Transit failure in action

There’s a lot that’s notable in the Governor’s transit task force report (one major takeaway: Metra is just the worst), but me being me, I’m going to pick out these two graphs:

graph1 graph2

We’ve seen before that Chicago’s zoning laws essentially create a situation where the more people want to live in a neighborhood, the harder it is to actually let more people live there. As the top chart shows, more and more people want to live near public transit, especially El stops. So, in the logic of Chicago’s housing laws, that means lower growth in the number of households who can actually do it.

(I’ll disclaim here that yes, of course, some neighborhoods around public transit on the South and West sides lost population because people wanted to leave, not because of zoning, and that’s certainly a part of Chicago’s underperformance in household growth near transit. But two things about that: 1) The fact that overall housing prices near transit went up much faster than in other areas even despite stagnation in large parts of the South and West sides suggests that there is, in fact, huge demand to live near transit in most of the city; and 2) As I’ve said before, if your defense of a city’s affordability rests on highly segregated neighborhoods with relatively high crime, poor schools, and poor access to basic amenities like grocery stores, I think you’re missing the point.)

This is a huge problem for equity, of course, since forcing people of moderate and lower incomes away from transit forces them to pay more for transportation than their wealthier would-be neighbors, which is pretty perverse. But it’s also a problem because a train station is only useful to people who can get to it. Chicago has an enormous rail infrastructure that is, on the whole, massively underused, largely because we make it illegal for very many people to live near our rail lines. This is an especially egregious problem with Metra – a topic I will be taking up at some point in the future – but it’s also the case with the El.

As a result, the many hundreds of miles of railroads we have – railroads that are quite expensive to serve and maintain – aren’t doing nearly as much for us as they could be. It’s wasteful both in a monetary sense – not only because a given dollar spent on rail could be transporting way more people, but because we’d have more money if more people bought fares – and in all the social, economic, and environmental ways that having a relatively higher proportion of people taking public transit is helpful.

Anyway, I read those charts yesterday, and then this morning Steve Vance forwarded me an email from Gold Coast/Lincoln Park alderman Michelle Smith:

Dear Friends,

I am writing to inform you of a recent local zoning change in the Gold Coast I enacted on your behalf. This change resulted in a significant down-zone of the property located at 20 E. Scott Street, located at the intersection of Scott and Astor Streets.

The prior zoning classification for this parcel was “RM6.5,” which has no height restriction. Area residents, the Gold Coast Neighbors Association, and the Near North Preservation Coalition requested my assistance in adjusting the parcel’s zoning classification as a preventative measure against future overzealous development in the neighborhood.

I therefore introduced, and City Council has recently approved, a re-zoning of the property to an “RM5” classification, meaning that any new development at this site would be limited to a height of 47 feet.

My first thought was: well, maybe this is one of those gorgeous old Gold Coast townhomes. I’m not necessarily for protecting all of those, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous, either.

But no, 20 E. Scott is this beaut:



…which is apparently so integral to the Gold Coast’s character that the government must step in to make it illegal to build anything denser.

Despite the fact that the building literally across the street looks like this:


And one block down there’s a building that looks like this:




…and so on. It’s interesting that even when the character of a neighborhood is already highrises, local well-to-do people find a reason to argue that highrises are inappropriate. Sorry! they say. I guess we’ll just have to enjoy our proximity to downtown jobs, grocery stores, the lake, good schools, safe streets, and so on, all by ourselves! Rats!

Oh, right, and it’s a five-minute walk to the Red Line.

I should make clear that I don’t think the issue here is really Michelle Smith. She’s responding to clear pressure from her constituents, which is what elected officials are supposed to do; moreover, if she enacted zoning policies that I liked, she very well might be thrown out of office in favor of someone who didn’t.

No, the issue is 1) that there needs to be some sort of organized constituent groups arguing on behalf of all the people who would benefit from denser development, because that’s how democracy works; and 2) that the system of giving individual alderman spot-zoning powers in their wards really needs to be reformed, because it almost guarantees that these decisions will be made by the people who benefit most from downzoning (the well-to-do who already live there), and will leave out the vast majority of people who benefit from upzoning (basically everyone else). As a result, even though the latter outnumber the former by quite a bit, the downzoners almost always win.


9 thoughts on “Transit failure in action

  1. I am curious what you think of the argument that Chicago’s system of aldermanic prerogative actually helps increase density. I’ve heard it said that developers have an easier time getting their way on zoning changes in the current system since they only have to deal with/persuade/bribe one politician instead of a body of them. Does the evidence just not bear this out?

    1. I mean, the history of zoning in Chicago is one of pretty steadily increasing restrictions on density, so I think the evidence suggests that the current system militates towards downzoning. The one exception is downtown, where the mayor has historically had a sort of override on zoning decisions on the grounds that it affects the whole city. But really everything affects the whole city, and I think most mayors would be more inclined to allow higher density than most aldermen, since they understand at the very least that more people = more tax revenue. That’s not to say there should be no local input, but large-scale planning decisions about housing policy ought to be made at the city level, with some local wiggle room, rather than almost entirely ceded to whatever neighborhood group decides to show up to a ward night.

  2. It seems like the failure you are talking about is really a failure of land use than transit, per se. I suspect your future post on Metra will focus on the large commuter parking lots surrounding many of their stations. Even much of that land is not controlled by Metra, but by local communities. This is not to say, there is no room for transit to be involved in land use, which I think there definitely is a need for.

    1. Oh, totally – none of this (or very, very little) has to do with the failure of the transit *agencies*, since they don’t really have any power over land use. But it’s still a failure of (for?) the region’s transit system for all the reasons I laid out here.

      And honestly, I mind the parking lots, many of which are really not that big as park and rides go, much less than I mind the general unwillingness of suburban governments to allow any kind of densification near them.

  3. Part of the problem here is that even if you have a pro-density group passionate enough to travel to different wards and speak on the city-wide benefits of increasing density in these meetings, the alderman still gets elected by the people already in the neighborhood. The voice for the common good is drowned out by the voice of the local self-interest. What is the solution? A city-wide re-zoning plan?

  4. It seems to me that the drive towards restricting density comes from local property owners who have an interest in boosting their own values by preventing any expansion in the housing stock. Case in point: the Merriville development that was almost scuttled by local homeowners because they didn’t want to see such a large increase in the local housing stock.

    What do you think?

  5. I agree with you about denser development but the issues are quite complex.

    I had a discussion with a home owner who was considering a design with passive solar techniques. The neighbor was talking about selling their house to a developer who was going to get a Zoning variance to build much closer to the property and much higher. This would block much of the light we were planning to use in our sustainable effort.

    Andersonville has the same wonderful pre-Zoning mix of single family homes, 2 flats, six flats and much larger apartment buildings. How did developers justify not maximizing their investments by building as large as possible in the past? I am very curious. Today of course, a rational actor builds as large as possible. Why wasn’t that the case when Andersonville was built? Was there no demand for larger buildings? That doesn’t seem to stop anyone today… Please let me know what you think!

    1. For the most part, they did – but “maximum” housing demanded changed over the years. In general, as you move from the late 1800s to the 1920s, buildings did get bigger and denser. Since the 1920s, that hasn’t been true, because of zoning. The really dense, high-rise stuff didn’t happen because a) it’s a bit too far from the lake and the Red Line to have had that pre-1920s zoning, and post-1920s zoning made it illegal.

      1. Yes, you are right as many of the larger apartment buildings on our block are neoclassical WWI vintage. We are in a a frame house from around 1900. There are some masonry 6 flats that look pretty contemporary with our place. Mixture, as you know, is a quality of the English Picturesque. Balance is seen as stasis or death.

        But how does the free market resent this from ghetto-ising or balancing?

        Land values are based upon the zoning and the possible building value. Add the Alderman’s prerogative to this where he/she can instantly change the occupancy or density to whatever she can get through the City Council. There was a building on Broadway in Uptown that, according to the records, was zoned for 11 units. It was always 21 units. The condo association was told originally by Zoning that they needed records “to prove” that it was original. There were no records save for a document in 1947 signed by the Commissioner saying that the occupancy was approved to be changed from 9 to 11 units. Very strange as it provoked chuckles and the shaking of heads of the Zoning clerks. The Alderman made a phone call and “took care of it.”

        Have you played the game of life? Is that a viable model for Zoning decisions? Then nodes would have very high densities. The would be in line with what you are talking about.

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