To preserve the region’s economic vitality, Chicago needs to invest in its aging, under-maintained public transport infrastructure, a newly released report concluded.
The report, issued Friday by the Metropolitan Planning Council, looks at the impact Chicago’s trains and buses have on its businesses and workers, just as the state prepares to consider new investments in the system’s long-neglected capital needs.
Research suggests that a dollar of public money spent on public transit produces well more than a dollar in return, the report says.
The impact is felt most intensely near public transit nodes.
New research conducted for the report found that neighborhoods around transit stations see both higher growth in good times — in terms of new construction and higher real estate prices — and greater resiliency in bad times. After the 2008 financial crisis, the report found, areas around transit stations added jobs and saw less empty office space.
And though ridership in the system overall is falling, it is rising among a few important groups, including young people and commuters.
Two case studies in the report show businesses coming to terms with the changing tastes of their workforce.
McDonald’s decided to encourage its workers to use transit when it moved its headquarters from Oakbrook to the West Loop in 2017. At its old location, McDonald’s had noticed most of its job applicants lived in Oakbrook. The move allowed the company to take advantage of a region-wide labor pool by positioning itself at the center of a citywide transit system.
In its new location, which is in walking distance of the CTA Pink, Green, and Blue lines, McDonald’s took a series of steps to encourage workers to use public transit, including by paying for the first year of fares. In Oakbrook, 90 percent of headquarters workers drove to work. Today, according to a McDonald’s spokeperson, 90 percent take public transit.
Suburban office park developer and landlord Hamilton Partners brought transit to its workers by subsidizing a rush-hour PACE bus out to its Esplanade development in Downers Grove. It was part of an effort to preempt exactly the sort of move undertaken by McDonalds.
“When we looked at a lot of the major corporations that had relocated from the suburbs to the city, the biggest reason was to attract talent,” Phil Sheridan, a partner at Hamilton Partners, said. “[We took] it upon ourselves to provide some level of solution to those employees that live in the city, that don’t own a car, and give our tenants an ability to recruit those employees in the suburbs.”
Audrey Wennink, the researcher behind the report, emphasized that public transit is important to workers, and the businesses that employ them, up and down the economic ladder.
Transit is important to “high-wage workers that have choices. They could work in any world-class city in the world, and they may be choosing to live in Chicago because of the quality of life, and transit’s a big part of that,” Wennink said.
For low-wage workers, “transit is a very equitable mode of transportation. It’s affordable. When you’re working an hourly wage job and making maybe eight, ten, twelve dollars an hour, being able to get somewhere for $2.50 is very important.”
Failure by the Trump administration to act on expansive promises of infrastructure investment has left Illinois to fend for itself, Wennink said. She sees an opening for new, sustainable state funding in the upcoming legislative session — a move the report was designed to encourage.
“[Businesses] have a lot of power, their voices count for a lot. They are the economic engines of the region. Other regions have seen business coalitions communicate with the legislature and be successful in raising transportation revenue, and in particular in funding transit,” Wenink said.
If funding is forthcoming, Wennink’s first priority is maintenance.
Chicago has generally managed to avoid the breakdowns that have plagued New York City and Washington DC, but experts warn that the region could be headed in that direction.
“We still have terrible crowding at rush hour. We have 1890 infrastructure that needs to be overhauled,” said Joseph Schwieterman, the director of DePaul’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. “The whole system risks becoming a museum piece if we don’t invest…. It works, but we’re in effect on borrowed time.”
In 2015, the Regional Transit Authority, which oversees the L, Metra, and CTA and PACE buses, reported that 31 percent of its system was not in a “state of good repair.” In a favorite example for transit experts, some Metra trains date to the Eisenhower administration.
Once these basic needs are addressed, the system can begin to invest in new services, driving up ridership and economic activity. Wennink and Schwieterman both cited Pace’s express bus routes along the shoulder of I-55, a successful experiment that hasn’t been expanded to meet demand due to financial constraints.