Industrial change created a peaking problem for Chicago transit

[An entire month without blogging -- let's fix that. This post started with a Twitter conversation about the unusually low peaks in how Montreal schedules its Metro trains, perhaps because it's not as 9-5 as other cities. A note about the charts: it turns out that I can't embed Datawrapper charts on, so the ones below are screen caps. Just click on the chart to go the original chart and see the source data.]

Along the lines of “the best transportation plan is a land use plan,” sometimes land use changes can impose huge costs upon the transportation system. As an example, let’s examine how industrial change in central Chicago triggered vast, and costly, shifts in how the CTA arranges its services.

Chicago skyline in 1970


Chicago skyline in 2010 (slightly narrower view)

Popular perception understandably saw downtown Chicago as a boomtown: Enough skyscrapers were built to house all of downtown Philadelphia’s offices, plus all of Glenview or Moline’s residents. Within the high-rises, private-sector office jobs (in business services and finance) grew by 53%. Yet the total number of jobs in Chicago’s Central Area (source) grew surprisingly little in the 1980s and 1990s — by just 10.4%.

The growing skyline masked a sharp decline in nearby industrial jobs. Together, the manufacturing, transportation/utilities, and wholesale sectors lost 42% of their center-city workforce. This bifurcating job market, common to many deindustrializing American cities but occurring on an leviathan scale in Chicago, exacerbated the city’s social divides, plunging some neighborhoods into despair and richly rewarding areas just blocks away.

This tremendous economic shift remade the paths of Chicagoans’ daily travel, and to a large extent demanded a reconstruction of the city’s transit system. Despite the Loop’s triumphant skyline, everyday Chicago was for many years a collection of factory towns stitched together along streetcar seams. The factories lined up along the various rail or river routes leading into the city, and the high-level services they required were provided downtown, but their workers came from all over. Terry Clark writes in the essay “The New Chicago School”: “immigrants naturally lived in neighborhoods where they could talk, eat, relax, and worship with persons of similar national background. They would commute even to distant factory jobs to preserve this neighborhood-cultural-ethnic heritage.”

Since so much employment was at three-shift, all-day factories, service levels were remarkably consistent throughout the city and the day; that combined with the city’s grid to create the gridded bus network we all know well. The comprehensive transit system even worked overnight: The 1957 route map lists 69 surface routes and nine elevated lines running all night. Yes, the “L” system did its work of shoveling people into the congested Loop, but even there it only carried 25% of all transit passengers — even to downtown, 75% arrived via the surface lines.

Just like manufacturing, transit is also a capital-intensive enterprise, and having steady ridership all day/all night makes sure that the equipment (and labor) is optimally used. There’s no need to buy streetcars and pay drivers just to shuttle one giant crowd in at 8 AM — and then keep the fleet parked until they leave at 5 PM. Also, it’s all-day transit, not peak service, that enables urban life: as Jarrett Walker writes, “Low-car or no-car lifestyles, in turn, mean that transit has to be available for many of life’s purposes, not just the peak commute.”

The deep spiral of deindustrialization that I mentioned above also changed where and how Chicagoans commuted. Instead of dispersing themselves across the city at all hours of the day — a flow that became better suited to driving anyways — people began piling onto Loop-bound trains for 9-to-5.

Commuter trains always ran highly “peaked” service, with many more vehicles during rush hour, but these services’ peaks have dramatically grown. The commuter line from Hyde Park to the Loop used to run a 2:1 ratio of peak : midday trains in 1939; now that’s a 7:1 ratio.

Bus ridership, particularly crosstown, dropped off — setting off a vicious cycle of cuts (chronicled by Joshua Mason and Graham Garfield) that reduced crosstown bus service to a shadow of the former streetcar empire. Today’s route map counts a mere 17 all-night surface routes; three-fourths of the corridors that used to have nighttime transit now don’t.

Yet parking buses overnight is relatively easy to do, even though idle capacity is expensive in the long run. What’s been much more difficult, and costly, is adding new capacity to accommodate the ever-larger rush hour crowds, particularly for the growing (Loop-centric) rail system and commuter express buses. Already, CTA spent $530 million on the Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project, which increased train lengths by one-third, and more recently spent over $1 billion on a train order that increased its fleet by 17%. Many of its other planned capital projects, like rebuilding the North Side Main and untangling Clark Junction, will also sink huge sums into upgrading the system to accommodate rush hour crowds.

A small countervailing trend has more recently emerged, though. The city as an entertainment destination — as a site of 24-hour consumption, rather than production — has pushed the system to slightly extend evening hours. That said, the efforts will always pale in comparison to the overnight network that once existed, serving not the few who partied all night, but rather the many who worked all night.

Why NoMa, not your neighborhood, got $50 million for parks

Looking north on 1st St NE

As with other new parks in general, there seems to be a lot of confusion out there about the $50 million that was recently allocated within DC’s capital budget for parks in NoMa.

First, it’s conventional wisdom at this point that upzoning NoMa without requiring any dedications of open space was “flawed.” That said, it probably seemed like a reasonable decision at the time. Nobody expected the area to develop quite as quickly as it did, or with as many residents as it did. (Office workers only require residual park space.) Besides, DC was land rich and cash poor, and thus didn’t have the capital to purchase even what seems now to be relatively cheap land; now, we’re relatively cash rich and land poor. Regret’s easy in hindsight.

Now, where did this $50 million come from? Yes, it’s now been set aside in DC’s capital plan, to be paid out over several years, and those capital funds come from general taxation. But, in another sense, it’s a thank-you to NoMa for the plentiful — and lucrative — new development that it’s brought to the District.

Way back in 2011, the NoMa BID and city councilmembers proposed a tax increment financing (TIF) district for NoMa. The TIF would have captured $50 million from the property taxes that NoMa properties paid, diverting it from the general fund to a BID-administered fund to pay for local parks. That’s a lot of money, sure, but consider that, by 2012, NoMa was paying $49 million each year in additional property taxes (over 2006 levels). Under a TIF, only NoMa taxes would pay for NoMa parks — although it’s true that government spending is theoretically fungible.

DC’s CFO had concerns about the TIF, which they outlined in this testimony to the Council. Their two key complaints centered on accountability of the BID-administered funds, and an odd feature of DC’s governance: its self-imposed debt cap. By diverting general property tax revenues, the CFO argued, the proposed TIF could jeopardize the way DC’s debt-to-income ratio is calculated, and push the District past that magic (and, again, self-imposed) line.

(Note that by borrowing from future tax revenues, a TIF is a nifty way to solve that “land rich, cash poor” conundrum I mentioned above. DC doesn’t have very many TIFs, compared to other cities.)

With that in mind, the Council declined to pass the proposed NoMa TIF legislation, and the NoMa BID instead pushed to include the parks within the city’s general capital budget. Mayor Gray did exactly that in 2013, adding the $50 million to his FY 2014 budget. Subsequently, the Council adopted the 2014 budget.

So, yes, NoMa did get $50 million in tax revenue to pay for parks. However, it did so by paying the city far more than that in advance, and by threatening to withhold future tax revenues. Until your neighborhood can raise similar funds from its own development projects — as the Yards and the Wharf have done, for example, or as Georgetown Waterfront did from the neighborhood’s deep pockets — you can’t necessarily expect the same outcome for your neighborhood.

One more note about local parks: it appears that NPS (which isn’t funded through local value capture) is aware of local trails’ safety shortcomings, including the “Peter’s Point” junction I’ve previously complained about.

It’s not just a phase: urban population dynamics have changed

National Park Seminary new EYA townhouses

EYA townhouses in Forest Glen, Md.

Ben Adler from Grist wrote about a recent NYT trend piece about how suburbia is hollowing out, with few young families to replace the empty nesters. He puts too much emphasis on gross migration and population change, without drilling into how those components have been changing:

A handful of coastal and upper Midwestern cities are attracting more young professionals than before and are retaining them for longer… Even where gentrifiers are moving in at a pace sufficient to reverse outmigration, they’re barely making in a dent in reversing the tide.

Migration population losses from cities paint an unnecessarily dire view of urban prospects. There is a good reason why large metros would tend to lose people to domestic migration — and, for the 20th century, pretty much always did. A statistically significant group of young people move to large cities, get married there, have kids, and then move away in search of more appropriate housing. Two people move in, three move out: presto, population “loss,” even though the same number of people moved in and out. Similarly, for decades a steady flow of retirees southward, away from large cities, was a good thing for society — an indicator that healthier seniors were physically able to move, rather than remaining house-bound.

Yet long-established movements like these (plus shrinking household sizes, plunging overcrowding, the twin crises of deindustrialization and crime, and employment displacing relatively dense central-city residential), may have largely run their course.

Yes, this does indicate that “the school problem” remains,* but indications are that cities are attracting more young people, and retaining them for more years. This is occurring both before and after the critical life milestone of marriage: new households are overwhelmingly singles, couples, and unrelated persons. Whereas many of the 1950s pioneers who settled what are now inner-ring suburbs were young families headed by 20-somethings, or maybe 30-somethings, today many married couples (without kids, or with young children) stay in the city for longer.

Here in DC (where the city’s small size and overwhelmingly post-industrial nature makes the demographic transition especially sharp), Carol Morello from the Post observes:

the number of children younger than 5 has grown by almost 20 percent, from 33,000 to 39,000, according to census figures. In the same time span, the number of children ages 5 to 13 rose 7 percent. But there were fewer children 14 and older, suggesting that many parents still choose to leave the city when their children reach high school.

This also shows up anecdotally, as in the NYT’s quote of a Westchester County official (“Parents used to be 35ish, now they’re 45ish. What we’re seeing is not so much an exodus as a later arrival”) and this observation (at a recent ULI conference) by the biggest developer of townhouses inside the Beltway:

Within the DC region, the geographically compact core (about 3% of the region’s area) accounts for a huge share of net growth of 25-34s. (Drawn from 2010-2012 ACS.)

A larger share of households spending more years living in the city is a marginal boon to cities’ residential market share. Few Americans live in one place for life, anyways, but imagine the implication for apartment owners as their tenant pool both grows in size and stays longer.

Meanwhile, population decline hasn’t hurt some urban areas (like my old neighborhood of Bucktown, where densities on some blocks have fallen 90% since their WW1 peaks, and continued falling in recent years). These can feel more lively and active than ever, even with much-reduced populations, because incomes are way up. More disposable income can substitute for a smaller population; retailers look for underserved pockets of spending power, not necessarily people.

Yes, at the end of the day, cities need to provide homes for a growing global population and so should welcome growing populations. However, gross population shifts need to be disaggregated and viewed cautiously.

On another note entirely, I’d like to honor the recent passing of Donald Bogue, 1918-2014, who taught me much of what I know about demographic processes. (My “Relocated Yankees” paper was done as a final project for his class.) Even though he was well into his eighties when I took his class, his approach was the best of UChicago: thoughtful, broadly read, engaging, and kindly critical, and he helped to tie together a lot of loose ends that I’d thought about for many years. He leaves behind a tremendous published legacy — scores of publications in the Library of Congress, for instance — and his work on topics like Skid Row still has strong resonance in planning today, for example in understanding the historical intersections between homelessness and place.

* Don’t look at me for any answers; this isn’t a school policy blog.

Lumpiness: in cities’ property values, and in metro structure

Two only tangentially related thoughts on lumpy growth:

1. Richard Florida in The Atlantic Cities was one of the few major outlets to cover a report from the Demand Institute (a collaboration between Nielsen and The Conference Board) called “A Tale of 2000 Cities.”

The top 10% of American cities account for more housing wealth than the next 90%. The gains in the 2000s were tilted towards the already wealthiest communities.

The report includes an extensive look at a typology identifying nine types of American communities primarily by the strength of their local housing markets, post-recession. In keeping with the name, the results show a striking divergence, with a select handful of healthy markets sweeping up much of the gains — and leaving half of American cities and towns “currently facing fundamental economic pressure.” The report’s summary says: “In today’s global economy, nothing is more important than the strength and sustainability of the local labor market, regardless of whether employers are serving customers in Chicago, Chile, or China.”

If anything, today’s telecom-centric, information economy has resulted in the geography of opportunity getting lumpier, not more diffuse as earlier expectations had predicted — “reports of the ‘death of distance’ have been much exaggerated.” We telecommuters haven’t all decamped to mountaintops. The most valuable places are becoming even more so: they account for not only an outsized share of wealth but also the gains of recent years.

The underlying economic reality, that human capital is what drives most prosperity today, is why I differ from my colleagues who believe that “investment ready places” can thrive based on previous investments in capital goods like housing.

(I’ll have more thoughts in a later post about how macroeconomic changes, and in particular greater economic inequality, have left their mark on “gateway cities.” In the meantime, I highly recommend Ryan Avent’s ‘The Spectre Haunting San Francisco,’ which ties in man-of-the-moment Thomas Piketty as well.)

On another note, the report also has a good omen for suburban retrofits in “favored quarter” suburbs, in the form of an interesting but familiar disconnect between housing supply and demand in “Affluent Metroburbs.” 58% of housing stock in these communities is detached, “but fewer than half [of those seeking to move] say they are seeking a detached single-family home, compared with a national average of 60 percent.”

Among residents of “historic skyline cities,” a broad category that includes both healthy and less-healthy cities, there isn’t exactly a stampede to the exits. 54% of those who intend to move still “intend to stay in an urban area,” and “nearly one in five” wants to move for better schools (hardly the unanimity some cry about).

2. Alon Levy has a great post about how, on a macro scale, the gridded West has a suburban layout that fosters high-coverage bus networks, whereas more organically settled Eastern suburbs have a dendritic, hub-and-spoke layout that lends itself to commuter rail. (Yes, he points out that Johnny-come-lately Washington has, through Metro, grown into the latter pattern.)

This might go some way towards explaining “the Western Paradox” in Brookings’ findings regarding transit access to jobs. In short, Western cities (particularly in the desert southwest) had a strange spread: many jobs were technically accessible by transit, but low transit-to-work mode shares. The highest mode shares were found in older eastern cities, where a large fraction of suburban service jobs are inaccessible by transit.

A rising Potomac: oh, dam it

30m sea level rise along the Potomac

30 meters of sea level rise would wipe out most of the L’Enfant City, put the White House underwater, and leave the Capitol on a little island — but it could still be managed by damming the Potomac River at key locations, like Quantico or Mason Neck.

Of the world’s major coastal-plain cities, Washington, Rio, and London are among the few that could conceivably be saved by damming estuaries, although I’m sure the Japanese will still try.

The same can’t be said for Philadelphia, where the Delaware has a very broad valley, or even New York, where dams at Verrazano Narrows and Arthur Kill will have to be supplemented by very extensive construction to block Long Island Sound. Boston either becomes an archipelago or a polder at a mere 7m of SLR. Even Montreal faces serious property loss over 20m; at 30m Beijing becomes coastal and tides could reach Lake Champlain and the Caspian sea.

Much more than 30m, like the 60m these guys have in mind, and most everything on the east coast below the fall line would be gone. Even dams at the Golden Gate and St. John’s would no longer protect San Francisco or Portland. That’s when inland real estate might become rather more valuable.

Surprisingly, my river-view apartment should be okay up to +10m or so even without a downstream barrier.

Generated using

[Posted to Flickr on 12 June 2012, but today's Antarctic ice sheet news reminded me that I never cross-posted it here.]

Telematics can reinforce centralization

Self-valeting vehicles would make going downtown a lot cheaper and easier. Photo: Steven Vance

1. Telecommuting is great, but only to a point. According to Gallup, “the ability to work remotely corresponds with higher engagement, but primarily among those who spend less than 20% of their total working time doing so.” Employees who spent more than 50% of their time working remotely had engagement and disengagement figures similar to those who never worked remotely. (The release also has some nice quotes from Vint Cerf at Google about the value of face-to-face interaction, and how they’ve sought to increase collaboration within the workplace.)

2. On a similar note about the potential of telematics, there’s a lot of hype out there about autonomous vehicles, aka driverless cars, but Nat Bottigheimer and my former colleague Brooks Rainwater have appropriately measured responses.

In the few conversations I’ve had with transportation professionals about their impact, their understanding is similarly muted. Yes, platoons of autonomous vehicles will squeeze a little bit more capacity out of existing roads while maintaining laminar flow, but it’s not as if there’s scads of peak-hour capacity remaining to be had.

The really big impact will be upon parking. By removing the cost and hassle of parking at the final destination could make urban centers even more valuable, and further diminish the primary appeal of drivable (really, parkable) suburbia — which is that it’s easy to drive to, and park at. If both of those factors become immaterial, then why bother driving to the B-mall when you could go straight to the A-mall, or downtown?

Similarly, an interesting class divide could arise if the vehicles really do succeed in eliminating driver-error crashes. Such crashes could soon become stigmatized as something that only happens to poor people who can’t afford fancy crash-avoidance technology. (Do people today cluck-cluck with resignation about people maimed in car crashes because the inexpensive cars said victims bought used were not equipped with adequate airbags?)

Shorts: parking craters, carbon tax, Census tools


Urban renewal in New Haven created a “towers in a parking lot” environment, replacing its lower-scale past.

Several springtime shorts:

1. My Streetsblog post about Chris McCahill’s parking research got a strong reception last week:

Streetsblog recently spoke with Chris McCahill of the State Smart Transportation Initiative in Madison, Wisconsin, to learn about his research into how parking affects small cities’ downtowns. Most recently, McCahill and his co-authors have shown how policy makers’ preoccupation with parking not only hollows out city centers, it also decimates the downtown tax base.

2. In carbon tax news, DC residents Christine Lagarde and Jim Yong Kim (who might know a bit about economics and taxation) both endorsed a carbon tax shift at last week’s IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings, per a report from the Sydney Morning Herald. Meanwhile, revenue-positive carbon tax legislation was introduced in California.

3. Three neat online Census tools for future reference:
Demographics around a point, from Census 2010 (so, alas, limited to the short form, but useful for gross population)
Shift-share analysis, to see how your area’s job creation in various sectors leads/lags its peers
Economic development cluster mapping, identifying geographic concentrations of firms by NAICS code and county