Masochism

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Chicago’s housing market is broken, for a lot of reasons. One of them is that areas with rapidly increasing land values on the North Side restrict development in a way that makes single-family homes by far the most profitable way to use residential land: single-family homes are so much more valuable than condos that you would need to build a relatively dense building in order to make more money than you could make by just building a house.

If, for example, single-family homes in a given neighborhood are going for $2 million, and condos for $400,000, then you’d need to build at least five units on a plot of land that would accommodate one single-family home in order for that to make financial sense. But in Chicago, vanishingly little side street land is zoned to allow construction of anything over three or four units—and much of it is actually restricted to single-family housing.

Those prices are made up, and of course all of this is much more complicated: there are varying construction costs and so on, and of course the question of preservation law. But the basic market dynamic that’s causing a shrinkage in the total number of homes in many parts of Lincoln Park, North Center, and other neighborhoods is as I’ve described it above.

Anyway, all this is a prequel to the following sets of images, which show what this basic market dynamic means for Chicago’s physical environment. (To be clear, these show the demolitions of historic buildings—generally with three to four homes—and their replacement with luxury single-family homes.)

 

O’Hare express: Bad. Damen Green Line: Good.

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The original Damen stop on the Lake St. elevated line being demolished in 1949

Two announcements from the Mayor today on Chicago transit.

First, Emanuel is recommitting to the terrible, very bad O’Hare express train proposal that won’t save almost anybody any time and will probably cost the city a ton of money if it ever happens, while serving mostly as an abstract bragging right among rich business travelers. I’ve written before about why this is bad; all those reasons still apply.

I’ll add one other note, though, which is that some people have suggested this will only happen if it can be done entirely with private money. Here is what I will say: There is virtually no prospect that this line will turn a profit—as I mentioned in the Chicago Magazine piece, Toronto’s line, which is logistically far superior to any express we might build, is miles away from even breaking even on its operating costs, let alone making up for its construction costs. That makes me extremely skeptical that a private company would be willing to shell out for an O’Hare express at its own risk. Far more likely, especially given the city’s far-from-stellar record in negotiating public-private partnerships, is that if this went through, it would be because the city had assumed a large share of the downside risk if the express didn’t turn a profit. In other words, I can’t imagine a scenario where this project happens and Chicago residents don’t catch the bill.

The other announcement was happier: a new infill Green Line station at Damen and Lake. (Actually, this is replacing an older station that was put out of service after World War II, just like the other two Green Line stations built since 2011, Morgan and Cermak.)

The Damen stop is being pitched as “serving the United Center,” but that’s pretty silly: it’ll be barely closer to the stadium than the current Ashland Green Line or Illinois Medical District Blue Line stations. (I’ve marked the location of the Damen station with a little grey pin in the map below.)

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Rather, the new station will serve much more important purposes. In addition to a decent number of homes, it’s in the middle of a major industrial corridor, with more than 3,100 jobs within a third of a mile of Damen and Lake, according to On The Map. But perhaps even more than Near West Siders, who already have the option of the Blue Line’s Forest Park branch about three quarters of a mile to the south, the Damen Green Line station is great news for residents of Ukrainian Village.

In fact, after providing service to the Fulton industrial corridor, the station’s most important function may be relieving the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch, which struggles with overcrowding during rush periods. While someone living in Ukrainian Village today might take the Chicago or Grand buses to the Blue Line, once the Damen stop is complete, they’ll be able to take the Damen bus (or walk or bike) to the Green Line, and get on a much less crowded train—and one that, if they work in the West Loop, may even be more convenient to their office.

Rage

The changes have come so fast that it’s worth sitting for a minute on the fact that had someone in 2012 told the GOP that they would all be lining up behind this in 2016, it would have been considered outrageous slander.

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In the most generous interpretation, then, tens of millions of people have cynically thrown their support to a person and to ideas they considered monstrous only a year ago. They have become monsters, by their own definitions, in the service of an openly racist president.

Americanness is obviously highly contested and always has been, but the open, cosmopolitan definition isn’t just the one that seems morally correct, it’s the one that matches my lived experience—very little of my life would be recognizable (or, going not so far back in time, possible on this continent at all) if you cut out all my friends and acquaintances who were not born in this country.

Nor is it at all lost on me—as this policy is announced on a day set aside for remembering the Holocaust—that when people start making lists of the religions that make lives less valuable, they rarely stop at one.

To everyone whose life has been thrown into chaos by this, and to the Muslims whose very lives are insulted by this bigotry, I’m so sorry, and so angry.

The invisible trains of Chicago

At Chicago Magazine, tilting at a favorite windmill:

But accidents of history have split these lines among three different public agencies—none of which, traditionally, have bothered to tell you about the others on their maps or signage. That means that when you look at a map on a CTA train car, there are actually more than 70 rail stations in the city of Chicago that exist in real life—I promise—but mysteriously do not exist on that map.

How bungalow-y is the Bungalow Belt?

Over at City Observatory, I’ve published a new piece about the ways that urban geometry—which is really just a fancy way of saying “the fact that single family homes take up more space than apartments”—affects the way that neighborhood identity is formed. And, in turn, how that visual bias in the way neighborhood identity is formed reinforces some of the most basic inequalities in American life: economic, racial, and so on.

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This imaginary block is visually dominated by bungalows, but actually has an equal number of homes in three-flats.

I minimized this a bit because I was writing for a national audience, but the impetus for the post really came out of an interest I had in a very Chicago-specific question: How bungalow-y is the Bungalow Belt? Or, more concretely, when people in the Bungalow Belt make claims about their neighborhoods’ “suburban character,” and then demand that public policy reinforce that perceived character, how firm are those grounds?

The answer is: well, it depends, but much less firm than they, or you, might think.

The City Observatory piece cites Jefferson Park in particular, in which the vast majority of residential land—72 percent—is covered by single family homes (thus “suburban character”), but in fact the majority of actual residents—52 percent—live in multifamily buildings.

That happens to be a particularly tidy outcome for me, especially because the article I linked to above is also centered on Jefferson Park, but it’s not at all exceptional. In fact, Jefferson Park isn’t even in the top ten Chicago community areas in terms of the gap between single-family homes as a percentage of residential land and as a percentage of residents:

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There’s a full version of this, with all the community areas, at the end of this post.

Topping the list is Kenwood—where over half the land is taken up by single-family homes, but just 14 percent of actual humans there live in one. Kenwood’s gap is maybe unsurprising, since it combines one of the biggest mansion districts in the city with a large number of relatively high-density midrise (and a few highrise) buildings. South Shore, with the Wilmette-esque Jackson Park Highlands abutting very high-density multifamily buildings, is in a similar situation.

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South Shore: Jackson Park Highlands’ mini-mansions sandwiched between wall-to-wall apartment blocks.

But even neighborhoods without that kind of notable density differential are on the list. Maybe most interesting to me is Chatham, one of the most iconic Bungalow Belt neighborhoods in the city, where two-thirds of all residential land is taken up by those bungalows—but, as it turns out, where just one out of three people actually lives in one.

If you map these disparities, you get this:

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And that (incomplete) ring—belt, if you will—of very high differentials around the outer neighborhoods of the city happens to look a lot like another map:

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…which happens to be a map of the Bungalow Belt as defined by the Historic Chicago Bungalow Association.

One other community area sticks out to me in that map: Lincoln Park, where fully 41 percent of all land is taken up with single-family homes, versus just 19 percent of people who live in them. Just to the north, in Lakeview, single-family homes take up just 22 percent of residential land; in West Town, adjacent to the west, which includes much lower-density areas far from the lakefront and the L, it’s just 21 percent. I don’t have the historic data for it, but I strongly suspect that Lincoln Park’s abundance of single-family home land is a relatively recent phenomenon, driven by the voracious pace of teardowns of single-lot apartment buildings, to be replaced by mansionesque townhomes, many of which take up two or more lots.

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Which, in turn, is encouraged by awful low-density zoning that makes such activity the most profitable course for developers to take, as the city has neither allowed more lucrative higher-density development that would allow more people to live in the neighborhood, nor taken steps to preserve historic buildings and prevent the mansionization of an inner city district.

Anyway. The point of all this is not that I’m anti-bungalow. I like bungalows! Love, even! But, to repeat myself, neighborhoods (like this country!) are constantly in a state of competition for self-definition, because those self-definitions strongly imply a future course of action—whether the identity in question is Christian nation v. ecumenical nation, or suburban neighborhood v. urban neighborhood. In an American land use regime where “conforming with neighborhood character” is the north star*, determining what exactly a neighborhood’s character is can mean the difference between more housing and less—or more affordable housing and less, or more transit access and less, and so on.

What’s interesting here is a kind of self-perpetuating cycle: notwithstanding metropolitan area-wide trends, within any particular neighborhood, richer people almost always live in lower-density housing, because they can afford to buy the most space in whatever location they’ve chosen. But the very act of buying space means that they get to define more of the physical character of the neighborhood than other people—which reinforces their already-disproportionate power to influence both social-cultural expression and public policy. And then, in places from Lincoln Park to Edison Park (nearly 90 percent single-family home land, but nearly a third of whose population lives in multi-family buildings) to Jefferson Park, they use that ability to define neighborhood character by purchasing space to advance their preferred policy outcomes, which involves privileging more low-density development (and presumably the higher-income people who will live in it).

*The cynic in me will note that this ceases being the north star when the question is de-densification, ie, mansionization. In other words, when the “character” is “less rich than we wish it were.”

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The four plus one

I was asked to submit a short essay to a publication. They, quite reasonably, did not want my ode to four plus ones.

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In the cafeteria of Chicago architecture, the four plus one eats lunch alone. The bungalow comes in wearing its letter jacket, and high-fives a greystone, and they would both at least say hi to a courtyard building in the hallway. But the four plus one watches all this from a back table, nervously looking down to check that its first-floor parking lot isn’t showing.

Can we invite the four plus one to lunch? Can we see that, sure, its brick facade is plain—and sure, its parking lot is always showing—but that it’s special all the same? That the awning above the lobby bends and breaks at angles no bungalow bay window would ever dare? That often as not the garage is screened by some pretty hip patterned concrete blocks? That it pleasingly encloses the street and makes an excellent backdrop for shade trees?

I love you, four plus one. One day everyone will see.

The creation of vacant land in Chicago neighborhoods

This is really just a “hm” post, combined with a request for information. One of the things that’s never totally be clear to me is how the substantial number of Chicago neighborhoods with large amounts of vacant land—land that was at some point built up, but had its structures demolished and not replaced—got that way. It’s a weird thing to be shrouded in mystery, since it’s something that becomes a defining, and stigmatizing, visual feature of the neighborhood for both local residents and outsiders.

I also wonder because it’s not completely obvious to me why some neighborhoods are riddled with empty lots while others are physically intact. For example, here’s a section of Garfield Park near Kostner and Adams that’s mostly intact:

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And here’s an area of North Lawndale near Central Park and 16th that’s much more pockmarked with vacant lots:

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Both of these are very high-poverty tracts—50 percent or higher—which is relevant because the usual explanation of this issue is a sort of generic “decline” and abandonment story. They’ve also both in community areas that have experienced extreme population loss: 72 percent in the case of North Lawndale, and 62 percent in Garfield Park.

Another common explanation is that “they never recovered from the riots,” but I am broadly skeptical of riot-based explanations for things. In general, they seem to be a questionable and exculpatory-to-white-people explanatory tool, and usually more of an effect than a cause in the real world. (For example: While many stories of Detroit’s white flight begin with the 1967 riots, in fact the city had already lost 25 percent of its white population between 1950 and 1960.)

Anyway, the other night I went on Historic Aerials to see if I could see anything about the timeline of abandonment. Forgive the watermarks, but here are two high-vacancy areas—the first in Englewood, along 63rd just west of the Dan Ryan—the dates are highlighted on the left side of each image.

And here’s a patch of North Lawndale.

As you can see, the vast majority of empty land in both cases appears between 1972 and 1988, with relatively few additions since then. That suggests to me that there’s something going on here beyond a generic sort of “decline,” either demographic or economic. Otherwise, we’d expect that vacant land would continue to increase substantially in the 90s and 2000s, as both of these areas continued to lose population and income.

So what was it? On Twitter there were a few suggestions, but maybe the most interesting was arson (the urban renewal explanation certainly holds for some places where large blocks were cleared, but generally can’t explain the sort of pockmarking I’m talking about here):

The New York situation is written up here, via Stephen Smith. Googling around also reveals this Congressional report from 1979, whose introduction says:

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A later section says:

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And more on the financial motivations for committing arson:

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The reasons here that involve subsequent reinvestment—modernization, gentrification—don’t seem plausible, given the trajectory of these neighborhoods at the time. But many of the others do. Blockbusting and stop loss seem particularly relevant given the rapid racial and economic transitions happening in the 1970s.

Not only is there a national report, it turns out that Illinois commissioned a report just a few years before the Congressional one came out. Here are numbers from Chicago:

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Notably, those totals at the top are probably understating things, as later the report includes “suspicious” and other fires:

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And here is a map, though it includes many neighborhoods—Chatham, South Shore—that don’t have an especially bad vacant land problem:

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Anyway: Who else has things I can read about this?

UPDATE: Fiverthiryeight talked to an author of a book about the Bronx fires—though he blames NYC-specific policies.

UPDATE 2: Tom Plagge flags this Tribune story from 1980 about arson in Uptown. On just two streets—Winthrop and Kenmore—there were about 130 fires in 1979 alone between Irving Park and Devon. It also includes this graphic:

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The invention of public-hating, brownstoning urbanism

City Observatory just published my review of The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, one of the most thought-provoking books I read in all of 2016:

At this point, brownstoning might have reevaluated what kind of movement it was. As this process pushed the frontier of “authenticity” (and affordability) further south, they might have realized that “modernity” was not something that could be left on the other side of the East River; that their idyllic urban villages were in fact sites of increasing competition for housing and cultural expression.

Instead, in Osman’s telling—and in passages that will ring true to many observers of local politics today—the movement doubled down on a politics of authenticity and local purity. Sometimes this politics had a progressive gloss, as when they opposed the mass displacement of locals for urban renewal clearance. But that reading became harder to sustain when they opposed large middle- and low-income housing developments in an area with rapidly increasing housing prices, or when they lobbied against school desegregation. The common thread here is a commitment to local control as a way of preserving cultural distance, and local authenticity, from mass society—as represented by both freeways and public housing.

Please go read the review! And then go read the book.

And I’d love to hear your thoughts here, or at City Observatory, or on Twitter (@danielkayhertz). There’s a lot in the book that’s worth talking over.

A single wacko month explains half of the last eight years of bus ridership declines

It’s a problem: CTA bus ridership is down—close to 20 percent between 2008 and 2016, even as rail ridership has increased by roughly the same amount.

I’ve written about this issue before, both in the context of the serious service cuts CTA buses (and others) have suffered over this time period, and more recently about the curious, and little-reported, shift in how people pay for rides on the CTA, and how that shift might explain part of the ridership decline.

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But in this post, I’m going to present evidence that what might seem like a gradual, death-by-attrition sort of problem is actually largely accounted for by a completely inexplicable one-time ridership crash. In fact, two-thirds of the last five years’ worth of decline took place in a single monthfor no apparent reason, and in a way that’s totally incongruous with the ridership patterns that followed and preceded it.

Why wasn’t this already obvious? Well, it can be harder than you think to get a straightforward read on ridership trends. One big reason is that there are strong seasonal patterns—so, for example, ridership is generally lower in the summer, when high school is out. In the chart of CTA ridership below, you can see clear up-and-downs that repeat every year.

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So when the CTA or other agencies report monthly ridership changes, they don’t compare rides in one month to the previous month—otherwise you would just be getting seasonal trends, masking the “real” shifts. Instead, they compare ridership to the same month in the previous year. They also adjust for the number of weekdays and weekends, to make things really apples-to-apples.

That means that in some ways, it’s easiest to see trends in ridership not by charting the actual number of people who ride each month, but by charting these monthly year-over-year changes. If “real” ridership is unchanged, the first chart will still show seasonal ups and downs, but the second will just be flat.

So that’s what I’ve done below: Made a chart of the monthly year-over-year ridership changes on CTA buses and the L.

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There are three things to notice here. The first is that monthly ridership trends for buses and the L tend to track each other: When the rail ridership line goes up, the bus ridership line usually also goes up, and vice versa.

The second thing is that rail ridership generally does better than bus ridership, and by roughly the same amount every month—with one big exception, which we will get to in a moment. If you take out that big exception—which, again, just a sec—then between 2011 and 2016, L ridership consistently grew about three percentage points faster than bus ridership. So if L ridership grew five percent in a given month, bus ridership probably grew about two percent; if L ridership grew by two percent, bus ridership probably fell by one percent.

We can think of that three-percentage-point gap (illustrated by the red line in the chart below) as representing the big, long-term, structural reasons that ridership changes: more Loop jobs and destinations, and white-collar workers in North Side neighborhoods with L access, means more train rides; outer neighborhood population decline, service reductions, and perhaps the rise of companies like Uber, mean weaker bus performance. From month to month, other things might happen—a particularly brutal winter could push ridership down, say—but against the background of these structural forces, which will tend to keep rail and bus ridership trends in similar positions relative to each other.

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Which brings us to the Big Exception. In September 2013, the gap between rail and bus ridership growth was 2.0 percentage points; in October, it was 4.3 points; and then in November, it skyrocketed to 11.6 points. It then stayed at extremely high levels—on average, 13.7 points—for exactly twelve months, before abruptly returning to its previous three-point average.

What does that mean? It means that in a single month—November 2013—bus ridership cratered ten percent below where we would have expected it, before mysteriously leveling out again at that lower point in the very next month, and then continuing on its previous path of modestly underperforming L ridership trends. I say it cratered by ten percent because the bus-rail gap averaged 13.7 points, rather than three. And I say it happened in just one month because a one-time change will show up in year-over-year comparisons for exactly twelve months, until the prior year’s comparison month includes the change. That is, until you’ve gone all the way around the calendar, each new month is the first time you’ve measured that month at the new, lower level, so it shows up as a year-over-year decline, even though the only real change happened in the first month.

If that doesn’t compute, don’t worry, because the next chart hopefully explains the situation in a more intuitive way. It has two lines. The red line shows actual monthly bus ridership, in millions of rides. The blue line shows what would have happened i bus ridership had perfectly followed the “three percent” rule since January 2011, growing exactly three percentage points more slowly than L ridership.

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As you can see, before November 2013, actual ridership behaved almost exactly like the ridership we projected using the “three percent” rule. In fact, in many places, the projected numbers track the real ones so closely that the lines are on top of each other. But then, in November 2013, they sharply diverge. If bus ridership had continued to follow the “three percent” rule, we would have expected about 25.4 million bus rides that month; instead, we got about 23.2 million—nearly ten percent less.

And that gap—after appearing suddenly in a single month—then holds roughly steady thereafter. In other words, again: Since 2011, CTA bus ridership has followed a predictable pattern, modestly underperforming L ridership—except for just one month, when a couple million rides per month suddenly disappeared and didn’t come back.

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How big a deal is November 2013? Well, since 2011, annual bus ridership has fallen by nearly 46 million rides, or about 15 percent. Based on the projections above, November 2013 explains fully 30 million of those rides, or essentially two-thirds of the entire decline over the last five years.

And even if you go back to 2008—which includes ridership hits from the aftermath of the recession and the 2010 service cuts—November 2013 explains roughly half of the entire decline.

So what the hell happened? In short: I have no idea. That year, 2013, saw serious fare hikes, as I’ve written about, but they took place in January, 11 months before. That was also the year that Ventra was introduced—but the first Ventra cards became available in August, and the old fare payment system wasn’t put offline until halfway through 2014. There was a Ventra system crash on November 13, 2013, but the CTA estimated that they gave just 15,000 free rides that day—nowhere near enough to explain that month’s ridership crash, and no help at all in explaining why ridership would remain so much lower in subsequent months even after the crash had been fixed.

I will say that intuitively, I can’t imagine what sort of event—especially one that’s low-profile enough not to be obvious—would cause a one-time, seemingly permanent drop of 70,000 to 80,000 rides per day, essentially overnight, with no signs of unusual ridership patterns before or after. That leads me to suspect—though, again, without anything more than circumstantial evidence—that what we’re looking at is actually a measurement issue, rather than a ridership one. But what kind of measurement issue? I don’t know.


This post is long and convoluted enough, but for the sake of transparency I should note that the “three-percent” rule appears to mostly apply between 2011 and 2016 (and possibly beyond). From 2008 to 2010, the recession and harsh service cuts appeared to create a few other waves of difference, which mostly disadvantaged buses relative to rail.

What does aldermanic “menu money” pay for?

In Chicago, part of the deal with being an alderman (we have 50) in a city where nearly all policy decisions go through the mayor’s office is that you get $1.3 million per year to spend on any infrastructure projects you want. I forget who said this, but it’s basically “walking around money” for elected officials who often depend on the perception that they’ve brought (literally) concrete benefits to their small districts to be successful.

Anyway, what exactly aldermen spend their combined $65 million on per year is pretty opaque. Though the city does publish a list of projects, it’s in a format that’s incredibly tedious to compile and analyze. Fortunately, though, Claudia Morell of The Daily Line took a major step towards doing that last year, going through five years’ worth of projects, and I used her data to do a bit of analysis at CTBA’s Budget Blog.

As always, click over the read the whole thing, but a big question I had—based on anecdotal observations of others—was whether lower-income wards spent a higher proportion of their menu money on services that “should” have been paid for from the main city budget. The idea being that poor wards get, say, fewer street resurfacings or light pole installations than wealthier wards, and so have to make up for that with menu money, while those wealthier wards get to spend theirs on frillier things.

I don’t have any open-and-shut evidence, but the map below—which you can interact with at CTBA’s website—does suggest that black South Side wards spend a higher proportion of their money between CDOT (roads) and Bureau of Electricity (streetlights) than North Side wards, on average. That’s not as conclusive as it might seem, since CDOT projects include everything from street resurfacing to more “optional” projects like speed bumps and bike lanes, and even murals. But I think there’s definitely something to look into here, if anyone has an army of research assistants to put the man-hours into reading the city’s ridiculous menu money PDFs.

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