear of ice decreases where porous pavement is used. It also lowers the amount of black ice that appears since water can drain before refreezing when it melts. Porous pavements should become standard in areas that are difficult to clear including bike lanes, parking lanes, pedestrian crossings and intersections. It is no silver bullet to snow build up, but the easier it is for snow and ice to clearance, the better.

  • While the Project for Public Spaces is right for pointing out that using skywalks and underground pedestrian walkways can backfire by lessening the value of outdoor spaces they are in and of themselves not worth dismissing. In cities like Chicago, Montréal, and Minneapolis the winter weather can be extreme and there is value in keeping people inside on the worst days. The question is whether these passages are designed to connect with their respective cities. Chicago needs to renovate its pedestrian passage way, which covers a significant area of the Loop and employ better signage in addition to other aesthetic improvements. A particular focus should be made on a single aesthetic identity and ensuring users know where they are in relation to the city above. Montréal’s Ville Souterraine is a prime example of how to maintain a balance between indoor and outdoor spaces. The system connects major institutions and the Métro and throughout the system opens into light filled galleries and atriums that connect back to street level.
  • Green spaces play a vital role in improving how we experience winter cities. Design firm Perkins + Will lays out a number of suggestions for improving outdoor life in cold cities. This ranges from designing to maximize winter sunlight and creating new waterfront recreational opportunities with parks that connect residents to rivers and lakes, but also block wind. In North American cities where grids are the dominant street form another way to achieve this is by capping streets throughout the grid creating parklets at dead-ended streets that provide new public spaces and can be planted with large trees to block and slow wind. Such parklets shouldn’t be restricted to areas along water, since streets along a grid channel can wind for longer distances. I can say the worst wind I experience biking is on an uninterrupted east-west street on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side far from any water.

Before I wrote this I was sitting in a café in Madison in a newly built building. The café had floor to ceiling windows that must have been 15 feet high. They let in plenty of light, but mid-winter in a city surrounded by three lakes, where the wind, snow, and cold can be intense the lack of context struck me. The large windows did not keep out the cold. The only thing you needed to do to figure that out was come inside. Design trends have become so ubiquitous that any context seems to have disappeared. How silly that is. Design for the winter and we might all be a little warmer year round.

A Challenge to Chicago: Increase Transit Ridership Before System Expansion

Before expansions of Chicago’s rapid transit system occur I propose a challenge: increase ridership to the level of peer cities first; Chicago’s transit system is punching far below its weight. In an ideal world, the system would be expanding. But resources are needed to do that. One of the best ways to get more of that is through riders. It’s a simple solution, and Chicago needs to get its act together.

Chicago, Berlin, and Barcelona are ideal cities to compare. Each city have comparable populations and densities, they’re all major cultural and economic centers, and they all have similarly sized metro system each within larger multi-model framework. The largest of the three metro systems (size is system length in kilometers) is Chicago’s ‘L’ at 165 km followed by Berlin’s U-Bahn at 151 km and Barcelona’s Metro at 146 km. The marked difference is the number of trips on each system. Berlin’s U-Bahn and Barcelona’s Metro respectively see 517.4 and 416.2 million trips annually. Chicago’s ‘L’ only sees 238 million trips annually. That’s fare less than half Berlin.

CITY CIT POP URBAN POP CITY DENSITY SYSTEM LENGTH (km) STATION COUNT ANNUAL RIDERSHIP
CHICAGO 2.72 million (2015 est.) 9.55 million 4,447/km2 165.4 km (102.8 miles) 145 238.1 million (2014)
BERLIN 3.61 million 5.87 million 4,000/km2 151.7 km (94.2 miles) 173 517.4 million (2014)
BARCELONA 1.6 million 4.74 million 16,000/km2 146 km (91 miles) 180 416.2 million (2014)

This is a huge problem for a simple reason: in relation to its size, the ‘L’ is getting too few riders to properly pay for itself (or expansion and improvement). Theoretically, if each of these systems cost the same to operate and riders pay the same fares, then the larger system in Chicago costs more per rider for the basic reason that fewer riders share these costs. It also means more subsidies are needed for operations, rather than going towards capital projects.

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The Berlin U-Bahn (Line U1) crosses the Spree River with the Fernsehturm in the background. This is a former crossing between East and West Berlin. (Source: Getty Images)

Dig in and the numbers are more revealing. Using a basic single-ride fare x number of rides annually to calculate and gauge potential revenue from fares on each metro system Chicago only makes $535 million a year on fares. Berlin, where a single trip costs $1.85 (€1.70), fares would generate $957.2 million annually. In Barcelona, fares would generate $978 million annually at $2.35 (€2.15) per trip. To get to these revenue levels, a single trip on the ‘L’ would need to cost something like $4 (possibly more). That’s unless more people ride the ‘L’. If it saw as many riders as the Barcelona Metro, the system would generate $936.4 million from fares; at the ridership levels of the Berlin U-Bahn it would generate $1.16 billion from fares.

The CTA’s total operating expenses in 2014 were $1.3 billion. That’s just a little context.

This basic calculation doesn’t express the actuality of how transit systems are funded however. It is of course more complex. Reduced and subsidized fares, advertising and other revenue all affect  funding calculations. Total CTA fares (bus and ‘L’) brought in about $575.1 million dollars in 2014. According to my calculation, that’s how much the CTA should make just from fares from ‘L’ trips. Obviously, my equation doesn’t take into account the above variables or transfers. What is terribly obvious however is that the CTA is on the loosing end of its (comparatively) low ridership and the math related to revenue generated from fares.

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Riders wait for a train on the Barcelona Metro. (Source: alamy.com)

The upshot is opportunity exists to increase ridership without making huge investments in expansion. Indeed, even at current service levels there is room for growth. Anecdotally speaking more people can fit onto most CTA trains and buses at all hours. Rarely do I find myself actually on a full train and the goal should be changing that first, then expansion.

The solutions I propose aim to be within the realm of political and fiscal probability and are listed from easiest to most difficult to implement.

  • Fare Integration: All the transit providers in Chicagoland need to (finally) implement (real) fare integration and abandon the superficial program that currently exists. One means to achieve this is reorganizing the Metra fare zones so fares are compatible between Metra, the ‘L’, and buses; installing tap-on, tap-off turnstiles allows passengers to use Ventra cards on all service types.
  • Divvy Integration/Improved Bike Facilities: The last-mile can deter people from transit since it doesn’t often directly reach people’s final destination. Integrating Divvy into fares is vital to getting people that last mile. While Divvy docks aren’t ubiquitous, they offer one useful option. A single-ride on Divvy should be integrated into single-ride fares as a transfer option. Unlimited ride tickets should included Divvy usage as well. Single-rides on Divvy should be equitable to a transit ride as well. Additionally, numerous ‘L’ and Metra stations lack enough bike racks to encourage biking. Often, racks are full, people are forced to lock bikes to sign poles and trees (blocking sidewalks), or bike racks are in low visibility areas, leaving bikes prone to theft.
  • Zoning (A Friend): Look at land use around transit stops in Chicago and it’s obvious why people don’t use transit: too few people live or work near it. Even in neighborhoods with dense populations, there are gaps in the system where instead of dense offices and housing adjacent to transit there are surface parking lots, strip malls, and drive-thru restaurants. Chicago’s Transit Oriented Development ordinance (TOD) is a step to correcting this, but that program needs to be reinforced with ordinances that don’t just promote TOD, but outright ban undesirable types of development. Within TOD zones, transit unfriendly developments like strip-malls and drive-thru’s should be banned; and where they exist Aldermen and the Department of Planning and Development should encourage redevelopment as TOD through the use of eminent domain (for underused property) or RFPs/RFDs (Requests for Proposals/Development).
englewood-whole-foods-site

The new Whole Foods development in Englewood is in a suburban style strip mall. It is only a half block form the Halsted Green Line. It is a 10 minute walk from the 63rd Red Line.

 

  • Invest in Transfers: One unfortunate element of the region’s transit network is the inability to transfer often and easily. Major investments are needed in new transfer stations, especially between Metra and the ‘L’. Currently, there are only two stations where riders can transfer between the two systems–Oak Park and Jefferson Park–and two between Metra Lines–Western and Clybourn. Transfers should occur in the same facility, and not force people to walk between facilities with no way finding and exposed to the elements. This must change. Investments in station facilities improve riders ability to transfer modes and bring more ridership potential to communities. Points where this is a possibility include:
    • Main Street-Evanston (Purple Line, UP North)
      • Combine existing facilities
    • Mayfair/Montrose on the Northwest Side (Blue Line, MD North, possibly UP Northwest)
      • Build new connecting facility, add station for UP Northwest, upgrade MD North Facilities
    • Davis Street-Evanston (Purple Line, UP North)
      • Combine existing facilities
    • Ashland (Metra UP West, MD North, MD West, North Central Service, possible Ashland BRT)
      • New station
    • Montrose/North Center and Irving Park/North Center (Brown Line, UP North)
      • New stations
    • Kedzie/Little Village (Pink Line, Metra BNSF)
      • New station combined with existing facility
    • Northwest Highway/Des Plaines (North Central Service, UP Northwest)
      • New station
    • Ashland (Orange Line, Heritage Corridor, possible Ashland BRT)
      • New station combined with existing facility
    • Halsted/Bridgeport (Orange Line, Heritage Corridor)
      • New station combined with existing facility
    • Cermak/Chinatown (Red Line, Rock Island District)
      • New station combined with existing facility
    • Blue Island-new ‘Union Station’ (Rock Island District, Metra Electric)
      • New ‘Union Station’, single station facility for all trains through Blue Island
    • New Lenox (Rock Island District, Southwest Service)
      • Move existing station and build as new transfer station
  • Increase Metra Service: Although I didn’t include commuter rail in my calculations, increasing Metra service is a cheaper alternative to building ‘L’ lines. The infrastructure already exists. The key is making this increase along with other improvements. Metra mustn’t necessarily increase service system wide either. The North Central Service, for example, might not support more service beyond it’s O’Hare station, but increased runs might make it a good option for people going to the Loop, thus increase service just between the O’Hare Transfer and Union Station. This also serves more densely population Northwest Side neighborhoods with less transit access. Another well-discussed and obvious candidate for service increase is the Metra Electric.

These are simple proposals. Some cost more than others, but they’re not radical. They’re proven to make travel on transit more comfortable, convenient, and seamless. The only thing that is radical about this is the needed political will to implement it. That often is missing or undercut by competing interest. To improve transit in Chicagoland a concerted effort needs to be made to increase ridership within the existing service and infrastructure and take advantage of the gains made by increased revenue from fares. Then let’s get to those big extensions. There is nothing that says a system the size of Chicago’s should have the low ridership it does.