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Transit-Oriented Development in the Chicago Region: Efficient and Resilient Communities for the 21st Century

Executive Summary

Transit-Oriented Development in the Chicago Region, 2000–2010

Mixed-use centers anchored by public transit are essential to the triple bottom line, or the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of the Chicago Region. With the publication of GO TO 2040 in 2010, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) put forth a vision to grow the transit-oriented development (TOD) areas of the Region and make them communities of choice. In 2012 the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) built on this vision with the publication of Prospering In Place, which honored GO TO 2040 for its commitment to reconnect land use, transportation, and the economy, and recommended the locations in the Chicago Region that had the best prospects for growth—and hence warranted priority access to public and private resources. Prospering in Place was also a cautionary story of how a blueprint alone, without a place-based framework for development, will not reverse the Region’s undesirable trend toward sprawl and disinvestment. This report builds on that story, melding those lessons learned with our new understanding of Regional trends to yield a set of recommendations to optimize the promise of Chicago’s historically magnetic transit zones.

Between 2000 and 2010, four of the nation’s five metropolitan regions with extensive rail transit systems (those with 325 or more stations)—New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco—achieved growth and development within their transit zone, or the land area within one half-mile of their fixed passenger rail stations. Only Chicago, the fifth region in this extensive system cohort, saw a decline in development around transit relative to growth in the broader region. During the last decade in the Chicago Region, a household’s typical transportation costs, one of a household’s two largest expenses, rose at a faster rate than median household incomes. As a result, Chicago Region residents are paying higher transportation costs and experiencing reduced access to jobs. This report compares development in the areas around the Chicago Region’s passenger rail transit stations to that of the Chicago Region as a whole, as well as to its four peer regions with extensive rail systems on several TOD performance metrics, including household growth, vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and jobs. We are conducting this comparison to illustrate how Chicago compares with national trends and then delving into the causes of any shortcomings in order to make policy recommendations. These recommendations seek to get the Region on track towards maximizing the return on public investment in transit and creating a ripple of benefits for the communities that it serves.

Changes in TOD demographics and development patterns from 2000 to 2010 were not the same throughout the Chicago Region. The differences are often explained by the characteristics of each transit station area. Using the National TOD Database,1 Transit-Oriented Development in the Chicago Region: Efficient and Resilient Communities for the 21st Century evaluates the dynamics of each of the Region’s 367 CTA and Metra stations and identifies those transit zones that are performing well: anchoring vital, walkable communities that possess an affordable, high quality of life with minimal impact on the environment.

Transit zones that have performed well are the first step in pointing us in the right direction. They teach us the importance of setting policies and priorities that will grow our economy by connecting people to jobs and strengthening our communities through spatial efficiency. Understanding the challenges of transit zones with flawed development patterns is yet another step. This report quantifies and qualifies the performance of TOD in the Chicago Region in order to establish our strengths and weaknesses in optimizing the tremendous transit assets that we have.

Our examination recommended that the Chicago Region needs to make these fundamental commitments:

  1. Create TOD zones. A transit zone is an area defined by a half-mile radius around a fixed rail station. Many of the barriers to TOD are embedded in the land use policies of local governments, and are further complicated by regional, state, and federal policies. Creating TOD zones helps eliminate barriers to development.
  2. Preserve affordable housing. To realize the full regional benefits of quality transit and TOD, mixed-income housing must be preserved and expanded in TOD zones. This may be accomplished through a combination of policies that prioritize housing assistance to TOD communities and enforce existing state requirements for affordable housing in all communities.
  3. Match jobs and transit. Many limitations of metropolitan Chicago’s transit system—as well as high transportation costs, traffic congestion, and air pollution—stem from job centers moving away from mixed-income neighborhoods. A more efficient and healthier pattern may be established through systematic efforts to expand transit services to job centers, site new employers in existing transit-served communities, and promote incentives to commute through transit, biking, or walking.
  4. Provide alternatives to car ownership. Even dedicated transit users often are forced to buy cars to meet transportation needs that transit cannot efficiently fill. To provide alternatives to car ownership, the Region should support the growth of car-sharing services, build more extensive bicycle infrastructure, and establish more pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.
  5. Prioritize TOD across agencies. While public agencies can set favorable conditions for TOD, public investments of more than $1 billion are needed through 2040 to remove impediments to redevelopment and attract the much larger private investments that will build the mixed-income housing, mixed-use buildings, and functioning businesses that constitute TODs.2 Coordinated priorities and investments among a range of public agencies are needed to generate these effective public investments.

By taking these actions, transit and transit-oriented development can become the pillars of the Chicago Region’s economic development strategy over the next decade, improving the Region’s competitiveness and making it a better place to live and work.