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Commuter Rail vs. Population Density

by Worldchanging Chicago local blog editor, Patrick Rollens

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Commuter rail isn't just a convenience in Chicago – it's a way of life. The region's Metra network, operated by the Regional Transportation Authority across 11 different rail lines, carries almost 70 million people a year. Most take the train in from the outlying suburbs, but an increasing number of riders (empty nesters and young professionals craving the urban lifestyle) live downtown and commute out to jobs in the burbs.

It's cheap (relatively so), reliable and offers service to and from all of Chicago's major suburbs into the city center; light rail is also 80 times safer than driving in a car. The major selling point, of course, is that it cuts down on traffic congestion – Metra's roadside billboard advertisements, for example, trumpet the fact that one commuter train can save dozens of automobile trips.

So commuter rail is a good thing – right?

Maybe not. An article in the Boston Globe Magazine (and blogged recently on Planetizen) describes an analysis that casts doubt on commuter rail's ability to shift urban development and traffic patterns. From Commuter Rail's False Promise by Tom Keane:

One would think, for instance, that new commuter-rail stations might encourage development nearby. It turns out they don't. Areas around train stations are only modestly more developed than anywhere else. One would also think that new stations might encourage more use of public transit. That is also untrue. The number of people using transit to get to work is largely unchanged by the addition of new stations.

The study was published by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and comes as that city prepares to welcome the new $550 million Greenbush Line. Parallels can be drawn with Chicago, but readers commenting on the Planetizen entry repeatedly placed the Windy City on the short list of metro areas that "got it right" with respect to planning and commuter rail.

I took Metra regularly for a few months for a short gig in the northwest suburbs. One problem I ran into was that once you arrived at your destination, you often needed a car to go those last couple of miles to your workplace. I found myself actually leaving my automobile out in the burbs, in a secured parking lot, so I could use it to drive a couple miles each morning when the Metra train dropped me off.

Surely there must be a better solution. And there is – but as with all things worldchanging, it requires foresight and planning on a scale greater than our current capabilities.

First and foremost, Chicago's Metra-served communities could stand more smart development. Some towns, like Arlington Heights to the west or Evanston to the north, sport populated "downtowns" with mixed-use condo towers, eateries and retail hotspots – all within walking distance of the local Metra station. Other stations, like my erstwhile destination in Schaumburg, are little more than parking lots in the middle of grassy fields. Some balance must be struck between requisite population density and convenience. Properly done, vibrant urban density is a boon for all involved.

The crucial factor in this equation is the involvement of the developers. Citizens can't have a sustainable urban lifestyle if they can't persuade commercial developers that they're willing to spend money on such amenities.

The urban design (or redesign, to be precise) of Lemont is one such unfolding story. The village is partnering with the Marquette Companies, a local development firm, to reshape the Chicago suburb into a thriving live-work-play environment, all in close proximity to a commuter rail line. Village planners, in an effort to retain the residents' collective $35 million in buying power, have essentially given Marquette carte blanche to transform the city.

"Our mission is to catalyze economic growth in suburban districts," Bruno Botarelli, a developer with Marquette, says in an article by Megan Brody in the Midwest Real Estate News' July 2006 issue. "Creating more sprawl is not part of our mission."

(Disclosure: I write for the Midwest Real Estate News. I did not, however, contribute to the article referenced above.)

Marquette's Lemont redevelopment, part of a 20-year effort that broke ground last year, calls for 5,000 residential units, most within walking distance of the downtown train station.

The developers have acknowledged that it will be years before their vision for Lemont is realized. It remains to be seen if and how Lemont will respond to this urban redesign. Will storefronts fill with independent restaurants and boutiques? Will Lemont's population (which doubled from 1994 to 2000) grow fast enough to absorb the new condo space? But regardless, the $150 million project represents a fundamental step forward for smart urban design. Once you've put a shovel in the ground, there's no turning back.

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Nice article. Commuter Rail certainly opens up a lot of possibilities for development/redevelopment. I have a few questions though,

1. Why did Chicago 'get it right', so to speak, while others didn't?
2. Do you agree with the article (Commuter Rail's False Promise) ? Or is development around transit stations more of a case-to-case basis when it comes to the level of development?

One thing I'd like to add. I think the crucial factor isn't so much the developers, but rather the demand from the Citizens for the 'sustainable urban lifestyle' that commuter rail might bring them. After all, they can't really persuade the developers that they're willing to spend for it if they really don't want to spend for it.


Posted by: David on 14 Jan 07

David - thanks for your comments!

Regarding question number one: one of the big criticisms with Boston's rail service as described in the article is that it links the affluent suburbs to the central business district (CBD), thereby bypassing less-wealthy suburbs elsewhere in the metro area. Chicago's Metra system, however, was planned before the rise of such regional destinations like Naperville and Elgin, and as such they're simply one more stop on a train ride that also hits a dozen or more inner-ring suburbs on the ride out. One glaring problem that hasn't been addressed so far is suburb-to-suburb transit -- it takes a LONG time to go from one town to another in the Chicago metro, and the rail system isn't set up to improve that situation in the near future.

I don't particularly agree with the Boston Globe article, but I'm sort of biased -- I'm a writer covering commercial development, so I frequently get to learn about long-range urban "visions" from developers around the Midwest. The collective vision this represents makes me hopeful for the future. To make it work, however, people need to get used to a higher residential density than they're used to. And developers need to learn that we demand the real thing -- they can't just cobble together a few condos, a few retail spaces and call it mixed use. It has to be well planned and visionary to succeed.

I agree with your last point -- developers aren't going to fire up a bulldozer until there's money in hand, and residents aren't going to provide that capital until there's a strong desire for that kind of sustainable lifestyle. Worldchanging at its best, indeed.

Posted by: Patrick on 14 Jan 07

For every success story about transit oriented development in the Chicago region there seems to be a step backward, where local communities block dense development around train stations:

What needs to happen is that before Metra invests in line extentions and station improvements it needs to extract promises from local communities that they will permit/encourage transit-supportive development around those investments.

The problem in the Chicago area is that Metra has neither the statutory power nor the cultural inclination to weigh in on land use issues.

Posted by: Moderator on 14 Jan 07

A View from Boston: The Keane article was based on a grad student's poorly written and even worse researched attempt at showing that commuter rail service didn't result in "hoped for" increases in density around railroad stops. The students dean at the Rappaport has made a life dedicated to proving that only a mediocre bus service should be used to provide transit service in the suburbs. Keane himself is a self-styled devil's advocate.
The student's work ignored the key problem facing transit planning on a regional scale: local zoning. Boston suburbs are particularly vulnerable to local prejudice against "Density" and "growth". To the Town meeting voter, "density" means lower average incomes (homes become less expensive since land costs are extremely high here)and "growth" suggests more traffic congestion - never mind that the expectation is that more people will take the train.
Massachusetts, to it credit, has taken some baby steps toward encouraging changes in local zoning. Special provisions for school aid to communities which gain students as a result of transit-oriented growth, for example. But these take time. These laws have been effective for just a year or so.
In the meantime some remarkable success stories could have been studied. One town adjacent to the student's "sample town" has several developments adjacent and surrounding its Commuter rail stop. Most of the home owners (they are condos) walk to the train and the zoning-mandated parking lots at these developments are less than half full.
George Bailey, Former President - Metropolitan Area Planning Council and Chair of the MBTA Advisory Board's Commuter Rail Committee
Sharon, MA 02067

Posted by: George Bailey on 15 Jan 07

I believe light rail IS the future. As a big fan of The Nine Shift author Bill Draves, I am hopeful that mass transit will not only offer better transportation opportunities, but also save the environment (and, hey, I live in Michigan where mass transit advocates and consistently kicked in the teeth). You may want to check out Bill's blog. He has a lot of insight on this subject:

Posted by: Suzanne on 15 Jan 07

I believe Keane's article was more of an op-ed piece, and if so I should have noted that in the WC entry.

Thanks a lot to George Bailey for weighing in on behalf of Boston's transit advocates! Your comments about perceptions of "density" and "growth" are especially interesting...I think a revision of some commonly held misconceptions is in order.

Posted by: Patrick on 15 Jan 07

It's nice to know that Metra is slowly responding to demographic changes in the Chicago suburbs:

The insight shared on this page leaves me wondering, though -- What kind of interaction could we expect to see between Metra and the communities at the stops on this proposed line?

For instance: As much as I like IKEA, it doesn't quite make sense to me to assign such an otherwise rarefied area a station. While I gather that the somewhat desolate Schaumburg stop is used mostly by Schaumburgers driving from their townhouses to the station to commute to the Loop, this is a single retail destination (most of whose goods don't exactly fit in an otherwise-spacious, two-level Nippon Sharyo car). There are no other businesses within walking distance of the great blue octagon, and certainly no homes.

From my experience with a few of the planned stops on its route, it seems to me that Metra's planned inter-suburban system might come too late to bring the benefits of commuter rail to the communities it would serve -- dropping a train station into the enlarged heart of sprawl may offer an alternative for a few people who happen to live close to the stops, but, as explored by Patrick and the others on this page, I think the only real solution lies in collaboration between rail and community.

Maybe they could turn the vast empty space around the IKEA lot into Swedish-style, mixed-use condo mid-rises. I can dream!

Posted by: Clayton on 15 Jan 07



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