Sunday, January 16th, 2011
The Chicago Tribune has been running a series on the challenges facing the next mayor. One entry was about the Chicago economy. It described the sad reality of how Chicago’s economy is in the tank, and has been underperforming the nation for the last few years. I’ll highlight the part about challenges building an innovation and tech economy in Chicago:
The region also has lagged in innovation, firm creation and growth in productivity and gross metropolitan product over the past decade, according to economic development consultant Robert Weissbourd, president of RW Ventures LLC. Daley’s two long-held dreams of Chicago emerging as a high-tech center and a global business center remain just out of reach… “We haven’t made the real global jump yet, and we have not made the tech jump either, but we are finally poised,” said Paul O’Connor, who for many years ran World Business Chicago, the city’s economic development affiliate. “We are still a major contender, but, yeah, we can blow it.” Or, as [Chicago Fed Economist William] Testa put it, “Given the poor performance of this decade, we need to rethink the challenges for Chicago.”
“If I could wave a magic wand, I would get government to start thinking differently about … what are the levers that we need to push, away from the traditional (tax increment finance district) thinking and away from the traditional thinking of, ‘Let’s just get a big company to move here,’ and toward thinking about how to foster innovation and creativity,” Christie Hefner, former chairman and chief executive of Playboy Enterprises Inc., said at a recent economic forum.
It has been extremely rare to see people with establishment positions ever say a discouraging word about the city. Most honest observers would have to rate Daley highly has a leader, but certainly not perfect. Yet any criticism at all of him (directly or implicitly by that of the city he runs) has been studiously avoided by most. They are terrified of being excommunicated or broken on the wheel if they deviate from the script. To have corporate executives asking tough questions is unusual, and hopefully an example of a forthcoming “Great Thaw” we need to have here in the wake of Daley’s retirement.
Chicago’s inability to build an innovation/tech economy is pretty remarkable if you think about it. Here’s third largest city in the country, one with enormous human capital, tremendous wealth, incredible academic institutions, and above all an ability to execute that far outclasses virtually any city I know. How is it then that Chicago has been unable to execute on this?
Believe it or not, a lot of it goes back to that bane of Chicago politics: Clout. People in Chicago tend to write off clout and political corruption in Chicago with a shrug, as a unique or even amusing local affectation, or just part of the character of purely political life of the city, but one that doesn’t fundamentally change its status as the “City That Works.” But nothing could be further from the truth. Chicago’s culture of clout is a key, perhaps the key, factor holding the city back economically.
Chicago’s Ambition: Clout
In Paul Graham’s essay Cities and Ambition, he writes about the subtle messages cities send about what you should try to achieve, and how that shapes their fortunes:
“Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder. The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.
What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to. When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful.
How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that.
Chicago’s ambition, the message it sends is: “You should have more clout.” Does that matter? You bet it does.
What Is Clout?
Clout is a term of art in Chicago that normally refers to the ability to use connections to obtain jobs, contracts, subsidies or other favors from government. But more broadly, we can think of clout as the ability to influence organizational action within the context of a particular power structure.
But if that’s the definition, isn’t saying you should have clout the same thing as saying you should have power like Graham said of Silicon Valley? No. Having power, like that held by Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page and Sergey Brin, is about being autocephalous. It’s about have an independent base of authority or ability to act others are forced to respect. Clout, by contrast is all about petty privileges. Clout can be given, but it can also be taken away. That’s what makes it so corrupting. Tellingly, no one ever talks about Mayor Daley as having clout. That’s because he has real power instead. Having power is like being a king or a duke or a baron. Clout is all about being a courtier.
To see this in action, just contrast Jesse Jackson with Al Sharpton. Both are prominent national civil rights leaders and black ministers. But Jackson rarely goes hard after anyone in Chicago, at least not anymore. Jackson has clout. One son is a congressman. Another somehow managed to acquire ownership of a lucrative beer distributorship. Jackson bought into the system in Chicago.
By contrast, Sharpton wants to be a power player in New York, to be someone to whom even a would-be mayor has to come visit and, as they say, kiss the ring. He’s not interested in being bought off. Sure, he’ll make alliances. But he’ll never give up his independent base of power that makes him someone to be reckoned with. That’s the difference between power and clout.
The Chicago Nexus
John Kass likes to talk about clout in terms of the “the Combine,” or the bi-partisan system in Illinois in which the Democrats and Republicans have often proven less rivals than partners in crime, sometimes literally. But I prefer to think of “the Nexus” – a unitary social structure that pretty much everyone who’s anyone in Chicago is part of, one that goes far beyond the world of politics.
Ramsin Canon had a good illustration of the Nexus in a piece he wrote over at Gapers Block:
With big city economies cratering all around him, the Mayor was able to raise in the neighborhood of $70 million dollars to fund the Olympic Bid. At the same time he was able to get everybody that mattered–everybody–on board behind the push for the Olympics. Nobody, from the largest, most conservative institutions to the most active progressive advocacy group, was willing to step out against him on that issue.
The list of big donors to the Chicago 2016 bid committee is a comprehensive list of powerful Chicago institutions. I mean, it’s exhaustive. Economy be damned, when the Mayor called, they listened. Why? What did those conversations sound like? And do we believe that the Mayor is so powerful–or that their relationship with him is so close–that they must obey him? Or–more likely–is it a mutual back-scratching club with an incentive to protect the status quo? Chicago’s political infrastructure isn’t about the Democratic Party or “the Machine” or special interest groups or labor unions. Those are elements of varying importance. It’s real power lives in the networks that tie that list together.
Replace the man on the Fifth Floor–Bureaucracy Man, the superhero who keeps our alleys clear–and will these networks evaporate? Will they just disappear? How long would it take them to reorganize around the new personalities that moved in there?
All cities have elite networks, but I have never seen a city that has a unitary power nexus to the extent Chicago does. I believe the Nexus resulted from the culture of clout combined with the fact that, with the exception of the interregnum between Daley pere and fils, power has been centralized on the 5th floor of city hall for decades. The Nexus may have come into being around the mayor, but now it has become a feature of civic life, one that practically longs for what Greg Hinz has labeled a “Big Daddy” style leader to sustain the system.
Clout’s Effect on the Culture of Chicago
The emergence of the Nexus is one of the key cultural impacts of clout in Chicago. If clout is only effective within a given power structure, then clearly the clouted want to see their power structure expand. The ultimate dream of the clout seeker is a centralized unitary state like Louis XIV’s France. In Chicago, we’ve come amazingly close to achieving it. It’s not that there’s no conflict, but it is all of the palace intrigue variety, not true conflicts between rival power centers. Without centralized political power and a tradition of clout, the Nexus would never have come into being.
There are many other cultural impacts as well. As Douglas and Wildavsky note in Risk and Culture, “An individual who passes his life exclusively in one or another such social environment internalizes its values and bears its marks on his personality.”
People are bought into and defend the system. They mapped these social environments along the axes of “grid” and “group” – the degree of hierarchy in the system and the degree of group cohesion. The Chicago Nexus is a high-grid, high-group structure, or collective hierarchy, with centralized decision making and a high cost of defection. Even groups that in other cities tend to be more oppositional to government will say something like, “Decisions get made in the mayor’s office here, so we have to play that game” and buy into the system. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard, “That’s just how it works here.” Of course, this means the basis of their own ability to make things happen then becomes influence – clout – within the Nexus. Thus they defend the system, because if it went away, so would their ability to make things happen because they’ve cultivated no alternative vectors for action. Also, the Council Wars period of the 1980’s still looms large in many leaders’ minds. Chicago remains heavily segregated and racially balkanized, as the recent quest for a single black mayoral candidate illustrates. There’s a lot of worry about what might happen if the current system breaks down.
Conservatism and favoring of the establishment. Following on from that, the system fosters a sort of generalized conservatism, one dominated by a desire for institutional stability. It takes a heavy hitter to get the mayor’s attention or even access to the mayor, which reinforces establishment control, an inherently conservative model. This conservatism is even visible the realm of public design, as I’ve noted in discussion the retro-nostalgia design of the city’s streetlights and other streetscape elements. The evidence of clout-fed conservatism is literally graven in into the very streets of the city.
Parochialism. Though fancying itself a cosmopolitan burg, I don’t see that Chicago is that much less parochial than most other Midwest cities. You see this in a thousand little ways. For example, in the way beloved long time personalities dominate the local airwaves. As the New York Times noted about turmoil at long time ratings leader WGN-AM, “Chicago tends to be unforgiving to newcomers. And with WGN pulling in the second- most radio revenue in the market behind WBBM, its moves are fraught with risk. ‘It was always difficult to bring someone in from out of town,’ said Bob Sirott, a longtime Chicago broadcaster.” (Longevity seems particularly prized here generally, as unless you are fortunately enough to be born to the right family or in the right parish, it takes time to accumulate clout). Or in the focus on local and hyper-local news in the local internet journalism community.
Fear. As a high-group social structure, people are terrified of being kicked out of the club. Hence the unwillingness to cross the party line on almost any issue. As Tocqueville put it: “That which most vividly stirs the human heart is not the quiet possession of something precious, but rather the imperfectly satisfied desire to have it and the continual fear of losing it again.” People are even afraid of collateral damage if others near them cross the line. As Mike Doyle said, “In systems like Chicago’s, people don’t just refrain from rocking the boat, they do their best to keep anyone else from rocking it either.”
Total Rejection of the Other. Anyone who exists outside the structure is a potential threat. Hence they are either co-opted or marginalized. The best illustration of this is the very title of that wonderful book on Chicago politics, We Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent. Or as Steve Rhodes said to me:
One of the bartenders at the Beachwood says it took her awhile to figure this city out. In other cities you apply for a job with a resume, talk about your experience, etc. Here they just want to know who you know, who sent you – even at the bartender level….I’m not naive enough to believe this doesn’t happen elsewhere, but nowhere near as it does here, where it’s in the DNA. …Here, merit counts for next to nothing…In New York, everyone wants to know: “What do you do?” In Chicago, everyone wants to know: “Who do you know?”
Why Clout Is Toxic to the Innovation Economy
When you think about these cultural impacts of clout on Chicago, it becomes obvious why the city has failed to build an innovation economy. Innovation is fundamentally about new ideas, new ways of doing things, new players in the game, those from the outside, about merit, about dynamism. Clout is about what happened yesterday, the fruits of long years of efforts, and the same old – sometimes really old – players, about insiders, about connections, about stasis. As Jane Jacobs noted, “Economic development, no matter when or where it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.” Innovation driven economic development is fundamentally about disrupting the status quo. Clout is all about preserving it. Innovation welcomes the outsider, the clout-fueled Nexus abhors the Other. Innovation and clout are enemies.
Think about the innovation hubs in America. They are all places that welcome the new. Not that it’s easy to make it in them. In fact, these place are often brutally competitive. And of course they have elite networks where the scions of the rich and powerful have a leg up and such. But the new is an important part of what makes them tick. In Silicon Valley, they are always looking for the tomorrow’s HP, Apple, Cisco, Google, Facebook, or Twitter, not just celebrating the past. They know that success today is ephemeral and, as Andy Grove put it, “only the paranoid survive.” DC loves its establishment, but the very nature of the place assures there will always be new players in the game. President Obama comes out of nowhere to gain the White House. But two years later it is the upstart Tea Party’s turn. Possibly because of their entertainment industry clusters, NYC and LA are always on the lookout for the fresh face and the next big thing.
But Chicago? What do you think is going to happen when an ambitious 20-something with a great idea for a new business but no clout shows up in Chicago trying to make it happen and knocks on the door?
I may not be 20 anymore, but at the risk of making this post sound like merely a bit of personal pique, I’ll share a true personal story to illustrate one example of how this plays out in real life in Chicago. In 2009 I received an award from the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce for innovative thinking on public transit, winning first prize in a global competition they ran to solicit ideas for boosting public transit ridership in Chicago.
I was thinking at the time that I might want to do something more entrepreneurial. I knew that the Chamber ran a sister organization called the Chicagoland Entrepreneurship Center chartered with boosting startups in Chicago. In the wake of my award I decided to check them out and see how they might be able to help me.
There was just one problem: they wouldn’t return my phone calls. I made many attempts to get in touch with them by phone and email, and couldn’t even get them to give me a “No Thanks” or pawn me off on a peon. Now I’m a guy who a) had significant business experience, who b) built up one of America’s top urbanist sites from scratch, an inherently entrepreneurial act, and a successful one, if you think about it, and c) just got an award for innovation from the Chamber itself. Yet they wouldn’t even give me the time of day.
What’s more, the Chamber mothership never showed any interest in engaging with me post-competition either. It was clearly just a PR exercise for them. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted to report it was a very successful one. I got my picture on the front page of the Chicago Tribune above the fold. It exceeded my wildest expectations. I think the folks at the Chamber are nice people and I was extremely pleased with how it went. But clearly from their perspective, that’s where it ended. Actually uncovering innovators or something was not part of the agenda.
From standpoint of the the Chicago system, this experience actually makes perfect sense, as I don’t have clout, nor can I bestow it on anyone. So why burn cycles on me?
If you think about my profile and the treatment I got, can you imagine what a 23 year old armed with nothing but a crazy idea would get? A lot of ink has been dedicated to talking about how far Chicago and Illinois have come since they days when Mark Andreesen was actively harassed while trying to commercialize his web browser, then run out of town on a rail. But there is no doubt in my mind that if the next the next Andreesen showed up today, he’d get the exact same treatment. (I’m not familiar enough with Andrew Mason’s history to know how he was treated pre-Groupon, and pre-his association with the likes of big money Eric Lefkofsky. It would make an interesting case study to look at the history there – though he is a possible exception. I don’t know. In any case, his major local profile came after Groupon was already a huge success).
This is what clout in Chicago hath wrought. The culture of the establishment Chicago is simply incompatible with an innovation economy. It’s not just about money or resources. It’s about respect. It’s about what this town respects, and more importantly what it doesn’t. It’s about what Chicago whispers to you about what you should aspire to achieve, what success means in this city, and the subtle – and not so subtle – messages about how you get ahead here.
Until you’ve already made your millions or somehow wormed your way into connections or up through the hierarchy, establishment Chicago has no use for you in its economic plans, no matter what talent, ideas, or ambitions you might harbor. (Ironically, the biggest exception is Daley himself, who was famous for seeking out and rapidly promoting young talent like Ron Huberman and Richard Rodriguez. That’s another example of how he is head and shoulders above your average leader).
By contrast, the local entrepreneurial tech community gets it, is energized, knows where the city is and where it needs to be, and is working hard to make progress with a sense of legitimate optimism backed up by recent good news. Grass roots and “by tech for tech” institutions ranging from Technori, to the Chicago Lean Startup Circle, to the folks at Groupon – which is a huge, inspirational success story, with people who get it and are committed to trying to build up Chicago’s tech scene – are hugely supportive of anyone trying to make a go at it no matter what stage they are in, and providing legitimately useful info and help along the way. Every single person in this group I’ve talked to has been more that willing to do anything to try to help me out, sometimes even more than I’d hoped or asked for – 100% of them. (Yes, this does mean I am starting an internet business myself – watch this space).
I’ve long said Chicago isn’t going to be the next Silicon Valley and should seek only to get its “fair share” of tech. Having said that, as the third largest city in America, a fair share is still pretty big. If Chicago’s going to make it, this collaborative effort by the local tech community is what is going to get it there – not the Nexus.
The Way Forward
Pretty much every report out of officialdom – from Gov. Quinn’s Illinois Economic Recovery Commission Report to CMAP’s Go To 2040 Plan – suggests the public and quasi-public sectors need to do more to boost innovation. But what’s really needed is cultural change in the establishment. Until that happens, I’d suggest that what’s really needed is to take a page from the Getting Real playbook and for them to do less.
Think about it. If Joe Investor shoots you down, you know the odds were probably long in the first place. While you might not come away feeling good about him, you probably don’t feel any worse about Chicago. But if you approach an official or quasi-official organization chartered with promoting “innovation”, “entrepreneurship”, “clusters”, “technology” or whatever in Chicago and they shoot you down, it’s not just them but your city you feel has rejected you. It’s one thing to generate a negative interaction with a private entity, but with an official entities that hurts the very thing they’re trying to promote. If an official or quasi-official organization can’t say Yes, or at least make sure that well over 50% of the people it says No to feel good about the experience, it should be shut down, because it’s doing more harm than good.
What’s more, these organizations and leaders glom on to these hot phrases du jour and, as someone put it, “suck the oxygen out of the room.” They hog the microphone and the real stories and the real discussion that need to happen out there don’t get told in the press because big names are the default easy answer for reporters. Just look at the number of big titled civic folks and such quoted in the Tribune piece, for example. Startup blog Technori has already told me more in two months about things that matter in tech than the Tribune and the Sun-Times combined did all last year. As Mike Madison said of Pittsburgh:
Tech-based economic development is not something that can be conjured in meetings of mayors and CEOs. That’s top-down, old-school, clear-the-skies, ACCD thinking. In fact, I would guess that the more that the Downtown Duquesne Club crew gets in the middle of this process, the more the real entrepreneurs and innovators and risk-capital investors get turned off.
Or as Paul O’Connor put it in that Tribune piece I led off with:
“What we have now, to some extent, is a stodgy Midwest establishment, and underneath them are the kids who moved here, some of them in their 30s now,” he said. “They get it; they know how to do it. … We either give them permission and invite them to the table, which the next mayor should do and which Mayor Daley has begun to do a little bit lately, or we let them do it themselves.”
Blowing Up the Culture of Clout
Clout is so persistent in Chicago not just because of the people who personally benefit from it, but because there’s little perception of the ways the culture of clout affects Chicago outside the political realm. Indeed, to the extent people regard the Chicago Way at all, it’s often positively, because it enabled the city to “get things done.” It’s the same thing that causes Thomas Friedman to have his schoolgirl crush on China.
But unfortunately for Chicago (and likely China too down the road) it doesn’t just matter if you can get things done, it matters what it is you do. And it also matters how you do it and who is involved. Until people understand the linkage between clout and other parts of the city like its economic under-performance, and care enough to change it, the non-political members of the Chicago Nexus are not going to feel the need to change the way things are done here. It’s not that these folks are corrupt by any means. Far from it. I believe they are completely sincere in their desire to better the city. But they don’t perceive the issue at the level that will collectively move them to action, or else feel the status quo is better for their institutional interests.
Changing the culture is mission critical to Chicago realizing its ambitions as a global city and a center of the innovation economy, and a lot of other things too. The notion that you can have a centralized, top-down, clout driven Nexus infusing your civic culture but that somehow you’ll have an innovation driven economic culture – that’s just impossible. The attempt to fix and transform Chicago’s economy with a bunch of behind the scenes maneuvering and initiatives by a few heavy hitters has failed. We need to try a different way. That doesn’t mean Chicago has to become paralyzed with dysfunction of in-fighting or civic anarchy. But there need to be multiple power centers and a receptivity to everything innovation is all about. And it will be a bit messier. I think that’s a good thing. There’s no doubt Chicago is a great city with incredible assets and capabilities. There’s no reason it can’t join the ranks of the innovation elite – if it’s willing to start jettisoning the culture of clout the so hobbles its ambitions and embracing a more dynamic future for the city. What will it be, Chicago?
More on Chicago economic development:
Chicago’s Eroding Competitive Performance (Chicago vs. New York) (October 10, 2010)
Urban Universities Done Right: Chicago’s Loop U (August 29, 2010)
Chicago’s Structural Advantages and Professional Services 2.0 (July 25, 2010)
Chicago and the Epicenter (June 20, 2010)
Corporate Headquarters and the Global City (August 9, 2009 – updated version)
Reconnecting the Hinterland: Metropolitan Linkages (February 11, 2009)
Chicago: A Declaration of Independence (January 17, 2009)
Thursday, December 23rd, 2010
This is the fifth and final installment of my series on taking transit to the next level in Chicago. It has been updated from the original version.
As I write this [in 2009], Chicago has just announced another massive transit revenue shortfall. The CTA’s budget deficit for next year is a projected $300 million – an incredible percentage of the overall budget. The need for change is clearly more urgent than ever. While we probably can’t look to raise revenues in the current economy, a lot of ground work needs to be laid to get to where we need to go.
Who Should Lead the Charge for Change?
The reality is that the CTA and the existing transit agencies are not going to be able to drive this themselves. The CTA is only one of the service boards. And many of the transit projects on its own system aren’t even driven by the agency, but by other organizations like the city DOT. The CTA has its hands full just operating the system. And it doesn’t have the clout to really drive regional change.
So who does? In Chicago, it starts with the mayor. It is critically important to convince the new mayor to make transit a top priority for the city. He has to look at the CTA the same way Mayor Daley looked at Millennium Park or Chicago 2016 or the O’Hare Modernization Plan. If it isn’t important to him, it won’t be important to anyone else either.
Mayor Daley was an incredible mayor for the city in many ways. Whatever you might think of various parts of his personality or ways of running the city, I believe this is a guy that gets up every day and says to himself, “What can we do today to make Chicago a greater city?” That’s a quality of leadership all too rare in American cities.
But Daley just didn’t get it on transit. I mean, I believe he intellectually understood it – he’s reputedly quite the policy wonk – but he doesn’t feel it in his gut. If you’ve ever gotten a chance to see Daley just talk off the cuff about the city, it’s incredible. This is a guy who overflows with passion for Chicago. When he gets started on, say, education, you can tell it’s a topic close to his heart. But I’ve never heard or heard of him talking like that about transit. He doesn’t ride it, unlike Bloomberg who has made a point of regularly taking the subway to work in New York. It’s just not something that emotionally engages him.
That’s not to say it was an invalid choice. A leader is faced with infinite problems to address – budgets, the economy, crime, infrastructure, parks, economic development, taxes, education, transportation, equity, etc. – but only has finite time and resources, even in a city like Chicago. You can’t chose to do everything. Daley chose to focus his efforts elsewhere.
So the immediate critical question is whether the incoming mayor, whoever that is, puts transit on his list of top agenda items. Given that this is a longer term, not instant gratification, it doesn’t seem likely to bubble up frankly.
So who could get the mayor to put this at the top of his agenda? Ultimately, I believe it has to be the leadership of the business community. If you look at major civic change in most cities, including Chicago, the business community has been a big driver. That needs to be the case here as well.
Reputedly it was former Sara Lee CEO John Bryan who sent Daley on his legendary trip to Paris that led to a lot of the beautification efforts in Chicago. It was supposedly Lester Crown who convinced Daley to undertake the ambitious, long term, and expensive O’Hare Modernization Plan.
Similarly, what’s needed is for some current and former CEO’s to go to the new mayor and make the case for him to take on this issue. They have to make it clear that absent major investment in Chicago’s transit system, business investment in the city and especially the Loop will be threatened, and its ability to stay in the top ranks of global cities impaired. Of course, they have to really believe this themselves. I do. That’s not something that can be taken for granted given that most of them probably don’t depend on the CTA. But assuming they do, then they are the ones to do that sales job.
They also need to stay engaged to drive a community effort to make it happen, with the mayor’s full support. This probably involves creating a committee similar to Chicago 2016 – one that has participation from the key stakeholders that would be necessary to move transit forward. The beauty of this issue is that is – or should be – everyone’s issue. It’s difficult to identify a natural constituency who would oppose it. The Loop business community needs it, organized labor should definitely be on board with a big construction program, various advocacy and grass roots organizations want the CTA upgraded, and minority communities want better access to transit and enhanced mobility in their neighborhoods. If there is any one issue that should unite the White, Black, and Latino communities, it should be better transit.
The city coalition should be easy. Of course, the city isn’t the only player. The big problem is likely to be suburban areas and the power structures in Springfield. Clearly, those are areas that need to be tackled, and that’s one of the group’s key to-do’s.
The Program for Change
So what does this committee do? Here is what I see as the workstreams that need to get accomplished. Most of these can and should run in parallel:
- Visioning. Create the end state vision of what our city is like with an enhanced transit system. This includes a holistic, phased view of what is to be implemented. The existing plans can be used as input, but I believe we ought to rethink a bit what our system needs to look like. Many of the current proposed expansions, for example, are simply pet projects of various politicians. Again, I won’t give the answer, but simply say that we need to ask the question.
- Cost Reduction. Figure out how to drive major reductions in the cost of construction on rail projects.
- Governance. Rethinking how we ought to organize and run our transit systems, set investment policies, the city-suburb situation, etc.
- Financing and Legislation. Identifying the preferred financing plan and doing the ground work to get the enabling legislation through the state legislature and for maximizing federal funding.
- Sales and Marketing Plan. Looking at a short and long term program of making the case to the public and building that demand for the program so that when it is in Springfield and up for a vote in a referendum, there will be clear and overwhelming public support. This is where having that broad coalition is critical.
This creates the plan we need. In parallel, we should start right now, today, dramatically improving the quality of design in our system. And of course we then need to make it happen politically. Once approved, we need a clear focus on execution. I think part of the governance effort ought to look at the best way to organize the new build and capital side of the business vs. the operating side. And I think there should also be ongoing marketing as we deliver on the system to show people how the benefits are actually coming to life.
Doing this won’t be easy. It will probably take some time and cost some money just like Chicago 2016 did – money that won’t be easy to raise in this environment. Probably it would have to involve a mix of public and private funds to really put together a proper and credible plan.
Again, taking Chicago’s transit system to the next level isn’t going to be quick, easy, or cheap, but it is important to be done. Without this investment, it will be a struggle to merely maintain what we have, and a deteriorating transit system could ultimately be a major stumbling block to the city realizing its civic ambitions.
More in This Series
This version of this post originally ran on October 11, 2009.
Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010
This is the fourth installment of my series on taking transit to the next level in Chicago. This one has some updates from the original version.
Other installments are:
- Part One: Building the Vision
- Part Two: Raising the Bar on Design
- Part Three: Cost Containment and Governance
- Part Five: Getting It Done
This piece focuses on the $35 billion question – how to pay for it. Next up: wrapping it up with the strategy for getting it done.
If transit today is underfunded, how can we expect major improvements out of our agencies? The answer is, we can’t. That’s not to say that the CTA can’t and shouldn’t improve. It should, and I’d argue it has in the recent past. But we’re not going to change the game, to go from good to great, without a lot more money. So, where can we get it?
Can We Afford It?
This section is new for this version of the post. The first question perhaps is can we afford it at all. I think transit advocates and urbanists generally need to face reality that starting up a major new program at this time is a non-starter. States and localities are broke, particularly in Illinois. The job market continues to be terrible. And the public is in no mood to spend. Don’t fight the tape, people.
So before we can even think about pulling the trigger on implementing something, we need a clear change in macro-economic fortunes nationally and locally, and we need to both resolve the long term structural issues with the budgets both in Illinois and in the city of Chicago. (To put this in perspective, see “Illinois is Broke” and “Broken Budget Awaits the Next Mayor“). I wouldn’t count on much help from the feds given the recent election and the previous botched stimulus.
Speaking of the stimulus, the reality is that a program to renew Chicago’s transit infrastructure for future generations is not a “shovel-ready” project. There is a lot of planning and organizing work to do to get ready to make the pitch for money to actually do something. That work can proceed now while these other things are resolved. (If they don’t clear up in at least the next 2-3 years, we’ve got bigger problems than transit, anyway).
Also, this notion that somehow if we simply don’t spend any cash, that we’re not spending money and are showing fiscal discipline is a mirage created by the completely bogus practice known as “government accounting.” That fantasyland is a world run on cash only. There’s a reason real businesses don’t use cash accounting. It’s nothing but a gimmick. Yes, cash matters. But just because you aren’t spending cash on something doesn’t mean you aren’t incurring an expense. For example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is balancing his budget “without raising taxes” by, among other things, zeroing out the state’s pension contribution. But the pension liability was incurred regardless. It’s only a question of whether you fund it or kick the can down the road. Most governments have elected to kick the can, which is why so many of them are now broke. That’s not fiscal conservatism, it’s budgetary flim-flam.
Chicago is going to pay a price for its transit system, one way or another. There’s no escape from that.
Lastly, the “Mitch Daniels solution” is simply not going to work in Chicago. That is, this is not a city that can become prosperous merely by squeezing spending because it will always be cost disadvantaged versus most of the rest of the country. And the ultra high end services on which it is betting its future depend on quality of services more than minimum costs. Of course we need to manage costs aggressively, but Chicago is also going to have to choose to do some things. The “Do as little as possible” approach simply won’t work here. Transit may not be the right task to take on, but you’ve got to take on something.
First, let’s start with the fact that the CTA does not control any material funding lever except fares, which are already high. The remainder of the CTA’s money, save for some minor advertising income and the like, comes from a mixture of federal capital aid, and taxes whose rate is set by state law. So any change in the funding situation will require legislative action.
Second, the CTA, Metra, and Pace are required by law to achieve 50% farebox recovery. This might not sound like much, but is much higher than most transit systems. Portland, for example, only has about 20% farebox recovery. While the CTA, as a big city system, might be expected to be higher, 50% is probably still too high. Incidentally, only a tiny handful of transit systems in the entire world that break even or turn a profit.
Third, the CTA is burdened with innumerable unfunded mandates from the state and federal government, including free rides for seniors and other discounts.
Fourth, the CTA is caught in a big pension vice. Its pension system was vastly underfunded, until it borrowed money to top it off – with repayments that comes right off the top out of the operating budget. The Illinois constitution prohibits the impairment of any pension benefit already earned.
A Fixed Cost System vs. Variable Revenues
A transit system is more or less a fixed cost system to operate once you decide on service levels. That is, the CTA decides how much seat capacity to put on the street and rail lines, and the cost to operate it is more or less fixed regardless of how many people actually ride.
However, the CTA’s tax revenues come from two principle sources: sales taxes and real estate transfer taxes. Both of these are highly cyclical. And where we are in the cycle, those revenue streams have declined massively, putting huge holes in transit budgets across America. The fact that the CTA is so dependent on fares is actually a plus right now, since fare revenue is fairly short term stable, at least in contrast to other revenue streams.
If you are going to fund a fixed cost system with variable revenues, you had better have a healthy reserve account for a rainy day. Chicago’s regional transit systems do not, which is why there are repeated “Doomsdays” as revenues decline.
You Have to Pay For It Yourself
So where is the money going to come from to improve and operate Chicago’s transit system? At the end of the day, Chicagoans are going to have to use their own money to do so.
I find it interesting that most local transit advocacy focuses on getting more money from Washington and Springfield. While a Chicago-heavy White House with Democratic control of Congress [update: no longer] might enable something to happen there, I’m not holding my breath.
Consider that there are only a handful of cities with older systems like the CTA that need upgrading. That right there creates a numbers game problem, particularly in the Senate. Likewise, historically Springfield has done little to help. Even the recent $25 billion state capital plan included a comparatively small amount for transit.
Most importantly, other cities around the country are paying for their own transit. In city after see we see transit levies placed on the ballot to raise funds to construct and operate new light rail lines and other systems. Last November, for example, the Seattle area voted to raise its own taxes in order to collect $30 billion over the life of the tax for transit improvements. This is in an area only about a third the size of Chicago.
This also creates problems in Congress. If every other city is voting to raise taxes to invest major local dollars into transit capital, why should Chicago get a pass? Also, this goes right along with the heritage of the Burnham Plan. Chicagoans voted dozens of times to allow bond issues to finance the major public works programs coming out of that plan.
The answer to me is pretty clear. To really change the transit game in Chicago means putting a tax on the ballot for the people to put up or shut up on whether they actually want a better transit system.
Parameters of the Financing
Before getting to the specific measures, I’d like to propose some basic things to use the money for.
First, I’m assuming there is that compelling vision from part one to get people to buy into the system. This probably has a mix of near term and long term items, tangible and conceptual items. That means there is probably a phasing that needs to be figured out. I would suggest that it would be a limited number of phases, with a pretty beefy first phase. If asking citizens to vote on a tax increase, they should get something pretty big and visible out of it. Also, you don’t want to go back to the well too many times. On the other hand, you can’t expect people to buy a pig in a poke either, so it probably can’t be everything in one vote.
With that backdrop, I would suggest the a ballot to raise taxes with the proceeds to be used for:
- Establishing a CTA operating reserve of $500 million, with parameters to make sure it isn’t rapidly drained and never replenished. Metra and Pace need reserves as well, though potentially we’ve reorganized our governance at this point, remember?
- Rolling back CTA fares to $2 and eliminating transfer surcharges.
- Providing additional operating assistance and reducing the required farebox recovery percentage.
- Funding debt service on a bond for a fairly healthy first phase of work. I would suggest something in the neighborhood of $15-20 billion. Potentially the actual program could be bigger when combined with federal assistance or other revenue sources such as existing TIF’s.
Sources of Funds
Typically, transit bonds are backed by increases in the sales tax. However, given the sale tax dependency of Chicago transit today, and the high Chicago sales tax rate and associated political drama around the Cook County tax, this may not be realistic. Where then could the city look? Here are some ideas:
- Land Value Tax. A land value tax is a tax not on dirt, but on a physical site. This does not include any improvements made to the site, such as buildings. This is an attractive form of taxation for a few reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t distort production. If you tax something, you get less of it, but since the surface of the earth is already fixed in extent, this isn’t a problem here. The marginal supply of new sites is zero no matter what. Also, it encourages people to put land to good use. Today, if someone builds a skyscraper downtown, their “reward” is a huge tax bill. But if someone tears down a historic building and puts in a surface lot, his taxes go down. That makes no sense. A LVT discourages land banking and speculation, and encourages people to invest in their property. And, the value of a site is really not a function of what any individual person does. Rather, it is a result of overall community growth and investment. This is in contrast to the value of a building, which is principally a result of what the owner does. Consider the value of the Chicago Loop. Now consider the value of the Chicago Loop without transit. The enormous site values in the Loop were created by transit, so why not capture for transit the value created by it? I can’t do this topic full justice here, but suffice to say there are many reasons why, if you have to have a tax, a land value tax is the best way to go. Its principal downsides are a lack of familiarity and a lack of experience in implementation, which would doubtless result in some bumps.
- Congestion Charges/Tolling. This would involve something along the lines of converting the freeways in the city into tollways, using the proceeds to fund road maintenance and operations, and also transit. It could also be used for congestion management purposes. This would require federal rule changes and no doubt much political difficulty. I do not believe a London style congestion charge around the Greater Loop area is feasible or desirable.
- Automobile surcharges. This could include items such as additional registration fees or parking taxes.
- Income taxes. Illinois income tax rate at 3% is not that high on a comparative basis. It remains to be seen where it will be after the legislature finishes addressing budget deficits, but this is one possible source of funding as well. It seems likely to me the income tax is heading higher, but even at a base of 4-5% it would still be lower than competing jurisdictions like California and New York.
I would suggest that a land value tax and congestion charges are the best approaches, but that the income tax based approach is probably the most straightforward and easiest to implement. I don’t have the time right now to do the math, but it should be fairly straightforward to calculate the supplemental rate needed to raise the types of funds outlined above.
Chicagoans may not go for this, but I do not see any other realistic alternative to raising major funds other than local dollars. Fundamentally, if Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas, Denver, Charlotte and many more places can do it, I don’t see why a truly world class city like Chicago can’t step up to the plate and do what needs to be done, particularly when the need is evident and when you have that vision in place and the other elements needed to convince the public.
Next up, Getting It Done.
A version of this post originally ran on September 27, 2009.
Tuesday, December 14th, 2010
Continuing my series on taking Chicago’s public transit system to the next level, I wanted to address a few miscellaneous topics before moving on to the matter of how to pay for it. For those of you who did not see them already, click through to read part one on building the vision and part two on raising the bar on design.
I mentioned in my previous installment how we need to raise the bar on the design of the system. While some of this would be nearly free, other items, particularly L stations, would appear to legitimately cost a lot more money to do right. How do we reconcile this?
In the spirit of Burnham’s “more study, not more money” quote, I’d like to suggest we need to take a serious look at how to drive step-change reductions in the cost of heavy rail projects. Consider this: the proposed Red Line extension to 130th is 5.3 miles and $879 million – a cost of $163 million per mile – nearly $21,000 per new daily rider. This is for a line with limited ROW needs. And my numbers are very generous, since they are current year, not construction year numbers, and they exclude a $200 million yard reconstruction that is part of the project. Frankly, at those rates, highway investment actually starts to look like an attractive option. IDOT’s Dan Ryan reconstruction, which included adding a lane south from 67th or so to 95th, was about the same the cost as this proposed extension
The proposed Orange Line proposal is even more expensive on a per unit basis. It is $455 million in current year dollars for 2.26 miles – a cost of $197 million per mile. This is for 7,800 new boardings per day, or over $57,000 per boarding (likely around $100,000 per passenger assuming most people make round trips).
I’ve read of estimates up to $4 billion to renovate the North Main embankment. Just that segment would cost more than the Kennedy reconstruction + the Stevenson reconstruction + the Dan Ryan reconstruction + the Kingery reconstruction and widening + the recent resurfacings on the Edens and Calumet Expressways + the Ike bottleneck reconstruction from a while back – all combined.
I’m not saying anyone is making these up or anything, but the numbers themselves just seem way out of line.
Let’s consider some rail transit construction costs from around the world. Seoul, Korea is building a heavy rail route called the New Bundang Line as a public/private partnership. It will cost 1.1809 trillion won ($966 million) for 18.5km (11.5 miles). This is a cost of $84 million per mile – far less than Chicago’s expansions. And the New Bundang line is partially underground, requiring tunneling, and is a fully automated, driverless system with state of the art technology too. Read more here.
Madrid too has a much lower cost approach. Its Metrosur line (admittedly opened in 2003) was euro1.55B ($2.25B) for 40.5km (25 miles), including 29 new stations, six of which permit transfers with commuter rail. This is $90 million per mile, again, far less than Chicago’s proposed expansion even if you inflate the numbers to current dollars. Again, this included extensive tunneling (full on boring, not just cut and cover) in terrain where that was very difficult. See here for more info on the line, or this excerpt from an article titled simply, “Madrid confirms its low cost approach“.
Even the libertarian City Journal praised Madrid’s subway program, albeit as a foil for critiquing New York, saying, “New York might take instruction from an unlikely place: Madrid, Spain, which first opened its subway in 1919. Between 1995 and 2007, the Spanish capital swiftly and cost-effectively upgraded its subway system, building more than 150 new stations over 120 miles at costs far below New York City rates.”
It seems like every time I read about a metro line outside the United States, except in the UK, it is way cheaper than we can do. I don’t think there’s anything unique to Chicago about this. Alon Levy has contrasted the cost of subway construction in New York with the much lower costs in Tokyo, for example. We seem to have a system in the US that significantly inflates the cost of construction vs. the rest of the world. Many of the typical complaints as to why this might be would seem to have no merit. Other countries are heavily unionized and regulated, for example, so don’t blame organized labor. (South Korean unions are famously militant). Spain and Japan are not exactly low cost countries. And basically all new systems world are fully compliant with equivalents to the ADA.
Any dollar we can take out of the cost of these systems is found money. It can either be invested back into quality of design, used for more projects, or returned to the taxpayers and riders.
I would propose that we create some sort of a task force with a mandate to drive significant reductions in the cost of construction – I’m talking a target of 25-50% or greater, no excuses. This would include the CTA and FTA, but also outside experts brought in from overseas and from outside the fairly small circle of US transit consulting firms. US engineering firms need to be included, but frankly outside leadership and new seats at the table are going to be needed to really drive new thinking as these firms actually profit from higher costs. We need to examine every aspect of these systems. What is the minimum we are legally required to build? What requirements are driving excess construction costs versus overseas systems and can we eliminate them? Are there new techniques such as pre-fabrication that could drive large savings? Can we pool purchasing with NYC or elsewhere? Can off the shelf systems be used where possible instead of bespoke (admittedly, maybe difficult in an other legacy system like Chicago)? Can we use more grade level construction and street crossings instead of expensive elevated construction and viaducts? What could we do with public-private partnerships and concession agreement a la Madrid? What about real TransMilenio style BRT as an alternative to heavy rail? There would appear to be all sorts of things that could be investigated as means of materially reducing the cost of the system. Some of them might require legal or regulatory changes, but given the dollars at stake both locally and nationally, it is worth fighting that fight.
Again, we need an aggressive target for cost savings and incentives to drive results. At a minimum, someone should be able to detail why our costs are so much higher than the rest of the world’s as right now there is no prima facie reason evident.
Regional Transit Governance
Chicago has three more or less independent transit service boards: the CTA, Metra, and Pace. The RTA provides financial oversight and is also chartered with coordinating these agencies. It’s been long noted that in fact the three agencies mostly don’t cooperate that much, and there are frequent turf battles, etc.
I think a bit of this is overblown. I don’t subscribe to the idea that a lack of integration between the CTA and Metra is a major barrier to improved transit regionally. Would integrated fares and more coordinated schedules help? Sure, but that’s not the secret sauce to really moving the bar.
However, the various turf battles do lead to challenges on occasion, and the fact that these agencies are so independent in their operations leads to bad “optics” and provides ammo to those who would oppose change in the region. It’s like when the CTA had a bus on Lake St. Regardless of the merits or lack thereof of that route, it was really minor in the grand scheme of things. But it was always something people could point to as an example of misplaced priorities. (“As long as the CTA has a bus running underneath the L, I’ll never take them seriously” and such). It plays into the whole “gotcha” mentality of politics.
So this is something we should probably take a look at while putting together that vision. And there are some legitimate items that need to be addressed. Again, I won’t be prescriptive as to what that more integrated vision is, or how governance would change, just say that it ideally ought to be part of the discussion.
Unfortunately, this is likely to be the most troublesome aspect in many ways. Consider this: the CTA carries 80% of the region’s transit ridership. But the CTA gets far less than 80% of the money. This is true of the RTA tax, the stimulus, the recent capital bill, etc. Someone labeled my winning entry from the Chamber of Commerce competition as “suburb infuriating”. Actually, I’m not anti-Metra. I think they are a fantastic agency and love riding Metra trains. In fact, I budgeted for heavy increases in Metra ridership and significant investment in that system in my winning entry. The but the fact remains that the lion’s share of the region’s transportation ridership is on the CTA. All service boards aren’t created equal.
For their part, Metra also has some legitimate complaints. They’d no doubt say that since they carry passengers over longer distances, passenger-miles, not passenger counts is the best measure. There’s something to that. (Though I’d argue it leads to certain perverse outcomes such as rewarding service to far exurban areas like Elburn. Why are we using precious transit dollars to subsidize non-transit oriented sprawl developments even further from downtown? Why make it easier to live even further from downtown with this subsidy?) Also, Metra provides significant service in the city, but doesn’t receive any of the RTA sales tax in the city. It should come as no surprise to anybody that their service priorities follow the funding. And Metra is arguably the long pole in the tent when it comes to feeling the pain of transit underinvestment. As Metra trains get more crowded and turn into standing room sardine cans, this is going to very negatively affect the perception of the Loop as a business destination. It won’t take that much ridership growth to get there.
So there is a lot to consider here and it will obviously be something difficult to pull of politically, but a challenge that should be tackled along with the rest.
Lastly, I received an email followup to part one of this series from someone who had some interesting insights as to offer about why Chicagoans don’t seem to demand better transit. Presented here in an anonymized fashion.
Your discussion of what Chicagoans want or are willing to pay for vis-a-vis world-class mass transit reminds me of a concept I learned in the early ’90s.
The concept is “Racquet”. I learned of it related to organizational behavior but it sounds like the inhabitants of Chicago may have a racquet as well. A racquet is when folks have something they complain about and commiserate about but don’t fix it. Upon delving into the roots of racquets one finds that the folks don’t really want it fixed – the subject of the racquet is a unifying force that if corrected will remove the common complaint and thus the unifying force. The cultural changes that would ensue from the change in practices that “no one wants” are not acceptable to the people (the complainers).
I worked for a rapidly growing company in the early 90’s. We were a company with many cowboys. We (the top 70 leaders in the company) commiserated on any number of things. The CEO hired two consultants to help “transform” the company into a modern, international company with cohesive leadership. They introduced us to the “racquet” theory. In corporate organizational behavior, it is important to break the racquets. It is also difficult. But, I imagine far easier in a company with some semblance of common objectives that it would be in a each-man-for-himself city.
Other Transportation Related Articles
The Urbanophile Wins Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Transit Competition
Transportation and the Burnham Plan
Metropolitan Linkages (high speed rail benefits case)
High Speed Rail (implementation)
This post originally ran on September 15, 2009.
Tuesday, November 30th, 2010
[ Last year I ran a five part series called “Good to Great” about how to fundamentally change the game on transit in Chicago. I guess you could sum it up as, “We need a Chicago2016 for transit.” In the lead up to the mayoral election, I am re-running this series over the next month. Virtually all of the material is relevant to any US city with an existing major transit system, so please check it out.
I will add one thing by up front offering the new mayor a suggestion. As much as I might covet the job for myself, he should try to keep Richard Rodriguez as CTA president. I don’t even know if Rodriguez wants to keep this tough and thankless position. But given the constraints and pressures he’s operating under, I think he and the team there have done a very good job at managing the agency in some difficult circumstances. He’s a keeper. If you need to see an example of why, read this article. ]
Earlier this year, I won first prize in a global transit competition sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. So perhaps it is past time that looked at transit in Chicago. While this article is about that city, the techniques are applicable to most places.
Both the current and former CTA presidents, Richard Rodriguez and Ron Huberman, said that Chicago has a good transit system (I agree) but deserves a great one (I also agree). So with apologies to Jim Collins, this article kicks off a multi-part series on taking Chicago area transit from good to great.
The Problem: No Public Demand
Why doesn’t Chicago have a great transit system? I’m going to make a rather contrarian and controversial indictment. Namely, I think Chicago doesn’t have a great system because its citizens don’t want one. If there were greater citizen demand for a better system, that’s what we would have. Absent that demand, we get at best a good system. That’s because it is impossible to create a great, world class regional transit system without more money – a lot more. This might sound a lot like blaming the victim, but please bear with me.
The numbers are stark. According to a joint promotional site run by the region’s transit agencies, Moving Beyond Congestion, Chicagoland needs $10 billion in funds just to bring the current system up to a good state of repair. Even if the city wanted to simply keep the system at current levels, spending at $1 billion per year would be required. The 2007 strategic plan says that $57 billion is needed over the 30 years to give the city the system it wants and needs. The stimulus funds and monies provided under the state’s recently passed capital program are only a minimal start. Even if you think these numbers are inflated – and I don’t – they are certainly not orders of magnitude too high.
Without significant new dollars being made available, it simply isn’t possible for regional transit agencies to create a transit system worthy of Chicago. It’s just not going to happen. I actually think regional agencies do a pretty good job considering the financial and regulatory constraints they operate under. As they say, “You can set your watch to Metra”. The CTA too has improved service markedly in recent years, and has proven that you can accomplish a lot when you take a “can do” attitude despite not getting more money. The CTA has done a lot to reduce the number of slow zones, roll out passenger friendly services like bus tracker, and experimented with things like iGo car integration.
So why do I say that the people of Chicago don’t want a great system? Because it’s true. People in Chicago like to grouse about the CTA the way they complain about the weather. But that doesn’t translate into anything more than amusing newspaper columns and blog postings. Like the weather, the problems of transit underinvestment are viewed as simply the “background noise” you have to put up with to live in Chicago.
Contrast public reactions to the state of transit investment with that on other controversial affairs of the day – parking meters, the Olympics, crime, or whatever. Heck, there are more people out there pounding the table about how upset they are about the pending demolition of Michael Reese Hospital than there are people demanding more money for transit. If tens of thousands of angry citizens were marching, publishing blogs, and writing letters to Springfield and Washington to express their unhappiness about this state of affairs, we’d see action. If politicians thought they would lose their jobs in the next election if they didn’t do something about transit, well, they’d do something about it.
So much of the writing on transit futures focuses on what we ought to do functionally and technically. But that’s irrelevant if we don’t have the money to pay for it. So this series will focus on how we build public demand for transit investment, elevating its status in our civic priority list. And give an idea of how to actually get the money. This will be a five part series:
This installment focuses on building a shared civic vision of the future of the city and its transit system.
Why a New Vision Is Necessary
Frankly, it is pretty easy to understand why the public views investing in transit with all the enthusiasm of a dose of castor oil. It’s what I call the “Rusty Furnace Effect”. Imagine you’ve got a gas furnace in your house that is pushing 20 years old. It’s been poorly maintained, is badly rusted, and has an alarming tendency to break down. You open the door to your utility closet and stare at that thing for a while and contemplate a choice: spend $6000 on a new furnace, or pay $250 every time it breaks down. I think most people are going to defer shelling out $6K as long as they can. It’s the same reason I put off getting my wisdom teeth removed until I was in college and had a particularly bad infection. Until the pain of the disease outweighs the perceived pain of the cure, we aren’t going to act.
Transit is in the same boat. We are told that we need to spend $10 billion to “bring the system in a good state of repair”. This will no doubt involve much inconvenience as well, including station closings, three track operation, etc. Why would anyone want to pay $10 billion to get a system that is basically the same as the one we’ve got today, only a bit spiffier? Until, for example, trains start derailing, people don’t perceive the need.
This is basically the problem with all “plumbing replacement” type operations. I don’t think it is any accident that the people selling furnaces tout their potential to reduce heating bills through energy efficient operation. You’ve got to have a hook to convince people that they are getting something.
That’s what we need for public transit in Chicago. We’ve got to have a hook to show people how they are going to get something for all this money. We have to create a vision not just of how transit will be better – though we should do that – but how life in Chicago is going to be different and better when we execute the capital plan. We have to make it real to people and inspire an emotional connection so that they say, “Yes – we’ve got to have some of that!” to the point they support the fund raising necessary to see it happen. That’s the piece we are missing today.
Why Transit Advocates Are Often Poor Marketers for Transit Spending
One thing I’ve noticed is that pro-transit advocates are ofter poor at selling the need for public transit to the public at large. Indeed, except where the public is already primed to support it – places like Portland and Seattle – opponents of transit are generally more effective at making their case. I recently noted this, for example, in the case of Cincinnati’s proposed streetcar system.
I think part of the problem is that the case is obvious to us, thus we are unable to conceive of others who don’t think or feel the same way, which creates a blind spot on selling. Pro-transit activists tend to view people who oppose it as Philistines or representatives of nefarious forces. The idea that people have to be convinced seems foreign.
We see this problem in the Moving Beyond Congestion site. It relies heavily on facts and figures to make its case, as if the mere fact that we need $10 billion to repair regional transit stands on its own. Well, people like me read that and think, “Seems pretty straightforward to me. How much can we afford to spend now and where can we go start raising the money?” But to others those are just numbers. The facts are not in dispute. The numbers on the MBC site are what they are. But facts don’t inspire. Because many of us live and breathe in this space every day, we don’t need the sales job and thus don’t appreciate the need for it.
Also, as we well know, political decisions aren’t always made on the basis of facts and rational analysis. The numbers elected officials really care about are the vote totals, the number of constituent letters and phone calls, etc. So we’ve got to make sure we create that public demand so that politicians see the numbers that matter.
I’m not going to be prescriptive as to what that contents of the vision should be here, but rather talk about some of the elements and techniques that should be brought to bear, including some that were used to great success in Burnham’s Plan of Chicago.
Learning from High Speed Rail
A commenter in one of my blog posts described a lecture at one of the Burnham Plan celebration events, and how the section on high speed rail seemed to really get people excited. This person was wondering why that was. Why has high speed rail captured so much of the public imagination and gotten so much federal funding when we can’t mobilize similar results for metro transit?
It is actually pretty easy to understand why. High speed rail would be a major new transportation system that doesn’t exist at all today, unlike fixing up the CTA to “bring the system up to a good state of repair” which merely lets us keep what we already have. Again, do you want to replace your rusty old furnace or get a shiny new kitchen?
Also, high speed trains tap into a deep romantic streak in the human psyche. The best description of this is Jonathan E. D. Richmond’s paper, “The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. This is actually written as an anti-rail tract (metro rail, not high speed), but also provides the playbook in favor of it. I can’t do it justice here, but this is an absolute must-read paper. Among other things, he clearly explores the idea of the fast train as sex symbol. Per Richmond:
Arnold Pacey (1983) writes about the “virtuosity values” of technology, the enjoyment of:
having mechanical power under one’s control, and of being master of an elemental force. The teenage enthusiasm for motorcycles reflects this. Many farmers, it is said, buy larger tractors than they really need, to the detriment of soil structures, because of the pleasure they get from using such powerful machines… Dennis Gabor talks about “archetypal human desires” which include the wish to communicate at a distance, to travel fast, to fly [p.84-85]
It is the meanings related to power, virtuosity and sex which the train appears to symbolize which most convincingly seem to focus attention on the technology. The technological power of the train was often equated to sexual potency by those interviewed. A train as both genders: it is referred to as “she” and as a penis. According to LACTC Commissioner and Mayor of Santa Monica, Christine Red:
There was an intense amount of ego over the fact that San Diego had whipped a trolley system out, kabloom, like that. They just did it. And I mean everybody else was like, oh my God, you know, what an affront that this little city could do that, and here we are – a big county – powerful, two-thirds of the population of the state, blah, blah, blah, and we can’t do this [my emphasis]
The fact that San Diego got their bright red cars in working order before Los Angeles even got off the market left LA feeling impotent or even castrated. The metaphorical sexual imagery – of penis envy – in this account is unmistakable. When the LACTC (1991) publication Metro Moves announced the opening of the Blue Line tunnel into downtown Los Angeles, furthermore, it headlined: “A tunnel just waiting for a train.” A picture of the tunnel was contained within the outline of a heart (Fig 4)
Clearly, as the ultimate fast train, high speed rail is also high on the sexiness factor. Also, the idea that the United States is falling behind, and that the world’s super-power is being humiliated by much smaller countries (and major competitors like China) with rail investments plays a role.
There’s a lot more in there, and clearly tapping into the lessons Richmond teaches is important. Chicago is a city with a long history of massive civic pride and boosterism. A city that refused to be anything other than #1. This is something that can be leveraged to good effect in selling transit investment. Likewise Richmond’s “social connections” metaphor (investing in disadvantaged communities to connect them to opportunities) would appear to be a good one to leverage.
Learning from the Plan of Chicago
The most viewed article ever in this blog was called “What Made the Burnham Plan Successful”, which outlined nine items that contributed to the plan’s success. A few of these are highly relevant to this effort as well.
- A mix of the practical and conceptual. Burnham’s plan both included things like a Michigan Ave. bridge – a practical and concrete item – with items like the harbors and ring road diagrams that were more just ideas. We need something similar here. A mix of practical items like “build this rail station here” with more forward looking items like high speed rail integration or airport express service.
- A mix of both work in progress and new items. Burnham wisely glommed onto things that were already in the pipe or partially completed. The Michigan Ave. bridge and the lakefront park came to mind. By mixing these with the new, the forward looking items were associated with recent successes. Plus, by having near term items included, they could demonstrate rapid progress on the plan. The CTA could do the same. Today, projects like the Brown Line expansion or the Douglas L rehab are presented as standalone projects, not part of a larger program of renewing Chicago’s transit system. Similarly, the three new L extensions that were approved are likely to be viewed as ho-hum. Unless it affects you directly, why would you care? I’ll likely never take the Red Line to 130th. Having discrete projects instead of a program means each individual one is of mostly parochial interest. What Burnham did was draw the big picture and showed how the pieces fit in. That’s what we need to do. Actually, a lot has already been done. Combine the past projects with near term items and longer terms with an overarching vision to show the public that we are marching towards a better future. Then you also build a coalition in support of an overall program, instead of just having different groups and neighborhoods who care mostly about their own local project.
- High quality renderings and design in the plan document. This is examined below. But the quality of design in the plan itself excited the public, made the vision real to them, and gave it an authoritative feel.
- Sustained follow-through on sales and marketing. The plan didn’t sell itself. There was a big, consistent push behind it. This famously included the Wacker Manual, a condensed version of the plan taught to children in the public schools.
Planners today could learn a lot from the techniques of success used by Burnham and his team.
I’ll conclude this post with a look at three examples of efforts that have done this right, focusing on visualizations, to show the type of effect we need to be aiming for: Burnham’s original Plan of Chicago, the “Imagine KC” project from Kansas City, and Louisville’s 8664 initiative.
One of great things about the Plan of Chicago is that its backers spared no expense in creating a high quality output. They commissioned an artist to do bespoke artwork to literally show a conceptual picture of what the Chicago of tomorrow would look like, drawing on the legacy of the World’s Columbian Exhibition. These were gorgeous, full color plates in the output. Even children could appreciate them. Here are a couple of samples:
It’s easy for us to take Chicago for granted today. But in 1909 it was a crowded, filthy, dangerous, and rather ugly place. For people to see these gorgeous renderings of a clean, beautiful, well-ordered, spacious city, with gorgeous parks and boulevards must have prompted amazement, perhaps even disbelief. This is Chicago? The city could really be like this? Ultimately, it whetted people’s appetites to actually get it.
Here’s another example, this one transit specific. It comes from Kansas City. Kansas City does not have rail transit today. A proposal to fund the construction of a light rail system was voted down last November. Frustrated that people did not really understand what light rail would do for the city, a local design agency created this video for Kansas City Public Television to try to make it very clear visually. Some of you may have seen it since I’ve linked it before, but if not this three and a half minute video is well worth watching.
The video shows the time wasted in cars, followed by a demonstration of benefits of dense, mixed use development, then an example of transit creating this very type of environment in Kansas City.
One cautionary note here. This video would makes Kansas City look like a nearly 100% white city. Plus the development featured – fitness clubs, sushi bars, etc – are oriented towards yuppies. This feeds into criticisms of transit in small cities as being gentrification tools and subsidies to the already well-off. This is a common failing in small city transit advocacy. Of course, Chicago is nothing like Kansas City. The value of transit is clear to the whole community.
The techniques of this video are very applicable to Chicago.
Lastly, I’ll mention again a movement out of Louisville, Kentucky called “8664”. This is a grass roots movement that wants to stop a major new downtown bridge and expressway widening in favor of tearing down an elevated waterfront freeway, replacing it with a park.
8664 tapped into a powerful idea of recapturing the rivertown heritage of Louisville. They’ve relentlessly touted the benefits – financial, recreational, environmental, etc – and have really captured the public imagination. Without any official backing, they have totally changed public opinion. While many many not be sold on the idea of tearing down I-64, they clearly have soured on the idea of the huge Spaghetti Junction reconstruction and new bridge.
Part of 8664 has been a series of wonderful drawings and videos, some of which I’ve shown before. Here’s their compare and contrast of the state’s plan:
with their plan:
Extremely effective. Their marketing is running rings around the state DOT’s. They are rigorously on message, repeatedly touting a more livable future for Louisville, and enumerating the benefits of the project, while continuing to generate quality collateral like this.
To really capture the public imagination and build demand for public transit is going to require the creation of a compelling vision, an emotionally resonant picture of what life will be like in our new and better future, and a strong and sustained marketing plan to sell it. As the examples above show, the vision can be conceptual at some level, as long as it is generally honest and there is a real, credible plan behind it.
Other Transportation Related Articles
The Urbanophile Wins Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Transit Competition
Transportation and the Burnham Plan
Metropolitan Linkages (high speed rail benefits case)
High Speed Rail (implementation)
This post originally ran on August 19, 2009.
Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010
Photo Credit: Flickr/wallyg
Crain's Chicago Business, the city's business weekly, has a first-rate lead article this week on Chicago after 21 years of the reign — there's no other word for it — of Mayor Richard M. Daley. The article is of greatest interest to Chicagoans, of course. But it also raises crucial questions for anyone interested in global cities, and whether they can work.
Chicago is a global city — perhaps the only one in the Midwest. These cities are the places where, increasingly, the world's business is done. They have the most corporate headquarters, the key global business services, the universities, the foreign students, the busiest airports, the immigrants and the most vibrant culture. As the Crain's authors Greg Hinz and Steven R. Strahler make clear, they also have problems that, as this global era dawns, are nowhere near being solved.
The big problem is that global cities make some of its neighborhoods and their citizens very rich and very well-served, while leaving most of their people farther behind than before.
Daley took office in 1989 — coincidentally, the year the Berlin Wall fell, Communism began to crumble and no less than 3 billion new workers — mostly from ex-Communist countries like China but also India and Indonesia — joined the world economy.
These events, together with the communications revolution since then, created globalization. One result was the exodus of heavy manufacturing from old industrial areas, like the Midwest, to formerly Third World countries, like China. A second result was the creation of global cities — metropolises that became command-and-control centers for this new economy. If the manufacturing spread around the globe, it was controlled by the global citizens — the bankers, managers, lawyers, consultants — who gathered in the global cities.
New York, London, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong stand atop this new global Hanseatic League. Just below them are a second tier — Los Angeles, Singapore, San Francisco, Sydney and the like. Chicago ranks at the top of this second tier: it was eighth in the top 10 in a ranking published by Foreign Policy magazine two years ago. Even with the recession since then, it undoubtedly ranks that high today. No other Midwestern city comes close.
This sounds good and, in many ways, it is. It's certainly better than the plight of many cities, like Detroit or Cleveland, where the heavy industry went away and nothing replaced it. Anyone who remembers the grey, rusty Chicago of the late 1980s, when Daley took over, has to be dazzled by the throbbing prosperity that greets any visitor today.
But that's the point, Crain's says. This visitor sees the Loop and the Lakefront. He visits friends and clients in Lincoln Park and Lakeview. He goes to games and restaurants on the near west side, or marvels at the development on the near south side. For sheer urban glitz, these neighborhoods hold their own with neighborhoods anywhere in the world.
Nor are their residents a tiny elite. These residents account for about 465,000 people. This mass of people — bigger than Minneapolis or St. Louis — is a force in the economy, and their sheer presence has transformed the city. About 20 percent of them earn $100,000 per year or more — the same percentage as in the suburbs, which is a big change. According to the Brookings Institution, 32 percent of Chicagoans hold bachelor's degrees or better, more proportionately than in New York.
But as Crain's points out, these half-million people are only one-sixth of Chicago. How's the rest of the city doing?
The answer is, not so hot. The increase in income in the city's eight wealthiest neighborhoods is greater than the total income in 38 other neighborhoods. High-school graduation rates have risen from 46 to 56 percent, but most of the dropouts still live in the great swatch of the city outside the glittering downtown. The city's murder rate is down sharply, but the victims still come disproportionately from the inner city, not the Gold Coast.
And as Crain's points out, success itself has a cost that must be paid.
In his 21 years in office, Daley has pumped billions into the city to give it the amenities and beauty that any global city must have. The result is new stadiums, Millennium Park, flowers everywhere, a theater district, a rerouted Lake Shore Drive, the revamped Navy Pier, the ongoing modernization of the city's two big airports, and much else. All these are crucial to the city's sheer verve and vitality.
But another result is huge debt. The city's operating budget is running a 16.3 percent deficit, twice that of New York. According to Crain's, total bonded debt and long-term capital leases for city government are up to 263 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis: the city's property-tax base is up too, but barely half as much. Tack on huge unfunded pension liabilities, and the city's in a financial jam.
And then we get to the most glaring statistic of all — jobs. Chicago, even in its old Rust Belt days, had 1,334,000 jobs in 1989, when Daley took over. This was down to 1,235,000 in 2008 and (no doubt because of the recession) was down to only 1,175,000 at the last count, in 2009.
In other words, Chicago – the only old industrial city in the Midwest to transform itself into a global city, a big success story in the global rankings — still can't provide as many jobs for its residents as the old sooty City of the Big Shoulders.
What does this say about the ability of the global economy to create a decent standard of living?
Saskia Sassen, formerly at the University of Chicago and now at Columbia in New York, literally wrote the book — "The Global City" — on global cities, and was a lead writer on the Chicago Council's 2004 book, Global Chicago. She is perhaps the world's leading theorist on global cities, and what Crain's reported didn't surprise her a bit.
Global cities, she told Crain's, are cities within cities. The true global citizens in these cities have more to do with the global economy, and hence with other global cities like Paris or Tokyo, then they do with the rest of Chicago. A global city needs them, because they are a terrific source of income and prestige, and hence lashes out on the parks, schools, theaters and other amenities that bring them in. But these amenities exist to serve these global citizens, not the rest of the city. This is why Chicago today has many excellent public schools, including some good high schools: these global citizens have kids and they demand good schooling. Meanwhile, schools in the rest of the city are nearly as bad as ever.
This is no less than a new class structure. The old industrial city created an industrial middle class, based on good jobs for anyone willing to work hard. That city is gone. The new global city creates a global class, with splendid jobs for people also willing to work hard — and with an MBA to boot. In a global city, some people — quite a lot of them, in fact– move up, and other people — the majority, it seems – move down, leaving not much in the middle.
It's a puzzlement. In today's global economy, cities may have to become global cities or decline. Chicago, for all its problems, still is much better off than Detroit or Cleveland. But can these global cities create a vibrant economy for all its citizens, not just for a lakeside elite that, in some sense, doesn't really live in the city at all?
Richard C. Longworth is a Senior Fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is the author of Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.
This post originally appeared in the Global Midwest blog on June 18, 2010. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Thursday, October 21st, 2010
I got a suggestion to do more open discussion threads, so thought I’d try this one out. I’d love to have your contributions on things you think are truly world class about Chicago. That is, things that are either arguably the best in the world, or reasonably competitive with the best the world has to offer. I’ll start with a few examples of my own:
- Music scene. Chicago’s indie rock community, record labels, and performance venues have long been ranked among the world’s best.
- Live theater. Beyond Broadway type shows, Chicago has one of the world’s most robust theater scenes for sure.
- Food. Lots of cities have great food scenes these days. I don’t think you can argue Chicago is #1 in the world or anything, but it certainly has nothing to be embarrassed about.
- Architecture. While this is no longer the Chicago of Mies van der Rohe, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Daniel Burnham, the city is still a major international architectural design hub, with important specialties like supertall skyscraper design.
- Orchestra. The Chicago Symphony is one of the world’s top orchestras.
- Derivatives. Chicago is still the world’s largest futures market as far as I know. This by itself makes Chicago a leading global financial center.
What are your ideas? Please try to be honest and realistic. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with (or how you disagree with my nominations). If you’d rather just share particular Chicago strengths or unique attributes, feel free and please note them as such.
While I said cities shouldn’t fall into an asset trap, certainly identifying your strengths and leveraging what you have are an important part of civic development. I am hoping we can brainstorm a good list of these for Chicago.
Sunday, October 10th, 2010
This is another in my Future of Chicago series, examining major issues that go beyond the headlines of the moment in the lead up to the mayoral election.
My Chicago Worldview
A lot of my thinking on Chicago has been shaped by an overarching view of its performance. Believe it or not, I used to be a huge Chicago cheerleader. I don’t think there’s any doubt that during the 1990’s, Chicago rediscovered its mojo and was really tearing up the charts of performance for big cities. But something changed in the mid-2000’s. I date it to the opening of Millennium Park. Millennium Park was a huge home run for the city, and obviously a key positive part of Mayor Daley’s legacy, no matter what the cost over runs. It added hugely to reconnecting the Loop to the lakefront park system, created a huge tourist attraction, and probably more than any other single factor sparked a residential boom in the Loop itself.
But Millennium Park was also a sort of high water mark for the city. While I can name a lot of great things the city did before then, after that, there have arguably been more negatives than positives, ranging from a failed Olympic bid that monopolized civic attention for far too long, to a white elephant of a partially completed $300M train station under Block 37 (which hopefully will some day look like a wise move in retrospect), to a disastrous parking meter lease. What’s more, Chicago started hemorrhaging jobs and its economic performance cratered. I think anyone who looked at the situation honestly would have to admit a good chunk of the wind has gone out of the city’s sails. That’s not to say Chicago is doomed. It has fantastic strengths and resources. But it is trending the wrong direction.
I think this is massively underdiscussed locally, both because the city is imbued with an admittedly not uncommon booster club society culture, and because America’s struggles generally of late make it seem like Chicago is just part of a macrotrend. It is, but it’s more than that.
I’m going to illustrate Chicago’s reversal today by comparing it to New York City, looking at various key civic performance data. I’ll try to compare both metro and city where possible (all data is metro unless explicitly labeled as city), and to back to 1990 where possible, though for many items I could only conveniently get data for the past decade. You’ll see that where once Chicago was crushing New York, now the situation has reversed itself, erasing 20 years of relative gains for Chicago.
New York’s Quality of Life Program
While reading this I want you to keep in mind my recent post on New York’s quality of life agenda. I said I would demonstrate how that is paying dividends, and this post shows that too. Though perhaps I can’t claim causation, think about the correlation at least. In the 90’s and early 2000’s it was Chicago who was the leader in transportation and urban space, with its streetscape program and median planters, the wrought iron fence program, one of the first large scale bike lane deployments, the McDonald’s cycle center at Millennium Park, and more. Now Chicago has stagnated while New York powers ahead on all those items I’ve written about before. It’s hard for people to make the mental leap from stagnant transport planning and banal public place design to economic performance. So hopefully this helps make the picture clear.
Here’s a chart from the last decade. For these charts, I am sometimes inconsistent on my use of percentages as multiplied by 100 or not. I did not have time to make them consistent, but keep in mind that any 0.XX value should be multiplied by 100 unless otherwise noted.
Population Growth – July 1, 2000-July 1, 2009
Source: Census Bureau Population Estimates Program
This one is a mixed result. Both regions have anemic growth, but Chicago wins on the metro measure while losing on the city measure. Despite the city of Chicago’s massive condo building boom, its population has been stagnant.
Here is where it starts getting ugly.
Source: BLS Current Employment Statistics
You see Chicago jumping out to a big lead in job in the 90’s, only to see that relative performance gain almost completely erased by today. A year by year view shows this in action.
I think this is the scariest one of the bunch. I think back to 1992 when I first started work out of college. My employer was still hiring aggressively in Chicago even though it was during a recession, while one of the first rumors I heard when I started was about an east cost layoff. This chart backs that anecdote up. Now the shoe is on the other foot.
If you pull the monthlies for 2010 to date, the situation is continuing on this trend.
Unsurprisingly, we see the same trend at work in the unemployment rate, where New York was far higher than Chicago in the early to mid-90’s, but is now consistently below it.
Source: BLS Local Area Unemployment Statistics
Gross Domestic Product
GDP is a basic measure of economic output. The data is only available at the MSA level for a short term period at present, and there’s some debate over how accurate narrow geographic parsing of this variable is, but the same trend is in evidence.
Source: BEA Regional Economic Accounts
Please keep in mind that for this and most of the other charts, I rendered them as percentage type comparisons to make the data comparable between cities. If you looked at the actual underlying values, New York’s GDP per capita is already far higher than Chicago’s – $57,097 vs. $45,463. The chart above only measures the growth in the spread between them.
Personal and Household Income
Again, not surprisingly, the trend flows through to per capita income:
Source: BEA Regional Economic Accounts
And the year by year view of the same data:
One might argue that this is influenced by the finance bubble that particularly blessed New York. And possibly so. So let’s take a look at an alternate data point, median household income from the Census Bureau. As a median value, this should be less likely to reflect huge gains at the high end. Unfortunately, the Census 2000 data for MSAs is based on the old definition, and it wasn’t a straightforward matter to recalculate this to current definitions, so here is city only performance for the last decade:
Source: Census 2000 and ACS 2009
Doesn’t matter – same result.
I’ll round out with a couple of additional factors often viewed as important. First, the increase in percentage of adults with a college degree. Note that this is a percentage point change (difference), not a percentage change in the total value.
Source: Census 2000 and ACS 2009
Back to a mixed result, with New York winning on the regional basis, but Chicago doing better in the city.
And lastly, a couple of commuting stats. First, public transportation mode share for commuting. Note that this again is a percentage point change, not a percent change.
Source: Census 2000 and ACS 2009
There’s debate to be sure on the value of public transit, but clearly New York has outperformed on getting people onto buses and trains. How has that changed commute time? Let’s take a look:
Source: Census 2000 and ACS 2009
The city of Chicago had a much bigger drop in commute times. I personally wouldn’t be too excited about this since since lower commute times nationally appear to be driven (so to speak) by the poor economy rather than transport efficiency. Whatever the case, New York performed slightly better on a regional basis.
Before concluding I should note that the ACS survey has a margin of error associated with it, which should be taken into account before reading too much into changes in values derived from it. I’m only reporting the headline number.
While Chicago had a couple of bright spots, it’s pretty clear that not only is New York ahead of Chicago, something that is to be expected, but it is pulling away. It would be easy to say that New York is one of a kind and that nobody can compete with it. Well, it is one of a kind, and while it isn’t a direct competition, Chicago was doing far better than New York as recently as 15 years ago. So it can be done and indeed was being done.
The reality is that Chicago is falling behind versus traditional peer cities, to say nothing of emerging global cities around the planet. Perhaps it’s not a direct competition, but if you aren’t creating jobs, economic output, and wealth, you aren’t going to be able to make the investments to stay relevant. One reason New York has been doing what it has been on the public space and transportation front and Chicago has not is that New York is in a lot better shape financially. We are watching the cultural institutions of Detroit get dismantled before our eyes as that city can no longer afford them. Clearly, Chicago is no Detroit and never will be. But that can serve as a sort of cautionary tale of what happens when the wealth generating capacity of your city erodes. Chicago is going to find it tougher and tougher to keep up unless it figures out a way to restore the regional economic engine to good working order. That, more than anything, is the key challenge not just for the next mayor, but for all the city and regional leadership.
Tuesday, September 28th, 2010
[ Today I’m launching a series of posts leading up February’s Chicago mayoral election called the Future of Chicago. I will share my own thoughts on the critical issues facing Chicago today, along with important views of others where I can get them. In fact, I start with a perspective today by relatively new blogger Jason Tinkey who writes at The Planner’s Dream Gone Wrong. Tinkey highlights one of the major civic problems, namely how Chicago, once an innovator and leader in public space design, has fallen woefully behind. Today’s example: bike infrastructure – Aaron ]
Since the World Cup is on it’s two-day break before the quarterfinals begin, I have a chance to think about things less important. A few years back, Chicago was held up as a shining example of what big cities could do with bicycle infrastructure when the civic elites set their minds to it. Then, apparently, Mayor Daley got distracted by his dreams of Olympic glory, selling off the rights to the city’s parking meters, inventing new ways to use the English language and who knows what else. Nowadays, a lot more is happening in New York, London & Mexico City than here at home.
I’ve been reading about what transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is doing in New York for the last couple of years with great envy. It wasn’t until I finally booked myself a trip to London later this year that I realized how much we’ve slipped. As we all know, London is a sprawling metropolis, and as excellent as their transit system is, I’ve grown so accustomed to getting around by bike that I figured it would help out my patience and my wallet to do so during my visit. They don’t have an ideal system in place just yet, and reading the comments on various posts on the Guardian’s bike blog would indicate that there is still a very, very long way to go. But let’s run down what’s coming down the pike just this summer…400 bike share stations throughout the center city and completion of the first two “cycle superhighways”. All under the aegis of a Conservative mayor in need of a new hairstyle who rides a bike to work. The city is spending £110 million just this year, a big chunk of which is coming from Barclays, who get naming rights to the programs and even get to put their logo on the maintenance crew’s uniforms. But what impressed me more than anything is that the city’s bicycle plan is totally integrated within the framework of Transport for London (TfL), the government body charged with running the Tube and double-deckers. Go to TfL’s website and you can find an entire section with information on bike sharing, route planning and even a page where users can upload their own routes into a Google Maps mashup.
Again, the system isn’t perfect, one of the largest flaws being that bikes aren’t allowed on subway trains and only on buses “at the driver’s discretion”. However, it really got me thinking about the RTA here in Chicago. Public transit planners worldwide struggle with the dilemma of the “last mile”. Including bikes in the equation would make transit a lot more attractive, especially in the suburbs, but of course only if adequate infrastructure exists to ride them on. This is something London really isn’t too far ahead of us on, traffic has decreased since congestion pricing went into effect, but it’s still pretty horrendous. And those streets are narrow, some London streets could fit into a single lane in a place like Schaumburg.
Speaking of lane width, I remember hearing an anecdote once about how the Mexican government promised to double the total mileage of the Mexico City’s freeways by the end of a certain year. Money for the project either dried up or was siphoned off and the authorities simply doubled the number of lanes by remarking the roads and claimed it as a success. Nowadays I guess we would call this a road diet. The effect of these sorts of actions just made room for more cars, and now the city government is attempting to undo some of the ill effects, notably the infamous air pollution. A few years back they introduced the hoy no circula scheme, which restricts drivers from using their cars on a certain day each week based on the last number on their license plate. Now, the local government is pushing bikes as the ultimate solution and has begun by expanding bike parking, installing ramps down stairs into Metro stations, bike boxes, pedestrian bollards, bike sharing, all that good stuff.
None of this stuff is all that difficult. Chicago had a deal in the works for a bike share program a couple of years ago that fell apart, and is now tentatively moving forward with 100 bikes at six stations. Six. Compared with 400 in London, where stations will be no more than 400 meters apart, which do you think will be more successful? Despite Complete Streets design measures being passed by the city, county and state, I’ve seen very little in the way of new bike lanes, bike parking, bike anything over the past couple years. There has been some stirrings of support for bike boulevards and the like, but it seems like the grassroots support falls on deaf ears at CDOT, possibly because the agency just named it’s sixth commissioner in five years? Mayor Daley set a very ambitious course five years ago with his Bike 2015 Plan…unfortunately, the amount of work left to do is daunting.
This post originally appeared in The Planner’s Dream Gone Wrong. Reprinted with permission of the author.