Chicago’s Public Transportation System and Residential Patterns

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

The Daley Administration is pursuing a global city-building agenda. This agenda involves the use of government resources to transform city infrastructure and services in order to attract global investment and world travelers. Examples of global city-building practices and policies include creating tourist spectacles (Millennium Park), attempting to attract world events (the Olympics), and redeveloping central business districts. At the same time, the Daley Administration is influenced by neoliberal urban policy imperatives. Neoliberal policies involve the creation of a favorable business climate via fiscal austerity for local government achieved by slashing public services, budget cuts, and privatization of state assets. The confluence of global city-building policies and neoliberal urban policies are significantly reshaping the urban built environment and public services in ways that are creating new patterns of inequality in the global city. Public transportation makes a good case study of how these trends play out in Chicago; by examining it we can demonstrate emerging forms of residential segregation and unequal development.

In order to create room for building the global city by expanding the Loop’s office complex westward and enhancing the flow of people and goods with new transportation developments, Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development drafted the Central Area Plan (CAP) in 2003. The CAP is the growth machine’s vision for a central area makeover including more green and open spaces, office construction and a litany of other quality of life initiatives and economic developments. Tellingly, there is no comparable economic development plan for neighborhoods outside the Central Area. One glance at the plan is enough to grasp that transit issues dominate the CAP. In order to alleviate congestion resulting from more density, $14 billion of the $15.5 billion CAP is devoted to transportation projects concentrated in the Central Area. In effect, the city will be sinking a substantial sum of money over the next decade into an area that constitutes approximately 20 percent of the total area of the city. With the lion’s share of its limited financial resources concentrated in the Central Area, it is difficult to believe the city will have the substantial financial resources to make much-needed transit improvements, let alone expansions, for the remaining 80 percent of the city.

One transportation project included in the CAP is nonstop express train service from O’Hare and Midway Airports to a terminal point in the Loop. The Airport Express is expected to save riders fifteen minutes in travel time for the estimated construction cost of nearly $1 billion. Express trains will be equipped with individualized airplane-like seating, conference tables, and other amenities, making it a luxury service. And since the service would run along by-pass rails following the existing Blue and Orange Lines, which already provide service from the Loop to the airports, the Airport Express would essentially be a redundant service. In order to realize the plan, the Daley Administration and Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) sunk approximately $380 million in tax dollars towards the construction of the Airport Express underground station at Washington and State Streets. The downtown superstation is the only access point to use the service to get to the airports, therefore the service mainly benefits those who are already downtown—or those who are staying in the luxury hotels, conducting business in corporate headquarters or living in the exclusive downtown apartment towers. Everyone else will have to travel to the downtown station to get on the express train—which may prove longer than the 15 minutes people stand to save by taking the service. Currently, the station remains an empty shell as the transit agency seeks a private investment group willing to invest in the billion dollar redundant service.

As the CTA poured money into its global city glamour project, the forty-year-old promise made by the transit agency to extend the Red Line five miles south to the city limits on the South Side remains unfulfilled. Extending the Red Line to the far South Side will greatly enhance access for the largely minority, working-class neighborhoods surrounding the line. According to the CTA, the 95th StreetRed Line terminal serves 50,000 riders a day, making it the busiest hub in the CTA system. The CTA says it takes South Side residents 20 percent longer on average to get to work than it does for commuters traveling from other parts of the city—in part due to the multiple buses some residents have to take to get to the Red Line. On the far South Side where the Red Line would be extended, one in four households does not have a car—in some of the poorer neighborhoods (like Riverdale/Altgeld Gardens), only one in two households own a car. Despite the real need to provide more transit access to economically challenged communities, the Red Line extension has been placed on hold as the CTA invests its limited capital dollars on the Airport Express.

The Developing Communities Project (DCP), a faith-based organization based in the Roselandcommunity surrounding the 95th Street terminal, is leading the efforts to pressure the CTA for the extension. Since 2002, the DCP has organized rallies, a walkathon, a petition/letter drive, and community meetings to draw attention to the community’s support for the Red Line extension. In 2004, it got the extension issue included on a referendum ballot in the 9th and 34th wards, with 98% of voters favoring the extension. These efforts have enjoyed some success, gaining commitments from political leaders. In 2005, Senator Barack Obama and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.teamed up to include the Red Line extension project in the federal SAFETEA-LU transportation bill, which allocated $593 million towards the project. The estimated cost of the expansion was $740 million, meaning the CTA and the state needed to make up the $147 million difference—or about a third of the money sunk into the Airport Express station boondoggle. As of April 2007, the CTA initiated the Alternative Analysis, the first phase of the federal public works process, in which they assess the benefits of the project design. However, this should not be taken as a sign that the project will actually be completed. In fact, an Alternative Analysis had been conducted in the past to no avail. And due to the CTA’s chronic budget shortfalls and limited finances for new transit projects, it is uncertain how many large-scale projects can be supported at once. The difficulties faced by the DCP reveal public transportation projects in global city Chicago favor transit for tourism, business elites and well-to-do residents, at the expense of the everyday needs of working-class minority communities. This is an example of how inequality is built into the urban landscape.

Understanding the racial and class-based disparities of public transportation infrastructure is especially important when considering global city residential patterns. As cities become more important in the global economy, drawing professional-managerial workers back to the city, working-class and minority residents are being pushed toward the city’s periphery where affordable housing can be found (though that too is shrinking). Furthermore, as a successful urban residential development strategy, gentrification is premised on providing “safe” housing for middle-class families. One way the Central Area is being cleansed of threatening social groups, i.e. low-income minorities, is through the neoliberal policy of tearing down public housing. The Chicago Housing Authority(CHA) implemented The Plan for Transformation in the 1990s to transform public housing into mixed-income developments of low-rise apartments, condos and town houses. Mixed income developments will only take in under 1/3 of former public housing residents, 1/3 affordable housing and 1/3 market rate housing, in order to sustain a mix of residents from various income levels. Since much of Chicago’s public housing is located in the Central Area, demolishing public housing not only makes more real estate available to developers, but it also pushes the people who are excluded from global city labor markets out of the Central Area. The newly constructed mixed-income housing only absorbs a small fraction of public housing residents, thereby preventing the majority of residents from moving back. And as public housing towers were demolished, CHA failed to construct replacement housing. Instead, it encouraged public housing residents to move into Section 8 housing. However, the city’s Section 8 list has been closed for nearly a decade, causing many voucher holders to seek housing in the south suburbs, where Section 8 housing is readily available. Those not using Section 8 tended to move to the margins of the city’s private housing market in neighborhoods on the West Side, the far South Side, or the inner suburban ring, thus shifting concentrated poverty further to the periphery. [see Ryan Hollon and Andrew Greenlee, “The Making and Remaking of Urban Peripheries,” in this issue.]

Together, the revalorization of downtown real estate markets and policies dismantling public services are creating new residential patterns in Chicago where affordable housing is shifting to the city’s periphery. In this regard, Chicago’s emerging spatial form is taking on the spatial form of European cities—where elites live in the city center while lower income groups are forced to survive along the city’s periphery. This new pattern of segregation by race and class in the global city is exacerbated by limited public transportation access that connects people to services and activities across the city. The populations most dependent on public transportation are precisely those forced from the Central Area, the most transit-rich part of the city, to the far south and West Sides and the south suburbs, or the areas of the city that Mike Evans, Associate Director of the DCP, characterized as “a transit desert.” Increasing the distance from job and educational centers will further isolate these communities and force people living in them to spend more of their lifetimes traveling to work and school, or else to make tough sacrifices in order to pay transportation bills, especially as the cost of oil continues to escalate. Taken as a whole, residential and public transportation policies of the global city are proving to be exclusive, not inclusive. And this exclusiveness is being built into the urban environment. ◊


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