Automobile Chicago Illinois Infrastructure

The politics of wishful thinking: American cities and their commitment to the expressway

» If cities want to reduce automobile use and address climate change, the status quo simply isn’t good enough. In Chicago, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the lakeshore could turn into a step backwards.

For American cities, highways are a drug. They’re expensive to acquire. They devastate healthy tissue and arteries, replacing previous modes of nourishment with destructive ones. They force the rest of the body to adapt to their needs, and they inflict pain on those nearby.

After a massive slash-and-burn campaign that forced the demolition of hundreds of already inhabited, central-city neighborhoods from the 1950s through 1970s, few U.S. cities continue to build new expressways within built-up areas (though there are some depressing exceptions to that rule). Less funding from the federal government, combined with active opposition, seems to have done these projects in.

But the difficulties related to drug use don’t stop after the user has begun. Indeed, once started, drugs are difficult to stop abusing—even when everyone is aware of their negative effects.

Herein lies the tension at the core of transportation politics in many American cities. Though elected officials and planners claim an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing transit use, and producing more livable, walkable communities, when push comes to shove, it’s nearly impossible for them to make the hard choice: Reducing or eliminating space for automobiles. Indeed, in many cases, that choice isn’t even available for discussion.

The planning for the renovation of Chicago’s North Lake Shore Drive—now underway—offers a useful example of this phenomenon. Here, in a city along the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan and with high transit use, the possibility of tearing down a roadway that prioritizes car use and blocks access to the waterfront has never really been up for discussion. In fact, as I’ll describe below, the city and state departments of transportation are pushing rapidly toward the road’s reconstruction in a manner that will increase the ease by which drivers get around.

A change that would actually meet climate and transportation goals set forth by the city and region is off the table. In the process, the city will miss a unique opportunity to reorient half of its lakefront to the needs of people, not cars. Too many cities have made, and continue to make, the same mistake.

The lakefront expressway

Chicago denizens are practically obsessed with quoting Daniel Burnham, who pushed to “make no little plans” and who co-wrote the 1909 Plan of Chicago with Edward Bennett. That plan recommended the creation of parks and a parkway along the lakefront. Many of the parks have indeed been built, producing—in some places—one of the nation’s most beautiful waterfronts.

Residents also point to Montgomery Ward’s push to ensure that the lakefront remain “forever open, clear and free.” While this stance was motivated at least in part to maintain views from his department store, it has inspired generations of Chicagoans to preserve and improve lakefront parks.

But Chicago has a disjointed relationship with its lakefront.

Though the 1909 plan is frequently discussed as if it has structured the city’s development, in fact, most of its waterfront interventions—such as a series of park-islands—have not been completed. And Ward’s efforts to keep the lakefront “free” didn’t do much to prevent the construction of a massive convention center along the water.

But the most dramatic violation of the parks-and-freedom message put forward by Burnham and Ward was the creation of Lake Shore Drive, a multi-lane roadway that now extends from 67th Street* in the South Side to Hollywood Avenue on the North Side, roughly 16 miles via downtown.

As envisioned in the 1909 plan, the road would be a “combination of park and driveway” without truck traffic. And as initially built, it came close to that purpose, looking and acting something like a tree-lined city street along which vehicles moved at slow speed.

But it was rebuilt over time, in the 1930s acquiring most of the function of an urban expressway and being transferred from the Park District to the city in 1959 and then to the state department of transportation in the 1970s.

Responding to concerns about the lakefront’s future, in 1973, the city passed the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which was designed to prevent further intrusions onto the lakefront parks. It legislated that “no roadway of expressway standards… shall be permitted in the lakefront parks.” The city code defines expressway as a road designed for speeds in excess of 45 mph.

Lake Shore Drive, however, is an expressway in all but name. It features grade-separated intersections outside of downtown and, despite the speed limit, anyone who has ever used the road knows its drivers treat it as if it were an Interstate. It features four lanes in both directions. Because of its position along the lakefront, the highway acts as a barrier between the city and the lake, in several cases cutting through the heart of parks. It is a great source of noise and pollution. It would be delusional to claim it meets Burnham’s vision for the lakefront.

It has also, along with the construction of other (official) expressways, encouraged the transformation of Chicago from a transit-focused city to an automobile-dominated region. The city’s transit mode share—the portion of people who use public transportation to get to work—has declined from 44 percent in 1960 to just 28 percent in 2016.

Automobiles dominate on the route; on the busiest section north of downtown, it serves up to 170,000 cars daily. Nevertheless, others have taken to using the Drive for other purposes. 69,000 daily riders use bus routes that travel along it; 31,000 daily walkers and bikers navigate the adjacent trails.

The southern portion of the facility was renovated in the early 2000s renovation, but the northern portion, which is more used by all types of users, is falling apart. The road is degraded; congestion is common; bus services are frequently delayed; and the path is crowded with bikers and pedestrians.

A planning process is now underway, to be completed by 2020, but construction funding remains uncommitted.

Given the size of the road and its position along the city’s famed waterfront, choices about what to do with it will define part of the city’s future. Will the city take advantage of the opportunity to reconnect its urban blocks to the waterfront and prioritize transit, walking, and biking? Or will it simply reinforce the status quo?

Planning for a sustainable, transit-filled future

Given what planners and elected officials in the Chicago region say they want to do, you’d think that the possibility of transforming the Drive into something else would be a major priority.

After all, the region’s new comprehensive plan, developed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (the MPO), endorses the goal of doubling transit ridership, a goal the agency has been committed to since 2010. Moreover, the plan recommends “mak[ing] transit more competitive” and increasing the share of regional commuters traveling by modes other than driving alone from 30 percent to 37 percent in 2050.

The City of Chicago and Cook County—the large county that includes and surrounds the city—have both signed on to a popular declaration holding that they will support the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement through local policies. This implies that they will identify mechanisms to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions. Now that transportation accounts for the largest share of American emissions, you’d think that would be a focus.

Similar goals are endorsed by cities and regional agencies throughout the U.S. New York City, for example, hopes to reduce its carbon footprint by 80 percent; Seattle expects to become carbon neutral and reduce the share of commuters driving alone to work from 43 percent today to 35 percent in 2035. Each suggests that future investments should prioritize reducing car use and encouraging transit ridership.

A reworked drive that doesn’t add up

From the start of planning for the future of the North Side portion of the Drive, it’s been clear that neither the state nor city departments of transportation—which are leading its $2-3 billion redevelopment—are particularly interested in rethinking the way the highway works. The route of the areas being studied is below (with north to the right and south to the left).

The planning process identified its goals early on, back in 2014, which included “improving vehicular mobility” as a primary purpose for the project. In making the choice to “improve mobility for all users,” the planning process was effectively dismissing alternatives, such as eliminating the roadway altogether. From the beginning, the choice of “improving mobility” put in stone the rejection of turning Chicago’s lakefront into the people-oriented space other cities have executed so successfully.

The focus on “mobility” rather than “access,” also suggested a prioritization of speed rather than other goals, such as creating more livable neighborhoods along the lakefront with better access to jobs and commercial needs. For, while the project is a “transportation” one, its impacts will be on land use.

Having to stick to the 1973 ordinance, the project cannot increase minimum speeds to levels higher than 45 mph. Planning documents thus far have suggested no effort to expand the number of lanes for cars. Yet the purpose of improving vehicular mobility has essentially disallowed any alternative that would lower automobile capacity.

It is worth thinking through what an alternative to today’s lakefront might be, because that act of conceptualization—imagining a different world—has been remarkably absent from the discussion.

Consider, for example, not a Chicago cut off from its lakefront by a highway that forces pedestrians to pass under or over it, but rather a city whose neighborhood streets turn into pathways down to the beaches. A rapid transit line with welcoming stations every half mile offering an alternative to the packed Red Line ‘L’ down the street. New opportunities for development, featuring water-fronting retail and cafes, without the ever-present noise and dust of the freeway—allowing people living and working in the towers lining the lake to finally open their windows. Larger parks, no longer divided in two by concrete.

None of these concepts were seriously considered. The city’s residents had little chance to explore what they might think of these ideas.

What officials do seem to have agreed to, after several years of planning, are the complete reconstruction of the highway, with eight lanes throughout the corridor and new dedicated bus lanes, for a total of 10 lanes, and increasing capacity over extant. These changes will not add any transit stations along the corridor; buses will simply use the route as an mechanism for moving between neighborhoods and downtown and a way to avoid getting stuck in traffic. Current projections suggest the bus lanes could increase transit use by 60 percent.

Despite the improvements for transit service, it’s hard not to conclude that the project will have as its primary effect the reinforcement of the highly automobile-oriented environment that now dominates the lakefront.

The extraction of buses into their own lanes will leave eight purely for automobile use; that simply means more space for personal cars. And the new corridor will be up to 19 lanes wide in some locations, such as south of the intersection with North Avenue, as shown here.

Enmeshed in brand-new concrete, that’s a barrier to the waterfront that won’t be altered for another half century.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the proposed renovations will make driving easier. After all, the project is being partly led by the state department of transportation, which a few years ago attempted to force a new highway down the throat of the Chicago region, ignoring the evidence suggesting its downsides. It was only stopped by litigation over its environmental impacts.

Moreover, the Drive is, of course, very well-used by motorists. Their collective anguish at the possibility that their express route to downtown might be eliminated would surely capture much of the discussion in future mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns.

Even the planning profession’s tools would have a role to play in reinforcing the status quo. Transportation models premised on resistance to mode change undoubtedly would demonstrate a city paralyzed were the highway to be eliminated.

But the story is more complex than that. Along the waterfront itself north of central Chicago, no Census tract has more than 50 percent of its resident commuters driving alone to work. Indeed, in most of those tracts, about 50 percent of commuters travel by transit and only about 30 percent drive alone to work (35 to 40 percent of households in this area own no cars). Thus the people who would be most impacted by the replacement of the expressway with something else—the people who live nearby—are already limited car users, as shown below.

There is, just as importantly, significant evidence that cities that have replaced waterfront highways with surface boulevards or simply pedestrian space don’t suffer from massive congestion on nearby streets or a crushed economy, as some transportation models would suggest. Expressways eliminated from use in cities like Madrid, Paris, San Francisco, and Seoul have seen their traffic “evaporate” as trips formerly taken by car have moved to transit, walking, and biking.

These cities’ economies certainly haven’t suffered—in many cases, they’ve actually seen more development and higher property values as the fumes and noise of cars have diminished. These transformations suggest that people are able to adapt, even in the face of massive alterations in urban infrastructure.

But these arguments are largely irrelevant to decision makers, because the possibility of eliminating the expressway along Chicago’s lakefront wasn’t struck from discussion because of some comparison of the merits of alternative solutions. This possibility has been largely ignored because planners and elected officials in US cities are mired in the wishful thinking of a drug abuser. They’re aware that projects that benefit automobile use will diminish transit ridership and increase greenhouse gas emissions. They just want one more dose, one more chance to address the needs of car users.

The problem, of course, isn’t just a matter of this project alone. Perhaps Chicago could achieve its climate and transit mode-share goals even with Lake Shore Drive remade as it is. The issue is that the Drive’s reconstruction is just the latest in a decades-long stream of decisions to reinforce the automobile-focused status quo rather than fight it. Every time a city makes the choice to do something like rebuilding an expressway to carry more cars than it does today, it is pulling away from the broader efforts it should be pursuing.

Opportunities like the reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive come along rarely. They present the ideal circumstances to pilot new ways for people to get around—to promote change that might otherwise be impossible to move forward. Yet city after city continues to miss the chance. New York and Seattle, noted above as other cities also looking to reduce their climate impacts and increase transit ridership, are also the sites of major highway redevelopment and construction projects.

Ultimately, it is naive to believe that a city can both achieve its progressive goals and continue to invest in projects that reaffirm the way the transportation system currently works. Regional plans to double transit ridership won’t happen at the same time as space for automobile circulation is expanded. These two are irreconcilable; cities are going to have to choose what is more important to them. You can’t take another hit while you’re trying to go cold turkey.

* An extension of the highway, from 79th through 92nd Street on the South Side, was completed in 2013, but it is unconnected to the rest of the route.

Photos from (a) Flickr user Roman Boed (cc); (b) Flickr user Yonah Freemark (cc). Maps above from Redefine the Drive and Social Explorer.

Light Rail Metro Rail Minneapolis Paris

The value of fast transit

» We have failed to come to terms with the fact that the transit we’re building is too slow.

Residents of the Twin Cities greeted the opening of the new Green Line light rail link last month with joy and excitement, finally able to take advantage of a train connection between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. The 11-mile rail line runs through a relatively densely populated area, serves two business districts, and travels through the heart of a university.

It’s also alarmingly slow. Green Line trains are taking up to an hour to complete their journeys, and even optimistic schedules released by the local transit agency put running times at 48 minutes, or less than 14 mph on average.

Of course, the Twin Cities are hardly alone in their predicament. Recent transit lines elsewhere in the country feature similarly leisurely travel times. The new Houston North Line, for example, is averaging 17 mph. Los Angeles’ Expo Line is slightly quicker at 18 mph. Bus rapid transit and streetcar projects popping up virtually everywhere are often significantly slower. Only the Washington, D.C. Metro Silver Line, which will extend that region’s subway deep into the Virginia suburbs, will speed commuters along at an average of 32 mph. It will do so while only stopping at 5 stations, all of which will be located in the middle of expressways.

With speeds like those light rail lines or services like the Silver Line, it’s little wonder that it’s so difficult to convince people to get out of their cars in so many places. The fact of the matter is that services like this often do not provide much mobility improvement over the bus services they replace. That’s particularly true for large regions where too many destinations are simply too far away to be accessible by transit that averages such slow speeds.

With its Grand Paris Express program announced in 2009, the Paris region is proposing an alternative. With 127 miles of metro lines and 72 new stations planned, the program will completely alter the landscape of this large metropolitan area, offering new circumferential connections around the city center, making it possible to travel between suburbs without having to pass through the city center. The project entered the construction phase this summer and will eventually serve two million daily riders by the time it is completed in 2030 at a cost of more than $35 billion; it is the second-largest single transportation project in the western world, after the California high-speed rail project.

And it will provide trains running at what are, for transit systems, wildly fast speeds — particularly considering that the system’s stations are planned to be located reasonably close to one another and in the heart of existing developed areas. Current projections suggest that the average speeds of the project’s three new lines (15, 16, and 17) will be between 34 and 40 mph. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to blast open access to the region as a whole.

Consider these isochrone maps produced by Paris regional planning agency APUR:

Parts of the region accessible by transit in 45 minutes or less from Bry Villiers Champigny (left) or Pont de Sèvres (right) stations. For context, the maps are roughly 35 miles across.

In 2030, with Grand Paris Express and other funded transit projects

The Grand Paris project, in association with several other suburban transit investments, will massively expand the ability of people to get around the region by public transportation. It doesn’t take any specific knowledge of the Paris area to understand the size difference between the yellow areas indicated on the maps above (where you can currently get in 45 minutes by transit from two specific points) and the pink areas (where you will be able to go, in addition, thanks to the new transit investments).

As shown in the following chart, the project will double or, in some cases, quadruple, the area of land accessible in 45 minutes from stations along one of the project’s components, Line 15 (a map of whose alignment is shown at the top of this article). Places in the region that today may be simply too far to get to in a reasonable amount of time by transit and are therefore either required to be accessed by car or avoided all together will suddenly be made accessible.

Parts of the region accessible by transit in 45 minutes or less from stations along the future Line 15 (stations are positioned around the chart, such as Noisy-Champs, etc.).

In 2030, with Grand Paris Express and other funded transit projects

The replacement of bus services with light rail lines, the typical American approach to improving transit, would not provide nearly as significant a benefit for the inhabitants of this region in terms of their ability to access the opportunities available along the public transportation network. Slower transit effectively makes it impossible for regions to operate as a unified economic or even social entity; indeed, it is not uncommon to hear people from one side of a large city talk about the fact that they “might as well” live in another region to people who live on the other side of the city. Riverdale in the Bronx, for example, is all but unreachable for people 20 miles away in Jamaica, Queens who rely on transit and the slow, almost two-hour trip option it provides. Both places are in New York City, but the transit offered is too slow to make the two areas feel like they are in the same city.

Faster transit services begin to address this problem, but the lack of fast transit able to span entire metropolitan areas in short periods of time does not necessarily result in lower transit ridership. Indeed, it is usually the largest metropolitan areas that feature the most extensive use of public transportation systems. That’s primarily a consequence of poor access by automobiles, which are stuck in traffic and sometimes as slow or slower than even a pokey transit service, and of the diversity of uses present in the neighborhoods of large, dense cities. For people who live in Manhattan or central Paris, the relatively slow speed of the Subway (average speed is about 17 mph) or the Métro (average speed is about 15 mph) doesn’t matter so much because there’s so many things to see or do within a short distance.

But a failure to provide faster transit options is reducing the quality of life of residents in large metropolitan areas. Commuting times are longer, particularly for transit users, because most people do not work in the neighborhoods where they live and jobs may be anywhere in the region. Trips to local amenities such as museums, theaters, or large parks require more time. Solving these problems requires investments in faster transit options or abandoning the conceit that large regions can be understood as a single entity.

Of course, building fast transit — which typically requires burying trains underground or elevating them in the air — is quite expensive. Thanks to a significant increase in national government contributions to transport infrastructure, the Paris region has been able to advance its fast transit plans; with the U.S. Congress hostile to even keeping the gas tax indexed to inflation, we’re unlikely to see anything similar occur on this side of the pond anytime soon.

Image at top from Société du Grand Paris; isochrone chart and maps from APUR.

Automobile Chicago Infrastructure

In the Chicago region, a setback for regional planning

» A major roadway is advanced, in violation of the consensus-based plan.

Yesterday, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) policy committee voted to approve the addition of a major new highway to the regional plan document. If built, the Illiana Expressway will run 47 miles between I-55 and I-65 in Illinois and Indiana, about 10 miles south of the existing built-up area of the Chicago region.

The project was supported by the relevant state departments of transportation as an essential complement to the existing mobility system and an economic development tool. But the decision to add it to the regional plan suggests a breakdown in what had been until recently a metropolitan-wide consensus about which projects to fund. Though the adoption of the project does not mean the end of the plan, it does imply that sticking to a regional plan in the face of political pressure to build other projects is difficult, if not impossible—especially because the decision-making process that adds newly desired projects to regional plans does not require eliminating funding for other, previously prioritized projects.

These conclusions are applicable to metropolitan areas across the country, not just Chicago.

The debate over the project, in which the benefits and costs of the road were hashed out in public, was an important step forward. In the past, a major highway project like the Illiana would have sailed through the committee with little discussion, supported by the strength of its sponsor (usually the state DOT) alone. Yet the process adopted by CMAP, in which the project’s merits were studied and compared, forced the region to take a hard look at whether or not it was worth its cost.

Following this vote, it will take significant work to reaffirm the mission of CMAP, which had been a model for American regional planning organizations. The agency had developed a unified vision for addressing land use and transportation issues and actively fought the indiscriminate development decisions that had marked previous planning in the region. Can it find its way back to a common regionwide investment program? CMAP, and other MPOs, must take the lessons learned from the fight over the Illiana, both good and bad, and extend them to other projects and future plans.

A background on CMAP’s mission and the development of regional goals

In 2010, CMAP unveiled GO TO 2040, the region’s long-term plan, which incorporating both land use and transportation goals in a single document. The plan, which serves as the region’s federally designated transportation investment plan (TIP), identified a list of priority regional transportation projects.

Compared to the regional plans often being produced by other MPOs, GO TO 2040 took a bold step forward. It acknowledged the interdependence of land use and transportation by articulating a vision for a region where new construction would be focused in already-developed areas, transit use would be encouraged and natural resources would be protected. It emphasized a policy—rather than “market”—based approach to estimating future growth. The plan’s list of priority transportation projects was pragmatic and reasonable—support was limited only to a small group of investments, selected after a vigorous vetting session that considered dozens of possibilities. CMAP selected only those that could be funded given the federal, state, local, and private revenues expected to be generated over a thirty-year period. And maintenance of the existing system was prioritized.

GO TO 2040 was, as a result, a departure from previous Chicago regional plans that not only strayed from a discussion of land use policy, but also were jammed up with dozens of unrealistic, and of more relevance, unfundable, projects. Plans like these, which included a panoply of competing projects, most of which never had any hope of being built, were until recently the standard for MPOs across the country. This approach allowed MPOs to add projects willy-nilly as they responded to the desires of local and state actors. But this resulted in a list that had little relationship to reality; the consequence was a “plan” with no focus.

GO TO 2040 took a different tact. While it was new and quite restrictive compared to the previous norm, it was endorsed unanimously by both the CMAP board and the associated local MPO policy committee, which is responsible for allocating federal funding. Those groups are constituted of representatives of each of the CMAP region counties, as well as representatives of regional transportation agencies. In other words, officials from all around the region were in agreement about the projects that should be prioritized over the next thirty years.

The Illiana Expressway was not one of those projects. Rather, regional officials concentrated their sights on five other capital investments, including the West Loop Transportation Center, the CTA Red Line South Extension, the I-294/I-57 Interchange, the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway Link and the Central Lake County Corridor. An additional project, the Circle Interchange, was added to the list in early 2013.

These projects were selected by consensus not because they were promoted by one politician or another, but rather because they represented projects of regional significance. The goal of the plan was to concentrate resources on those projects. Though none of the projects is beyond criticism, what can be said is that at least officials from around the region agreed on them.

This year’s decision by the State of Illinois to submit the Illiana Expressway to review (the process has been remarkably rapid) and potential inclusion in the GO TO 2040 plan thus raised a number of questions about the long-term effectiveness of the process that led to the original selection of projects. For better or worse, the construction of the Illiana will require a minimum of $500 million in public funds to be built, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation, and that figure may increase. As a result, the inclusion of the Illiana in the plan would not merely be a statement of support in favor of a specific project, but also a compromise in the fiscal integrity of the other projects. There is only so much money to be spent, and the $500 million that would be devoted to the Illiana necessarily means reducing the scope of work on other projects. Despite the fact that IDOT holds the project up as a model public-private partnership (it will be a toll road), that arrangement will require availability payments to a private builder-maintainer-operator, which require a state guarantee over the long term and the state is likely to have to subsidize those payments above and beyond toll revenues.

Project proponents suggested that the project would aid in the development of freight industries in the region, encourage the creation of jobs in the southern section of the region, and reduce congestion.

These arguments were vigorously contested by the non-profit Metropolitan Planning Council (I am on staff there and researched the Illiana project) and the staff of CMAP, both of which concluded—often using IDOT’s own figures—that the road would do little to reduce congestion, exacerbate pollution, produce few jobs (in fact, the project is expected to result in a net loss of jobs in Illinois for the benefit of Indiana), and serve few trucks. The fact that the road will be tolled, in particular, means that the market for using the facility will be limited. In other words, the road will offer few benefits at a high cost, particularly in comparison to other projects that would serve more densely populated, congested communities. From the perspective of sound transportation planning, it is disappointing that the project is moving forward.

But lost in the debate about the relative merits of the road, which, to be sure, has many supporters in the metropolitan area, has been a discussion about the role of regional planning in determining which projects should be selected for construction and funded accordingly. From this viewpoint, the decision to support the Illiana’s inclusion in the metropolitan area’s plan is particularly problematic, because it puts CMAP’s legitimacy as the decision maker on questions of regional development into question. Indeed, it raises the question as to whether any American metropolitan area has the capacity to develop a sound plan and then stick to it—without being hung up by political obstacles and conflicting opinions from leaders across the region.

The regional planning mission of any regional planning organization such as CMAP should encompass three primary objectives: establishing goals, identifying priorities, and following through. GO TO 2040 establishes a series of clear goals, including doubling transit ridership, increasing growth in the already-developed parts of the region, and reducing emissions. The plan’s priorities did not include the Illiana project in part exactly because it does not aid in the fulfillment of those goals.

As such, the decision to add the Illiana to GO TO 2040 suggests that this regional planning mission remains elusive.

At the same time, the manner in which the Illiana was presented to regional officials, and the limitations of the governance structure of MPOs like CMAP, present structural obstacles. Rather than consider the project within a regional framework, putting its advantages within the context of regional growth goals and the transportation network, CMAP officials were forced by the state government to consider the project on its own merits. But any sound planning approach recognizes that no individual project can be considered in isolation.

If the successful addition of the Illiana to the plan proves anything, it is that the proponents of the project demonstrated the benefits of the project. But members of the MPO policy committee never had to evaluate whether they would prefer investing in the Illiana or another project. Rather, they simply added the Illiana to an existing plan. Yet that approach, which pulls GO TO 2040 back into the MPO cornucopia-of-projects policy of the past, denies the fiscal reality that there are only so many projects that can be funded. The Chicago region simply cannot have everything it wants, but in its vote the committee acted otherwise.

CMAP, in other words, has in this way not followed through with the priorities it stated three years ago. This failure does not mean the organization’s plan no longer has relevance, just that the coherence in thinking that made GO TO 2040 stand out has faded. Major projects should be evaluated within the context of global thinking about the region’s growth; a multi-billion-dollar project should be considered only in the context of a full-scale update to the plan—taking into account the limitations on available funds and being willing to eliminate other projects if they are no longer seen as useful.

How to move forward

The acrimonious debate over the inclusion of the Illiana Expressway diminished regional unity; the close vote over whether to include the project in GO TO 2040 is indicative of broad disagreement about the way the region’s growth should proceed.

This moment, though, should be one for reflection. Why did the Illiana project cause so much controversy, both for and against? What were the benefits of the project that made it so essential to its proponents—namely in terms of economic development for the southern section of the Chicago region—and so problematic for its opponents? How can we be sure to identify projects that achieve greater consensus in the future? What changes to plans like GO TO 2040 should we hope for in the future?

Undoubtedly, some of the more progressive and ambitious elements of CMAP’s goals, particularly those related to reigning in sprawl and moving trips from automobile to transit, are not relevant to a huge section of the metropolitan area, particularly those people who live in the far suburbs. For people in the southern section of the region, better transit may seem like a nice addition, but a highway sounds like a new lifeblood, whether or not that is true. In a section of the region not given a project in the GO TO 2040 plan, the appeal of a new project like the Illiana, particularly when it supported wholeheartedly by the state, is incontestable. Trying to tell people who feel they have been ignored that they cannot have their own project is a difficult proposition.

Despite the fact that transportation must be addressed regionally, most regional agencies remain only marginal actors, stuck in the in-between world between funding (at the state level) and on-the-ground needs (at the local level). And so regional thinking will likely continue to usually lose out.

Portland St. Louis Streetcar Urbanism

Don’t Forget the Zoning

» Streetcar projects promise new development along their rights-of-way. But cities must allow new transit-oriented buildings to be built nearby. A look at St. Louis and Portland.

In the United States, streetcars have assumed a dramatic new prominence, in part because of increasing federal support. In dozens of cities, new lines are under construction, funded, or in planning thanks to local political leadership that recognizes the benefits of such investments in relatively cheap new rail lines. While streetcars are typically not the most efficient mobility providers — compared to light rail lines and often even buses, they are slower and more likely to be caught in traffic — they are promoted as development tools. Streetcars, it is said, will bring new construction and the densification of districts that are served by the new rail lines.

But streetcars alone aren’t enough to spur construction of residential and commercial buildings in neighborhoods with transit service. Just as important are the municipal regulations guiding new development. If zoning prevents large buildings around streetcar corridors, how exactly will streetcars lead to new construction?

A comparison of two streetcar projects — one soon to enter construction in St. Louis and the other about to open for service in Portland — shows that there are very different rules guiding what can be built in the two cities. The result may be that one city sees significant new growth along its corridor and the other sees very little, despite both projects being new streetcar lines. Other cities looking to extract value from their transportation investments should consider how their land use regulations may affect new construction.

St. Louis

Unlike most cities building new streetcar lines, St. Louis’ federally funded project will be constructed outside of downtown, in the Loop District four miles from the city center. The Loop Trolley will extend two miles from the Missouri History Museum at Forest Park, along DeBaliviere Avenue, and west along Delmar Boulevard into the independent municipality of University City. The route, which will be partially double tracked, will serve ten stops and is expected to attract about 800 riders per weekday (and 2,000 per weekend day) in the opening year, rising eventually to 2,600 riders a day by 2025.

The project suffers from many of the flaws of other streetcar lines throughout the country — it will have limited frequencies, a non-exclusive right-of-way, and a route that doesn’t directly serve the biggest destination in the area: Washington University.

More important, however, is the fact that zoning in both St. Louis and University City is not adequate to produce “urban infill and transit-oriented development along the route,” as project proponents claim the Trolley will encourage.

In the City of St. Louis, the blocks directly facing the streetcar route are mostly zoned for neighborhood commercial, commercial district, and multiple family dwelling areas. In these districts, buildings cannot exceed three stories or 45 to 50 feet. Non-residential buildings are limited to a floor area ratio (FAR) of just 1.5*. Meanwhile, non-pedestrian-oriented uses, such as drive-through restaurants, are allowed to be constructed. For residential buildings, developers are required to provide parking for one car per unit, and commercial structures over a size limit must provide parking as well.

In University City on the western section of the route, zoning is similarly restrictive. Half a block off the Delmar Loop, where the line runs, “core commercial” zoning is used. In these areas, residential units, bars, hotels, and more are allowed, but they require a conditional use permit from city hall to be installed — a needless complication for uses that are more than appropriate for this kind of area. Buildings are limited to just 35 feet in height, with the exception of certain buildings with large setbacks. But in a walkable area like this, it is more than appropriate to build taller structures right up to the sidewalk line. North of the streetcar corridor, high density residential zoning is in effect, but there no mixing of uses is allowed at all, and FAR is limited to 1 unless buildings are built on one acre or larger lots.

Just a block or two south of the route, in both St. Louis and University City, surrounding land is mostly zoned for single-family homes in “neighborhood preservation areas” that make a mix of land uses and increased building sizes almost impossible to construct.

In sum, even if developers are intrigued by the idea of building along the streetcar corridor, St. Louis’ project is likely to attract little actual construction because of city regulations that limit new construction. Developers wanting to build large structures will be limited by low height limits and requirements to get special permits to provide a mix of land uses. That should put a big question mark over how valuable the project will be from a land use perspective.


Portland’s streetcar, which has been in operation since 2001, has been the national model for such projects; combined with the city’s large MAX light rail network, it has offered this region a transit-friendly image. Thanks to an infusion of $75 million in federal funds, the city has built a $148 million, 3.3-mile extension that will open for service on September 22. The project is expected to roughly double existing ridership (now about 12,000 on a weekday) and attract 2.4 million square feet of development by serving the Lloyd District and Central Eastside neighborhoods, which are across the Willamette river from downtown. In these areas, there is currently a paucity of urban development and plenty of space for new construction. The project connects to the north end of the existing streetcar, runs across the river, runs south on Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard to the Oregon Museum of Science and Indutry, and will eventually form a loop around the city center when it is connected with the south end of the existing streetcar in 2015.

Portland Streetcar Loop map, from Portland Streetcar

Like St. Louis’ line, Portland’s also has some transportation deficiencies. Rather than offering direct access into downtown, the route requires riders to take a circuitous journey to get there. Trains will run in a right-of-way shared with automobiles. Based on the schedule, trains will run through the area at just 7 mph, an absurdly slow pace even for a streetcar. Compounding the problem is that the service will only be provided into the Eastside at headways of 18 minutes (which is far worse than the 12-minute headways promised in 2008 for the project). If you miss a train, there is little point in waiting for the next one at those frequencies.

Nevertheless, Portland’s project offers far more opportunity for new development around the line than the St. Louis program. As shown in the images below, very high densities — up to an FAR of 12 in the Lloyd District but at least 5 everywhere — are allowed in the blocks directly surrounding the new streetcar extension, and very little has been built there so far, so there are many opportunities for growth. The top image should make us question whether some areas along the existing streetcar loop, such as the Pearl District, deserve to see a serious up-zoning to allow for increasing new development.

Above: The degree to which blocks surrounding Portland Streetcar and extension have been developed. Below: Allowed floor-area ratios by block. Source: City of Portland

With the densities allowed in Portland, significant new construction in the Eastside areas will be possible. Based on previous trends in the city, such development seems likely. In downtown Census tracts (on the west side of the river), the total population has increased massively since 1980, going from 8,671 then to 17,789 in 2010; about half of that increase was between 2000 and 2010 alone. That kind of growth would have been impossible without the increase in transportation options made possible through the construction of the city’s streetcar and light rail systems.

Meanwhile, though the percentage of people living in those areas using private cars to get to work has increased since 1980, when just 26% did (following the national trend), it has declined from 38.3% in 1990 to 36.9% in 2010, indicating that the new development is attracting people who want to live without cars on a daily basis. That’s a success that seems likely to be continued with the streetcar extension.


Transportation engineers are loath to support new streetcar lines because they cannot understand why it makes sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a rail line when a far cheaper bus service would provide similar, or even more, mobility benefits. From the pure perspective of moving people from one place to another, streetcars are irrational investments.

Some Portland residents have expressed concerns that the streetcar has been excessively subsidized even as bus routes have faced service cuts and increasing fares because of declining revenue. If transportation spending were simply about helping people move around, these would be entirely legitimate claims.

But we can overlook the technical deficiencies of these two streetcar projects by emphasizing their development impacts. The point of the St. Louis and Portland projects is not necessarily to attract many users (though the latter line likely will), but rather to develop a culture of transit use in dense neighborhoods where dependence upon the automobile is not a necessity. Portland has demonstrated that a fixed-route streetcar can encourage development around stops quite effectively, and thus if it is the goal of a city to increase the density of its core areas, streetcars can be a useful tool.

Without appropriate zoning, however, the value of a streetcar project declines tremendously. In places where regulations make building large, mixed-use buildings difficult, transportation projects that will not do much to improve mobility will be incapable of encouraging much construction either.

* A FAR of 2, for example, means if you have a lot of 10,000 square feet, you can build 20,000 square feet of building on site. In an urban district, a building with a FAR of 2 might have 3 to 4 stories, depending on setbacks and surrounding yard areas.

Image at top: Portland Streetcar and MAX light rail line cross path, from Portland Streetcar

Chicago Infrastructure Metro Rail

Chicago Plans to Shut Red Line South to Perform Quick Rehab

» The change in service will cut off service to stations south of Roosevelt for five months. The move will be controversial and inconvenience many, but it will solve problems that would otherwise take years to fix — at a lower cost.

In less than a year’s time, the Chicago Transit Authority will eliminate service on the portions of the Red Line that run through the city’s south side, affecting roughly 80,000 daily journeys for a period of five months. The effort is designed to allow for the quick renovation of this rapid transit segment, replacing about 10 miles of degraded track with desperately needed new infrastructure. It’s a risky move, likely to enflame tensions in an area of the city that has suffered decades of economic difficulties. But if the CTA pulls the project off successfully, Chicago may be setting a precedent for other cities to follow.

The southern portion of the Red Line is is poor condition, no question about it. Built in 1969, the route — known as the Dan Ryan Branch as it runs in the median of the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90 and I-94) — is aging rapidly. At the moment, service is incredibly sluggish because the CTA has mandated “slow zones” that restrict trains to speeds far below their capacity, to ensure safety; on the southbound service from Roosevelt to 95th Street, for example, 2.6 miles of service is limited to just 15 mph. As a result, people are literally wasting their lives on their journeys home from work.

The CTA could reconstruct the line, replacing ties, tracks, third rail, ballast, and drainage systems, by shutting it down on weekends. But that would take four years.

Instead, the agency has determined that a five-month shutdown, costing about $425 million and funded by the city’s infrastructure initiative, will not only save about $75 million in project costs (thanks to efficiencies in project delivery), but it will also provide much better service to daily commuters far more quickly. Journey times from 95th Street to Roosevelt Road are expected to be a full 10 minutes more rapid by the time work finishes. That makes sense: Reconstructing a major piece of infrastructure is simply easier when there aren’t vehicles running through it, interrupting work. And customers will surely appreciate the much better transit they experience, even with a few months of annoyance, rather than many more years of bad service.

The last time the CTA attempted a similar move was in the mid-1990s, when it closed the Green Line for two years to reconstruct it completely. While that renovation produced the desired results in terms of infrastructure improvements, ridership on the line had trouble recovering. The simple fact was that the shutdown made transit inconvenient for people who had been used to riding the line. Only through a concerted effort to retain ridership through good service provision even in the absence of the Red Line can such problems be avoided.

The CTA has developed a management plan designed to reroute passengers who currently use the Red Line onto other services in the South Side, as shown on the map posted at the end of this article. This will be made easier by the fact that the Green Line is just a few blocks east of the Red Line between Roosevelt and 63rd Street, so most customers will likely just switch to that other service, which is linked to all the same crosstown bus routes as the Red Line. This will be made especially easy because Green Line trains using the Ashland branch of the service will be directed into the Red Line tunnel and north to Howard as “Red Line” trains, rather than around the Loop, as are all Green Line trains currently. This will provide direct service to the city’s North Side for people on the Green Line, which will surely be appreciated by many customers who now must transfer to get to that part of the city.

In addition, the CTA will operate free reduced-priced express shuttles to and from closed Red Line stops from 63rd to 95th Streets to the Garfield station on the Green Line, and reduced-price services on many South Side routes. Many may actually see faster service than they experience on slow trains today even though they will have to transfer.

One possibility that has not been announced by CTA officials is encouraging current Red Line riders to use the Metra commuter rail trains on the Rock Island and Electric district lines, which also run parallel to the Red Line. If the CTA worked with Metra to institute common fare policies, reduced-cost transfers, and more frequent trains during the disrupted period, a large number of commuters who currently live near Metra stops but do not currently take advantage of the system because of its high prices and low frequencies could be better served. The lack of connection between the CTA and Metra systems is one of the Chicago region’s biggest transportation limitations; experimenting with their integration during the Red Line shutdown could be particularly fruitful.

All of this raises questions about the future of transit reconstruction projects, both in Chicago and nationwide. There is plenty of need for transportation infrastructure renovations, but those must be performed on facilities that are in daily use by people who need to be able to get to and from work. Indeed, Chicago’s next big project will be the renovation of the north section of the Red Line, which is much older than this southern section and carries almost two times as many people daily, but which does not have the advantage of another parallel rapid transit line just a few blocks away. Will that branch also need to be closed? The city’s success in rerouting travelers onto other services with the fewest amount of difficulties could test how much the people of Chicago are willing to take when it comes to the temporary closure of their means of transportation.

Click on the map above to expand.

Images above: Top: Chicago’s 63rd Street Station on the Red Line, one of several to be shut down next year, from Flickr user Zol87 (cc); Below: Service changes planned during reconstruction, from CTA