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.


The invention of gentrification: Ten notes

I just picked up (ordered to my Kindle) The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, an American urban history classic that’s been on my list for years. It explores how, and why, between roughly World War II and 1980 northern Brooklyn transitioned from a prime candidate for slum clearance and urban renewal to the treasured capital of New York’s, and the country’s, “new middle class” (or “creative class,” or whatever). Though the focus is on Brooklyn, it’s a story that has obvious structural parallels in many other cities, including Chicago.


Anyway, I’m just about a third of the way through, and have no overarching conclusions, except that if this sounds remotely interesting to you, it is even more interesting in the actual reading, and here are ten notes on what I’ve read so far.




(See: Suburban Warriors)



(See: My own previous writing on the “immaculate conception” myth.)










Why is CTA ridership down? A new theory

Previously on the blog, I’ve written about the short-term decline in bus ridership (couched in medium-term stagnation and long-term catastrophic decline) in the context of drastically reduced service, a theme I also picked up at City Observatory.

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“Revenue miles” is just a measure of service. If there’s one bus route that’s 10 miles long, and it’s served by one bus that travels from the beginning to the end and then back again, that’s 20 revenue miles.


But, as Chicago finally reaches the long-anticipated Great Inversion of Transit Ridership—that is, in July 2016, L ridership finally surpassed CTA bus ridership for the first time in the city’s history—I’ve found another possible culprit at CTBA’s Budget Blog.


You should click through to read the whole piece, but the summary is this: CTA financial documents show that from the mid-2000s through 2012, transit passes—fare products that give you unlimited rides for one, three, seven, or 30 days—had been growing as a share of all rides, and single-ride tickets had been falling. During this entire period, minus the big economic crash and service cutbacks of 2009 and 2010, ridership growth across the system, even on buses, was pretty robust.


Then suddenly in 2013, the use of passes absolutely nosedives, and continues to crash in 2014, before leveling out in 2015. These years also represent the first sustained decline in CTA ridership outside of a recession since 2000.


My theory is this: In 2013, two things happened that caused people to move from passes to single-ride tickets. First, at the beginning of the year, the CTA massively increased the price of passes across the board, without raising the price of a single ride. Second, later in the year, the CTA began its transition to Ventra, which replaced disposable passes with the (confusing to many people) permanent Ventra card, which could store passes bought at fare machines or in other locations around the city.

My guess is that both of these things are behind the move away from passes. Significantly, the decline continues into 2014, when Ventra fully replaced the old system, before stabilizing in 2015, suggesting that the early 2013 price increases aren’t the whole story.

So what does this have to do with ridership? Well, buying a pass makes your marginal cost for a CTA trip free. That means you’re much more likely to take a trip that you might not if your marginal cost is $2 or $2.25. Studies of transportation behavior bear out that even seemingly small changes in the marginal cost of a trip can have meaningful impacts on choices.

And why would this affect buses more than the L? I can think of at least two good reasons. The first is that navigating the new Ventra system is easiest when you have a fare machine in front of you, plus a CTA employee (who isn’t currently operating a vehicle) nearby to help—something L riders have every time they go to a station, but bus riders don’t. Second, bus riders, on average, have significantly lower incomes than L riders, and so would be more sensitive to the pass price increases of 2013.

Does this explain everything? Definitely not. Is it all speculative? Pretty much. Is the change in pass use extremely dramatic, and would we expect it to have some kind of impact on ridership? Yes, and probably.

Chicago’s newly Democratic suburbs

Something a little different, a month before the election. But not too different! Though I haven’t written about it much, my interest in neighborhood and regional demographic changes extends to the political effects of those shifts. At some point, I’d really love to look at those changes within Chicago, for example in how competitive progressive candidates for alderman or mayor have been—but I haven’t yet found the data sets to really do that.

So instead, have a bigger-picture look at the shifting political allegiances of Chicago’s suburbs. All this data is from Scott Kennedy’s amazing Illinois Election Data site, from which I pulled Democratic vote shares for statewide elections (that is, everything from Comptroller to Governor, as well as federal elections like Senator and President) going back to 1990. Kennedy has this vote for four regions: the city of Chicago; suburban Cook County; the suburban collar counties (which, in this version, include everything in Chicago’s media market); and the rest of the state, which we obnoxiously call “downstate,” even though parts of it are north of the Loop.

What these lines show is how much more (or less) Democratic each of these regions were compared to the statewide vote. I did that mostly because otherwise you’d see lots of swings that aren’t about changing demographics, but just the different general level of appeal of, say, John Kerry versus Barack Obama.


As you can see, Chicago has remained pretty steady since at least 1994, at roughly 25 points more Democratic than the state as a whole. But the other regions have moved around much more.

In 1990, downstate Illinois was significantly more Democratic than either the Cook County suburbs (by about 7 points) or the collar counties (by more than 10). By 2014, it had become easily the most Republican part of the state.

Meanwhile, the Cook County suburbs were completely transformed, moving from about 7 points more Republican than the state as a whole to being 7 points more Democratic. Movement in the collar counties wasn’t as significant, and they remain much more Republican than all of Illinois, but they’ve moderated enough to become more Democratic than downstate.

This suburban shift towards Democrats is very closely linked to the rapid diversification of non-Chicago Chicagoland, both in racial and economic terms. (You can see the economic shifts quite dramatically in the maps in this post, and some of the racial shifts in this one.)

Notably, this kind of shift was not inevitable, and it hasn’t taken place everywhere. A few years ago,  the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published a really fantastic feature on the Milwaukee area’s political segregation—which, it turns out, is (not incidentally) just as extreme as its racial segregation. This map pretty much sums up the issue:


In 1990, and certainly 1980, Chicago’s map would have looked much more like Milwaukee’s. But our suburbs have diversified, and Milwaukee’s, seemingly, have not.

Of course, political segregation is kind of inextricable from racial and economic segregation as the raison d’etre of 20th century suburbanization and the splintering of single regions into dozens, or hundreds, of separate municipalities. As books like Crabgrass Frontier or, more straightforwardly, The Formation of American Local Governments make clear, resource hoarding—avoiding the progressive redistribution of tax money through public schools, public transportation, and so on—was a, perhaps the, major imperative for the political fragmentation of American metropolitan areas. The blurring of lines about what a suburb or city is, demographically and politically, might lead to greater regional cooperation, better resource distribution, and the end of ridiculousness like Metra, which has as much city rail infrastructure as the CTA but doesn’t do anything with it because it’s controlled by suburban officials.

Of course, a whole heap of accumulated attitudes and nonsensical, fragmented institutions makes that sort of transition a whole lot more difficult. But it’s something we might expect to hear more about as the suburbs begin to look more and more like the city.

City Notes on TV!

Last week, Ken Davis was gracious enough to invite me on his show, Chicago Newsroom, on CANTV. The actual show lasted only 30 minutes, but we kept talking, and a nearly hour-long video got posted to their YouTube page.

This is me being upset about suboptimal bus boarding procedures

Topics included:

  1. Why Chicago is still suburbanizing



Maps from the Washington Post I reference in the interview.

2. The diversifying suburbs

3. The demographic shifts on the Southwest Side, and in Bronzeville

4. The Red Line extension, and Sandy Johnston’s amazing work on the history of the Metra Electric


5. The future of buses, and alternatives to the “Bus Rapid Transit” model

I had a lot of fun with it! Hope you enjoy.

The August issue, and a podcast

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The Chicago Dispatch is out with its August issue.


  • Read Lee Bey on what modernist architecture has to offer—and how to reconcile full-throated advocacy for its artistic value with acknowledgement of its social legacy, including urban renewal and public housing.


Quasi-relatedly, I had the honor of being interviewed on AirGo radio this week. For those who don’t know it, AirGo does longform interviews with Chicagoans, including many artists and activists. I’m a fan, and you should check out their other episodes! But maybe listen to mine first.

The Chicago Dispatch

When this blog really got going, most of the energy came from a desire to answer questions I had about Chicago, and sometimes cities more generally. Over the last several years, I’ve taught myself (and been taught) a fair amount about finding data, manipulating it, and making maps to help get those answers.

But obviously there are a lot of questions one might have that aren’t best answered through data and maps, and I often find my thoughts bumping up against the borders of what this blog can do. So, on nights and weekends over the last several months, I’ve been putting together a different project: The Chicago Dispatch.

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The Dispatch will publish interviews, as well as essays, photography, poems, and other work each month. The goal is to make a place for work that might not otherwise get published anywhere, and that answers, in various ways, questions I have about Chicago—and, hopefully, that other people have too.

Please check it out! There are two months’ of material up, including stuff about an under-appreciated planned manufacturing district on the South Side, the economics of a pawn shop, what it’s like to go to a top-ranked public high school in Englewood, and more. You can also follow along for updates at @thechidispatch on Twitter.

I haven’t really done anything like this before, so please send your comments and constructive criticism my way! I want to make this something worthwhile for people, and I fully expect to do a lot of adjustments along the way.

And finally, thanks to everyone who helped me along the way—and a big thanks to everyone who took the time to contribute or be interviewed already. There are too many people to mention all by name, but you know who you are.

In praise of diagonal streets

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I have an entry in this year’s “Best of Chicago” issue of the Reader:

There were supposed to be more of them. It was in the Plan. (You know which Plan.)

In the Plan, diagonal streets spanned the city like the Hancock Center’s Xs, creating crosstown routes and turning perfectly perpendicular intersections into junctions of six or even eight corners: 51st and King, LaSalle and Ohio, Western and Fullerton.

But Chicagoans love Daniel Burnham’s Plan mostly in theory, and so today the city has fewer Grid-defying streets than in 1909, when Burnham and his coauthor, Edward H. Bennett, made their recommendations. (There’s probably some Mark Twain quote about the Bible that would be applicable here, along the lines of “often cited, rarely read.” That’s how Chicagoans love the Plan.)

Read the whole thing here!

More bus improvements in Chicago

Last fall, new-ish CTA president Dorval Carter—who has said in interviews that making bus service better will be one of his top priorities—re-introduced the “X route” expresses along Western and Ashland during rush hour, and, perhaps more excitingly, announced a stop consolidation program that would notably reduce travel times even on the locals.

This morning, the CTA announced a series of service enhancements to bus lines on the South Side, as well the Green Line L:

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As you can see, the changes are mostly improvements in service frequency, as well as significant expansion to service hours on the 26-South Shore Express; a 2.5-mile extension of the 4-Cottage Grove line’s service area, from the current terminus at 95th St. to 115th St., which amounts to a significant increase in frequency to a corridor that was previously only served by 115-Pullman/115th; and the combination of the current 95E and 95W lines, which currently meet, and end, at the 95th St. Red Line station.

These improvements have pretty much been met with a yawn by Chicago media, whose coverage, as far as I can tell, has been limited to an “and also” addendum to the bottom of this Tribune story about Mayor Emanuel naming Andrea Zopp to a new community development position. (Though I wouldn’t be surprised to see a story in Streetsblog Chicago, too.) In fact, one reporter at the press conference couldn’t help but wonder when there would be a real transit story:

Without passing judgment on the merits of the Red Line extension, this (non-)reaction reminded me of the excellent opening to Yonah Freemark’s recent post at The Transport Politic:

Given how reliant the people of New York City are on their Subway, an outsider just looking at ridership data might conclude that the system must be paved with gold, or at least its stations must be decent to look at. After all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the comfort of a transit system plays an essential role in encouraging people to abandon their cars and get on the train or bus. That’s why, some would argue, it’s so important to put amenities like USB charging and wifi into transit vehicles.

Yet anyone who has ever ridden the Subway knows first hand that its success has nothing to do with aesthetics or access to luxury amenities. Stations are hardly in good shape, trains are packed, and cell service is spotty at best. People ride the Subway in spite of these things; they ride it because it’s fast, it’s frequent, and it’s (relatively) reliable.

Particularly for people who aren’t regular transit users—which, unfortunately, includes a large number of both decision-makers and reporters on the subject—there’s a sense that real transit improvements must include either new infrastructure, or something that easily translates to the world outside transit, like cell service underground or maybe express service to the airport.

But if you actually talk to regular transit users—especially bus users—about the improvements they’d like to see, you’re likely to hear about how frustrating it is to show up at your stop and see that no bus is coming for 10, 15, 20 minutes or more. Or that some bus doesn’t even run on certain days, or doesn’t run early enough in the morning, or late enough in the evening, to be useful for the trips they need to make. In other words, what matters is whether you can depend on a line to get you where you’re going, when you need to go.

These improvements, unsexy though they are, will make important progress towards that goal. The extension of hours on the 26-South Shore Express means that the line will now be more useable by service workers in the Loop who don’t work a traditional 9-5 day. Riders of the 71-71st/South Shore on the 2/3 of the line below 73rd St. will see average waits for a bus fall by 3.5 minutes at rush hour and 7.5 minutes off peak. From 79th St., that represents an average 9% time savings on the whole trip to the Red Line at rush hour, and an average 17% time savings off peak. (Remember that on transit, trip time is travel time plus wait time. And of course, these are averages—but in many ways, it’s more important that maximum wait times will decrease from 15 minutes to 7 during rush hour, and a completely unacceptable 30 minutes to 15 minutes off peak.)

On Cottage Grove below 95th St., the extension of the 4 means that instead of a bus every 15 minutes at rush hour, there will be one every 3.5 minutes—an improvement in average waiting time of 5.5 minutes. On top of that, those traveling to destinations on Cottage Grove who previously had to transfer from the 4 to the 115 will no longer have to transfer—another savings of 7.5 minutes of wait time, on average, for those traveling southbound.

And the combination of the 95E and 95W lines means that people traveling across 95th St., but not going to the Red Line, won’t have to transfer. These lines run about every 12 minutes at rush hour and 15-20 minutes at other times, meaning these travelers will save an average of 6-10 minutes per trip.

The Metra Electric tracks on 71st St. in South Shore. Credit: Samuel A. Love, Flickr

Of course, these improvements don’t answer every important question about transit on these corridors. For one, while waiting time is important, travel time is too—and right now, too many Chicago buses get stuck in car traffic they could avoid with bus-only lanes. Particularly for the 26, which runs express to the Loop on Lake Shore Drive, it’s far past time for the city to dedicate bus lanes on LSD. The number of travelers to downtown on buses rival those arriving by private car, and while there’s no way to ensure fast car travel without paving the entire lakefront, because buses are so much more space-efficient, we could guarantee at least one rapid form of transportation along the lakefront with bus lanes. (Of course, that also ignores the larger question of the existing high-capacity rail transit line along much of the 26’s route, the Metra Electric, which has been the subject of an ongoing campaign for frequent all-day service for decades.)

Beyond bus lanes, speeding up fare collection—either with off-board payment at SBS-style kiosks or all-door boarding, a la San Francisco’s Muni—and reducing bus bunching are also important measures.

But today’s announcement is another encouraging sign that the current CTA administration is interested in making the kind of service changes that actually make the difference between lines on a map and transit service that you can rely on to get around your city. Hopefully we’ll see more of these kinds of moves on routes all around Chicago.

(I don’t really have room to discuss it here, but I should briefly mention that the other recent CTA bus news—that the long-sought return of the 31st St. and Lincoln Ave. buses will come in the form of pilots that don’t even run during the morning rush, and have frequencies as bad as every 30 minutes, is seemingly an indication that the agency is not very invested in the long-term return of these lines, to put it mildly.)

More on neoliberalism

A while ago, I wrote a post in response to a) the widespread use of the word “neoliberal” to describe urban policies among my youngish leftish social set, and b) the ambiguity of what that word was actually supposed to mean.

I thought of this again when I saw this tweet:


The background here is that early champions of UBI include such neoliberal luminaries as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. They found it attractive because it replaced a massive, complex bureaucracy tasked with implementing a thousand different programs that each attempted to guide recipients towards some paternalistic end (food for food stamps, homeownership for the mortgage interest tax deduction, etc.) with just one office, staffed by however many people are required to simply mail checks, no strings attached. A universal basic income maximizes utility because it is far more efficient than current transfer programs, in terms of both reducing bureaucratic overhead per dollar of assistance, and reducing the deadweight loss from people who would like to buy a new shirt, but can’t, because food stamps don’t cover shirts.*

I think this is a particularly interesting example because it is both neoliberal and progressively redistributionist. That is, UBI was invented to optimize a government program according to market logic, but would also (probably) result in a transfer of resources from relatively wealthier people to relatively poorer people. The baggier definitions of “neoliberal,” which treat it as a synonym of “laissez faire,” or “bad from my perspective as a leftist,” don’t really have any room for such a thing—and yet, here it is.

But I think shifting to an understanding of neoliberalism that gives it some overlap with “progressive redistribution” actually allows for a much more useful analysis that goes beyond the standard left criticism of right-wing—that is, actually laissez-faire—economic policy. Obviously I’m not about to write a treatise on all of whatever neoliberalism is, but I will focus on one piece that I think is particularly consequential: The idea that giving people more choices cannot make them, or society in general, worse off.

This is pretty much a rule of the kind of utilitarianism you might call “market logic.”** If everyone’s utility is based on their ability to satisfy a set of preferences, then adding more choices to their environment—whether it’s another kind of cereal, or another health plan, or another school—almost by definition can’t reduce their utility. If they like the new cereal more than any of the cereals they currently have access to, then they can buy it, and hurray! More utility. If they like one of the current options more than the new one, then they can stick with what they have, and no harm done.

But I think most people, if prodded, would recognize that more choice is not always better. Sometimes, that’s because the process of choosing is costly in time and mental effort. Late last year, for example, I signed up for Obamacare, and was presented with dozens and dozens of possible insurance plans, not a single one of which I completely understood. Compared to the median person, I have gone through a lot of formal education, and have a lot of practice reading and interpreting complex documents, and have no actual medical condition, or children, or overbearing job to hamper my ability to sit down and weigh the various plans available to me—and yet not only was the process time-consuming, exhausting, and frustrating, but the chances that I actually picked the plan that was “best” for me is basically zero. Competition and choice were marketed as great features of Obamacare, but it seemed clear to me that I almost certainly would have been better off with, say, three or four options—or even one basic plan, with optional add-ons—than the overwhelming menu of choices I actually had.

And yet, Obamacare is a progressive, redistributionary policy! And in my amateur opinion, the country is better for having it. Neoliberalism, in this case, both delivered healthcare to millions of people who didn’t have it before, and created a whole new set of problems related to market logic.

Other times—and I think this is more relevant for urban policy—the problem is that adding choices leads other people to do things that end up negatively affecting you, even if your “original choice” is still available. So, for example, WBEZ finds that opening up “school choice,” both in the form of charter schools and opt-in regular public schools besides the neighborhood default, has led to a situation in which high-test-score students (and presumably the socioeconomic advantages and disadvantages that correlate with high test scores) are more segregated than they were previously. And students whose families stayed put in neighborhood schools, for whatever reason, are often finding that those schools are increasingly isolated, under-enrolled, and under-resourced.

You can imagine something like this dynamic applying in almost any sort of geographic sorting problem. So, for example, while I’m obviously a big advocate of what you might traditionally call “open housing” (opposing barriers against people of color or people of modest financial means moving to more privileged neighborhoods), it’s not hard to see that an approach to geographical equity that begins and ends with the mobility—that is, the expansion of choice—of people in under-resourced neighborhoods will likely end up with something like the kind of sorting problem Chicago has experienced in its public schools, exacerbating the disadvantage of the “losing” schools/neighborhoods.

This sort of issue is also in play in urban transportation policy, where in many cases, decisions that expand the choice available to one group of people reduce the choices available to another. So a highway that reduces travel time for people with the ability to drive a car, expanding the number of places they can reach, can reduce mobility for people without a car. It might do that in obvious ways, like erecting a barrier to walking—but perhaps the more far-reaching mechanism is sorting.

The construction of the I-88 employment corridor in DuPage County, for example, represented an expansion of the choice set of people able to drive, in the sense that it allowed people to move farther from the city, and therefore consume more land (ie, have bigger homes and yards), while still commuting to a Chicago region job. But it meaningfully restricted the choice set of people who did not drive, who found that a rapidly declining share of the region’s employment was accessible without a car. The construction of I-88 itself—and just as importantly, the vast network of wide, high-speed arterial streets through DuPage and suburban Cook County—created options that led to sorting that put many Chicagoans at a severe disadvantage.

It seems likely that this sort of dynamic, in which a policy that opens up a new choice leads to sorting that makes some people worse off, is particularly relevant in situations with lots of dense networks and resource-sharing that depends on those networks. In other words, cities. As I argued in the last post on this subject, I think an understanding of neoliberalism that focuses on laissez-faire economics is particularly badly suited to understanding the kinds of urban policies, outcomes, and coalitions that leftists are opposed to. Neoliberalism as market logic—or the “market toolbox,” as I put it last time—seems much more useful.

* Obviously you could also justify UBI on non-neoliberal grounds. Here’s Jacobin trying to parse what an explicitly left UBI would be.

** You can definitely write a model in which that’s not true, but I’m just going to assert that that’s a very common understanding.