The weird economic geography of transit use in Chicagoland

Stereotypically, American transit users are low-income. In some places, like Chicago, transit is good enough, at least in some places, for middle-class and even upper-middle-class people to use it. But even here, surely more money makes you more likely to drive?

But not quite. In the Chicago metropolitan area – meaning these numbers include the suburbs, not just the city – the median income for a person who drives to work alone is $39,957. The median income for someone who takes transit to work is $40,314.

It gets even weirder if you make a map:


In short, blue areas are places where the median transit-rider’s income is higher than the median car-driver’s income. As the colors get deeper red, transit-riders’ incomes are falling relative to drivers’.

The results are pretty much the opposite of what you would expect: the suburbs are almost entirely blue, meaning that an average transit-rider from, say, Naperville, is actually richer than an average driver. In the city, that’s reversed: drivers tend to be wealthier than transit-takers. (If you only look at the city, things look a little more explicable: transit-riders’ relative income is highest in gentrified North Side neighborhoods with good transit access, especially along the Blue, Brown, and Red Lines.)

What’s going on? I can’t prove it yet, but I strongly suspect that it has to do with where different kinds of jobs are.

Our normal paradigm of how someone chooses to use transit has to do with income: we assume that in any given situation, transit is probably some amount less convenient but also some amount less expensive than driving, and so people who are more price-conscious – that is, lower-income people – will be more likely to sacrifice convenience for the sake of saving money. Under that model, rich people should be more likely to drive pretty much everywhere, but as the convenience of transit improves – that is, in dense cities – the gap should narrow.

But what this suggests, I think, is that income is playing a smaller role than job location. If you live in the suburbs and work in the suburbs, transit is almost certainly a terrible option for you. Metra runs infrequently and there are few jobs to walk to from Metra stations; Pace also has long gaps between buses on many routes, and is too slow to make efficient trips across the vast distances beyond the Chicago city limits. That means that you’ll have a very strong incentive to drive, even if you’re low-income. (And recall that in places where transit is very, very bad, even most low-income people will find a way to get access to a car so they can participate in society.)

If you work in the city, though – in particular if you work downtown – transit might be a great option. Metra will drop you off within walking distance of your job, doesn’t require paying for downtown parking, and may very well be faster than taking highways into the Loop at rush hour.

That means that suburban residents who work downtown are much, much more likely to take transit than people who work in another suburb. Which wouldn’t mean anything by itself – except that the types of jobs that locate downtown don’t look like the types of jobs that locate in the suburbs. Although downtown Chicago has plenty of service sector jobs – the people who work in restaurants, supermarkets, and clothing stores – it also has a massive concentration of high-paying white collar positions. That means people who work downtown are disproportionately likely to have upper-middle-class or upper-class white-collar incomes. Which means, in turn, that transit riders in the suburbs are more likely to have those incomes as well.

Suburban jobs, in contrast, are a wider mix of service sector, blue collar, and higher-paying office jobs. That means that drivers – who will disproportionately be people who work in the suburbs – will, on average, have more average-looking incomes.

I would take two big things away from this. The first is that improving transit, which is frequently cast as a social justice issue (including by me), does not automatically benefit lower-income people more than higher-income people. (Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthwhile – there are other reasons to support transit.) In terms of who benefits, there’s a big difference between, say, adding a rush hour express train from Naperville to the Loop and upgrading suburb-to-suburb Pace buses – or, for that matter, buses in the city.

But the second is that you can create major transit benefits without actually doing anything at all to transit service. These maps show that wealthier people are taking better advantage of transit infrastructure in the suburbs – not because they have better access, but because of where their destinations are. That means that bringing a wider range of jobs to transit-accessible locations – in downtown Chicago, but also other Metra stops, or places where Pace buses converge, or other easily-accessible places in the city – may matter as much or more than building new lines or services. And recalling that most trips aren’t actually commutes, this applies to other kinds of destinations as well: grocery stores, other kinds of shopping, and even homes.

Which means that if you care about people being able to save money by taking transit – or the mobility of people who can’t drive, including the disabled, the young, and many of the elderly – a major part of our program needs to be about focusing new construction near transit. That doesn’t require any big multi-year studies or multi-billion-dollar federal grants: it just requires some zoning changes. Let’s get on that.

As an addendum: of course, in many places, even if transit-takers are wealthier, there are very few of them. If you remove all the places where fewer than 5% of residents take transit to work, you see that much of the Chicago suburbs is very car-dependent – but the overall pattern remains the same.


Sexy affordable housing methodology clickbait

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So I wrote a three-part series on what “affordable housing” means at City Observatory. The first two are up today; the third will be up tomorrow.

Usually, I feel like I’m pretty decent at understanding what sounds interesting to normal people, as opposed to someone who reads suburban zoning codes for fun. (Whether I act on that understanding is a separate question.) But I am shocked – shocked – that there hasn’t been a groundswell of people clamoring to discuss this series on Twitter and at my local corner store.

Because this is gripping! Consider:

1. Everyone – and I mean everyone, from HUD to any affordable housing group you can think of – uses the same 30% ratio of housing costs to income to determine what “affordable” means.

2. That ratio is kind of bogus!

3. Because everyone uses this bogus ratio:

a. Reports about, say, “how much you have to earn to afford a two-bedroom in City X” are often pretty misleading.

b. “Affordable” rents set by inclusionary zoning ordinances or other subsidies for people at a given income may not actually be affordable for people at that income.

c. We may be encouraging people to live in places and pay quantities of money that don’t make sense for their budgets.

4. Some smart guy has already come up with an alternative, which we should probably go ahead and use.

Go tell your friends!

Disparate Impact

So I’ve gotten some pushback on the last post in the comments. One of the main objections is that “bigot” is an inflammatory and unhelpful word. That’s probably true, and had I been at that meeting, I would not have used it. But I suppose my position is that the balance of offense here still lies with the people asking the city the disallow new rental buildings, and given how rarely – almost never – those sort of people get called out by anyone, let alone the elected official who has been asked to enact their segregatory policies, I just can’t feel that that’s the real injustice here.

But there’s also some feeling that I was not correct to perceive a racial issue, especially given that the new apartments – other than the 10% subsidized under the Affordable Requirements Ordinance – would almost certainly cater to relatively upper-income, disproportionately white people. Which is true! And yet the underlying dynamic here is that people want to control the “quality” of their neighbors, which will almost inevitably have racial implications. That’s true both because 1) people perceive blacks in particular as reducing the value of a neighborhood independent of their income, and 2) even a purely class-based bias will created disproportionately white neighborhoods, given the distribution of income.*

Now, you may say that in this case, somehow, we have found an exceptional group of American people without racial prejudice, even subconscious. Fine. But 2) is enough all on its own. The Supreme Court just ruled last month that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits racial segregation by “disparate impact” – meaning exactly the kind of policy at issue here, which is on its surface race-blind but which will inevitably have a racist outcome if implemented. If Anthony Kennedy thinks there’s race involved, then I think there’s probably race involved.

I also want to highlight this, from a follow-up DNAinfo story:

But opposition to two projects doesn’t mean West Loop residents are opposed to all rental developments, Tenenbaum said.

“What we do favor is supporting the families that make the West Loop a desirable area,” he said. “What’s wrong with families and what’s wrong with homes? Who serves on the parks councils? The PTAs? The local school boards, CAPS committees? On community boards? For the most part, its people who put down roots.”

What’s wrong with families? Well, for one thing, family status is actually a protected class, too. What Tenenbaum is straightforwardly asking for is straightforwardly illegal under the Fair Housing Act. Which is just to say that this situation is wrong from all sorts of angles, I suppose.


* I’m reminded of an affordable housing fight in the North Shore suburbs a few years ago. The housing at issue would have been targeted to people at something like 120% of Area Median Income – that is, people who were actually richer than the average metropolitan Chicagoan. In practice, they were actually probably nurses and teachers. They were probably going to be almost all white. And yet the campaign against the project – which was ultimately successful in blocking it – repeatedly referenced Cabrini-Green, with obviously racial implications. Which isn’t to say that the West Loopers are quite as noxious as that, it’s just to point out that there don’t actually have to be any black people involved for anti-black racism to play a major role in decision-making.

People asking the City of Chicago to promote segregation object to being called bigots

Update: Amazingly, within just a few hours of my posting this, 47th ward alderman Ameya Pawar tweeted this:

Who’s next?


This part of a recent community meeting about an apartment development in the West Loop, as reported by DNAinfo, was pretty standard:

On Tuesday night, resident Mike Samson, who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years, said that his neighbors are very concerned about the “stampede” of rental buildings being developed in the neighborhood. “Rental buildings tend to attract people who come and go quite quickly. The turnover is rapid. They don’t help to stabilize the neighborhood,” Samson said. “They don’t contribute in the long term to the neighborhood. Owners contribute in the long term to the neighborhood.”

Asking for new buildings to be owner-occupied, rather than rental, is one of the most popular ways for people to use the power of government to manipulate who their neighbors will be. On average, owners will be people with better-paying and more stable jobs, and greater wealth, than renters. Insisting on owner-occupied housing, then, is a way of asking for a richer, more income-segregated neighborhood. And in a city like Chicago – in pretty much any American city, actually – asking for a richer, more income-segregated neighborhood almost always means asking for a whiter, more racially-segregated neighborhood by proxy. Most of the time, aldermen accede to these demands as if they were perfectly reasonable. But Walter Burnett – whose 27th ward this project falls in – well, bless him:

After fielding complaints about new rental developments in the West Loop for months, one alderman has a new word to describe neighbors’ opposition to renters: “discrimination.” …

“It’s going to have to be a mixed neighborhood,” [said Burnett.] “Don’t no one group own no neighborhood in the City of Chicago. This is America.”

In addition to slapping down the idea that bashing renters – who make up 55% of all Chicagoans, by the way – is a normal, non-discriminatory thing to do, Burnett also announced that new developments would have to meet the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance by building their affordable units on site, rather than paying into a fund to build them somewhere else – usually somewhere poorer.

But, unsurprisingly, the people who lobbied for pro-segregation policies believe that having to listen to criticism of those pro-segregation policies makes them victims, rather than, say, the people who are being segregated out of safe, amenity-rich neighborhoods. In that, they are following proudly in the tradition of earlier American segregationists.

A 15-year resident who lives near Mary Bartelme Park said that neighbors aren’t discriminating against renters. They just want to protect what they’ve built, she said. “I think we want to create our home and keep it that way and I really resent everyone calling us bigots because we want owners [in the neighborhood],” the woman said.

To which I would say that life is full of choices, and one of them is that you can either ask the government to block lower-income people from living in your neighborhood, or you can enjoy not being considered a bigot. But you cannot always, thankfully, do both. I’m just hoping Chicago’s other aldermen are paying attention to Walter Burnett.

Portland, the Mission, and the housing affordability debate

Over at City Observatory:

I would, however, also like to add something to both of these pieces. From a big-picture perspective, Mesh and Duarte are right that new construction can slow or reverse the growth in regional housing prices, and restricting construction will tend to exacerbate that growth. But people don’t live their lives from 30,000 feet; they live them on the ground, which is why these ideas often seem so counterintuitive. More importantly, the people who packed the SF Board of Supervisors’ meeting to testify in favor of the moratorium don’t necessarily care about the medium-to-long-term trends in regional housing prices; they care about whether their own rents, and those of their family and friends nearby, will increase by more than they can afford in the next year, six months, three months.

Which means that arguments about supply and demand, though important, aren’t necessarily addressing their immediate needs and fears. Cities like Portland and San Francisco need better housing growth policy, it’s true: more construction now means less displacement, regionally, in the coming years. But if we care about preserving the option for people to remain in their communities now – which we should, for reasons both ethical and political – then we need to acknowledge the need for both housing growth policies and anti-displacement policies.

It’s a crisis when home prices rise, and it’s a crisis when they don’t

A farmer's market in Auburn-Gresham. Credit: Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation

A market in Auburn-Gresham. Credit: Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation

DePaul’s Institute for Housing Studies has a really interesting post about the differing paths of Chicago neighborhoods through the recession. Readers will be shocked to hear that in some places, mostly on the North Side, housing values have rebounded quite strongly, while in others, especially south and west of downtown, they haven’t – and as a result have seen barely any appreciation for 15 years.

So what? The report imagines two families in 2000:

The first family buys their house for $320,000, the median value properties in West Town at the time… The second family buys a home for $85,000, the median value of properties in 2000 in Auburn Gresham.

Assuming both families did not take on added mortgage debt, the house in Auburn Gresham today is worth $86,500, only $1,500 more than in 2000, before the rise, bust, and rise of the market, for a rate of return of zero. Any equity in the home was built solely by paying down the mortgage principal.

Meanwhile, the house in West Town has more than doubled in value (a 119 percent increase) and appreciated to nearly $700,000. On top of any principal paid down on the mortgage, the owners have built an additional $380,000 in home equity.

In other words, the Wicker Park family is now several hundred thousand dollars wealthier than they were in 2000; the Auburn-Gresham family is not. And, of course, though both of these families are imaginary, we know that the Wicker Park family is probably white, and the Auburn-Gresham family is almost certainly black.

This is more than a theoretical concern. Though we often talk about racial differences in affluence in terms of income, wealth might actually be a much bigger deal. Wealth is why some people have college funds, and others don’t; why some people can retire comfortably, and others can’t. It’s why an employment or medical crisis is a major problem for some people, and a total catastrophe for others. Wealth is what keeps people in the middle class through rough patches. In sum, wealth can be more determinative of your life chances, and those of your family, than income in any given year.

Since real estate makes up a massive proportion of household wealth – more than half for blacks, and about 40% for whites – it contributes massively to the racial wealth gap. As of 2013, the median white family held $134,000 in net assets, compared to $11,000 for the median black family. And as the Washington Post covered earlier this year, looking at what you might call the Auburn-Gresham problem in the DC suburbs, the failure of homes in black neighborhoods to hold their value and appreciate is a major force for destabilization of entire neighborhoods, not just an economic scourge for individual black households.

WIcker Park homes that you should have bought in 2000. Credit: YoChicago

WIcker Park homes that you should have bought in 2000. Credit: YoChicago

What makes this comparison interesting, though, is that from the perspective of the most visible housing policy debates, it’s Wicker Park that has a housing crisis. When housing prices rise quickly, people whose incomes don’t rise accordingly get squeezed. That is, in fact, a big problem, and Wicker Park has become more segregated along class and racial lines as a result.

But if the racial wealth gap is a crisis, then the failure of housing values to rise in places like Auburn-Gresham is a crisis, too. This is especially true when it happens systematically to entire swaths of the city and entire subsections of the population. After all, it’s not a coincidence that black neighborhoods keep seeing the worst home price appreciation: black neighborhoods are systematically undervalued, because virtually no one who isn’t black is willing to live there, which leads to a collapse in demand. Other forms of systematic discrimination, including in the provision of amenities, also creates a kind of push factor, even for black households. (Recall that this is how we get the “racial arbitrage” theory of gentrification.)

It’s tempting here to ask for some sort of goldilocks solution: a moderate but steady increase in housing prices, so that people can build wealth without gentrification-related displacement. The problem, of course, is that displacement happens on a sliding scale. It’s not as if everyone will be priced out if rents increase 10%, but no one if they only increase 5%: every little bit that a neighborhood’s housing gets more expensive (that is, every little bit that homeowners build their wealth) tips someone from being able to afford to stay in their home to not. So it really is quite directly a tradeoff between how many people you want to price out of the neighborhood, and how much you want to allow other (especially black) people to build wealth from their homes the way white people are able to. At least, that will be the case as long as waiting lists for housing vouchers or public/subsidized housing units are years-long, rather than covering everyone who needs them.

* Of course I’m assuming here that owner-occupied home prices and rental prices track each other pretty closely. Obviously there are times where that isn’t the case, but over the long run, it tends to be.

Please, please, stop using rent numbers from Zumper

There is an apartment search site called “Zumper.” Zumper has come up with a very smart marketing ploy, which is something they call a “National Rent Report.” The “National Rent Report” reports on how much rent is, nationally, in a bunch of different cities and neighborhoods.

People like to know how much other people are paying for things, compared to how much they are paying, and they like to get updates about the course of neighborhood change, and that sort of thing, so the “National Rent Report” gets picked up by media outlets all over the place.

Most recently, I saw it on Curbed, which reported that, according to the “National Rent Report,” the median one-bedroom apartment in Chicago goes for $1,780. (I don’t mean to pick on Curbed, which I read constantly, is generally excellent, and far from the only outlet to pick up the “National Rent Report.”)

The median one-bedroom apartment in Chicago does not go for $1,780.

I could go into any number of reasons how I know that’s true. But the simplest is to look at Zumper’s own numbers for Chicago:

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Recall that the definition of “median” is “the point at which there are an equal number of items above and below.” Now look at this list. According to Zumper itself, there are only five neighborhoods in the entire city of Chicago where the median rent is above $1,780. If the city’s median rent as a whole is $1,780, then one of these things must be true:

1. There must only be ten neighborhoods in all of Chicago of roughly equal size, or

2. There can be more than ten neighborhoods, but half of all the one-bedroom apartments in the city must be located in just five neighborhoods.

Neither one of these things is true. Rather, the issue is almost certainly that half of Zumper’s listings are in one of those five neighborhoods, because their listings are very, very concentrated in high-end apartments.

But that makes their listings completely worthless for determining the actual median rent for the rest of us, who live in a world that is not bounded by Zumper’s database.

Which makes the “National Rent Report” completely worthless.

Let’s all stop writing about it.

Riders aren’t abandoning buses; buses are abandoning their riders

At City Observatory:

And it turns out that when you disaggregate the national data by urban area, there’s a very tight relationship between places that cut bus service between 2000 and 2013 and those that saw the largest drops in ridership. If you live in a city where bus service has been increased, it’s likely that your city has actually grown its bus ridership, despite the national trends. In other words, the problem doesn’t seem to be that bus riders are deciding they’d rather just walk, bike, or take their city’s new light rail line. It’s that too many cities are cutting bus service to the point that people are giving up on it.

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Undercounting the transit constituency

At City Observatory:

And that matters because the people who make decisions about transit investments – politicians – look at how many of their constituents benefit from a given service as a major component of whether they benefit politically from supporting it.

And if they’re just looking at commute share, they’re looking at too few people. Even transit-rich metropolitan Boston doesn’t look so great by that metric: only 12% of workers there usually take transit to their jobs. But 29% of households include someone who regularly takes transit to school or work, and fully 56% of households use transit for at least some of their trips. In sprawling Houston, just 2% of workers commute with transit – but more than twice that proportion of households use transit for work or school, and more than one in ten households use transit for some of their trips. That’s still not great, but it’s much more significant than the minuscule commute numbers. It also suggests that even in one of the most transit-hostile regions of the country, a remarkable number of people find public transit useful for certain trips, forming a toehold for better service to produce even more ridership.

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Why are there no “pedestrian streets” in black neighborhoods?

It’s a bit weird that Chicago has something called a “pedestrian street designation” – after all, people walk on pretty much literally every single street in the city. But it does! Official “pedestrian streets,” which have existed since 2004, are designed to “promote transit, economic vitality and pedestrian safety and comfort” by disallowing certain things, like parking lots facing the sidewalk, and encouraging others, like storefronts and sidewalk cafes. The city’s transit-oriented development ordinance also applies up to two blocks from an L station along pedestrian-designated streets, as opposed to one block on other streets.

Recently, I saw a map of the city’s pedestrian-designated streets for the first time. This is what it looked like:


This is a map that made me say “hmm.” If you have any sense of Chicago’s racial and economic geography, it is probably making you say “hmm,” too. But just to hit the point home:


There is literally one pedestrian street in a majority-black community area: Commercial Avenue in South Chicago, between 88th and 92nd Streets. By contrast, the North Side east of the river is absolutely lousy with them; Milwaukee Ave., the retail backbone of the Northwest Side, has several large districts radiating from six-way intersections; and the Latino section of the Southwest Side, though it has way less than the North Side, at least has pedestrian designations on the busiest portions of 18th, Cermak, and 26th Streets.

To be clear, the people in charge of assigning pedestrian street designations are aldermen, not CDOT. That is, the issue isn’t that the Mayor’s Office is just choosing to give North Side streets “pedestrian” status and not South Side streets. But still, it’s a pretty notable pattern.

How much does this matter? I don’t know. You could observe, of course, that people in Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown, West Town, and their aldermen, appear to believe that pedestrian street designations matter enough to slap them all over their neighborhoods. Alderman Ameya Pawar, for example, has been quite vocal in his belief that making commercial streets in his ward more pedestrian-friendly will improve his constituents’ quality of life and promote economic development, not to mention reduce injuries from car accidents.

And although people on the South and West Sides may have different concerns and priorities, certainly one of them is economic development and thriving retail districts, which exactly the sort of thing the pedestrian street designation is designed to support. Part of the issue is that a pedestrian street designation – and the somewhat more attractive street that results – is hardly a guarantee of new businesses. Underlying economic factors and the perceptions of business owners matter much more.

But a pedestrian designation is such a low-cost exercise that I’m not sure that explains it. More likely is that there’s a fear that the kind of businesses that have chosen to move into black neighborhoods – disproportionately national chains with auto-oriented cookie-cutter designs – would be deterred by rules that forced them to adopt more pedestrian-friendly formats.Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 12.25.57 PM

From one block to the next on 35th St. in Bronzeville, we go from pedestrian-friendly to not.

From one block to the next on 35th St. in Bronzeville, we go from pedestrian-friendly to not.

There may be some legitimacy to that. But, for one, there’s more than enough room to place some drive-through restaurants in South Side neighborhoods while preserving and enhancing pedestrian-oriented retail streets. And for two, pedestrian-friendly design is likely best for the long-term economic health of those communities. After all, not only is the property value bonus for walkable neighborhoods well-documented, but there are plenty of South Siders who have noticed that there’s a difference between, say, Clark St. and Cottage Grove – and want to close that gap.

(I’d also note, as an aside, that the way the pedestrian street law is written seems to disadvantage South Side neighborhoods. The ordinance stipulates that pedestrian streets should be designated in places where there are “very few vacant stores,” which excludes many communities with trouble attracting retail – which is to say, most black communities in Chicago. But if the point of the law is to promote economic development, why would you specifically exclude places especially in need of economic development? I don’t think that this clause has actually prevented any given pedestrian street designation – I suspect that, as these things generally work, any alderman who wanted one would get it – but I do think it suggests that the law was designed with the North Side in mind. Which is unfortunate.)