Thursday, July 22nd, 2010
It’s common to look at transit in terms of commuting market share. It’s understandable why we do this, since, among other things, it is easy to get the data.
But the generally low showing of transit on this metric I think misses the bigger picture. Chicago metro has a transit market share of 11.5%, for example. Firstly, this is a metro area statistic, so includes huge numbers of areas that aren’t even transit addressable. It’s hard for transit to win when it isn’t even present on the battlefield. In the city of Chicago itself, transit has 26.7% market share.
But remember, this is only for commuting. The real transportation benefit of transit is in the leverage it provides on other trips. Someone could live in my neighborhood – Lakeview – and conduct pretty much all of their daily business on foot. I actually don’t ride transit that much these days. But I make many daily trips on foot and rarely feel inclined to drive anywhere. There are plenty of cars on the street to be sure, but the density of pedestrians shows that there are tons of other trips going on that probably aren’t being counted in most surveys because they are non-commuting and unlike with transit passengers or cars, there hasn’t been much in the way of an effort made to quantify them. This trip leverage, by the way, is true even of people who drive to work – lots of folks do – and never ride the CTA. They can still walk to Walgreens, walk to Starbucks, walk to the neighborhood frozen custard stand, etc.
The point is that without the transit, the neighborhood would not exist in its current form, and its walkability would be significantly degraded.
Beyond the transportation benefits, which are substantial, transit is also arguably the single most important factor that gave Chicago a different trajectory than other Midwest cities, though other factors like Chicago always being bigger, richer, etc. certainly played a key role as well.
Because Chicago retained 360 degree transit access to downtown, including from the far suburbs, it could remain a viable business destination in an era of suburbanization and the automobile. New developments such as skyscrapers could be built in the Loop without any parking. This made it easier to assemble land and led to the enormous densities that fuel its urban energy because you didn’t need to have a footprint for a large attached parking structure. Contrast with smaller cities like Indianapolis, where new buildings were of the “box on a pedestal” type design where one skyscraper might consume an entire city block. This is rare in downtown Chicago outside of a few ill-conceived urban renewal era “skyscraper with plaza” style buildings.
With business vitality in the Loop, there was still reason for people to live in the city, there was still a base for shopping, restaurants, etc. All of this created a virtuous cycle that kept property values high. Even at its Rust Belt nadir, Chicago’s Loop was still doing fairly well and a strip of lakefront and other neighborhoods were in decent shape.
If for some reason Chicago had lost its formidable transit system in the way that so many other cities did, I have no doubt it would have followed a similar development pattern. In those places, even a history of dense urban neighborhoods couldn’t save them once the CBD declined as a major economic growth force and suburbanization took hold.
The same is true of most of the other cities that made it: Boston, New York, San Francisco, etc. Even LA has a very extensive bus network and DC has emerged with a powerful central core thanks to the exploding federal government and the relatively new metro system. Philly’s transit system didn’t save its downtown, but the city could be in a lot worse shape, that’s for sure.
So I think it is very clear that transit, in its service area, provides enormous value, transportation and otherwise, that isn’t fully reflected in commuting market share numbers.