The recent geography of gentrification in Chicago

There is a widespread sense that some parts of Chicago are gentrifying at a rapid pace. Rising rents in many neighborhoods have been cited as support for this view.

I downloaded and mapped data from the recently released 2011/2015 American Community Survey (ACS) in order to examine the geography of recent gentrification in Chicago.

To interpret these maps, one needs to understand that some academic work on gentrification portrays it as a kind of wave, moving regularly block by block or tract by tract, in which neighborhoods are completely transformed as their old inhabitants are displaced by wealthier newcomers1. Some of the many activists who oppose gentrification seem to accept this view as well, although they’re more likely to talk about neighborhoods than census tracts2.

Recent ACS data suggest that gentrification in Chicago in the last few years often hasn’t quite worked that way. Its geography has been much more complicated.

Here’s a map showing the change in real per capita income by census tract between the 2006/2010 ACS and the 2011/2015 ACS3:

Change in real per capita income by census tract, Chicago and vicinity, 2006/2010-2011/2015

Here’s a similar map for the region:

Change in real per capita income by census tract, Chicago region, 2006/2010-2011/2015
Someone wedded to the idea of gentrification as a wave could certainly find evidence for it in the dozen or so tracts in Logan Square, West Town, Humboldt Park, North Center, Uptown, and western Lake View where per capita income was up by 25% or more. Gentrification on the North Side does indeed seem to be moving west and north and cutting into the few remaining pockets of poverty. But, in fact, there are tracts with similar income rises scattered throughout the urban area. Many (maybe most) of those in the city include areas where high-rise housing projects were removed in the years between the 2006/2010 and 2011/2015 surveys, for example, the tracts covering the part of the city where Cabrini-Green Homes once stood. A change in building stock was associated with an increase in wealth in several other areas as well, for example in the West Loop, where new expensive housing has mostly replaced parking lots and industrial buildings. Whatever one thinks of this process, it would be simplistic to describe it as a wave of rich people displacing the poor.

What most struck me about these maps is how widespread an increase in per capita income has been in the Chicago area. All the tracts colored red or pink showed a positive change; that is, they did better than average. Such tracts are commoner on the North Side than the South Side, and perhaps a little commoner close to the Loop than away from it. But the spatial differences do not make a dramatically clear pattern. Gentrification as measured by income change between 2006/2010 and 2011/2015 seems to have been widespread. It was only to a limited degree strongly focused on a few areas. There is additional evidence for this view, for example, in the continued influx of white people into numerous North Side and near-downtown neighborhoods. The fact that the city of Chicago, unlike the Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area, the state of Illinois, or the United States as a whole, emerged from the Great Recession as wealthy as it was before the recession began provides further support for the idea that a modest amount of gentrification has been widespread in Chicago4.

Some of the areas of rising income were near the northern and northwestern edges of the city. It’s possible that middle-income people have become more willing to live in traditionally working-class neighborhoods like Albany Park and West Ridge (West Rodgers Park) than in the past. Newcomers may have raised the per capita income of parts of these areas a little bit, but these were already reasonably healthy places, and most newcomers weren’t really wealthy. Calling population turnover there “gentrification” without some qualification seems like a distortion.

But it was more complicated than that. A surprising number of tracts experienced a decline in real per capita income. Some of these are in relatively poor areas, but many are in parts of the city and suburbs that are generally considered quite prosperous. The latter changes may be due to declining income among older people who make up a large part of the population in some areas, for example, along the North Side Lakefront. There was also a well-documented influx of renters in condo buildings whose departing owners have found it more profitable to rent than to sell. Rents in condo buildings aren’t usually low, and renters in these buildings aren’t likely to be really poor, but in most cases they’re probably poorer (and younger) than their landlords.

The details on the map need to be viewed skeptically, since ACS data have very high margins of error, easily enough to move a substantial portion of tracts one or two categories up or down. The complicated patchwork of income changes may not be due to the existence of a complicated microgeography as much as to noise introduced by the necessarily approximate data, at least in part. The difference between, say, a 10% change and a 25% change portrayed on the maps may not be completely meaningful.

There’s another reason for caution. The 2006/2010 period included both the last year of the early 21st-century boom and the low point of the Great Recession, while the 2011/2015 period was generally one of recovery from that low point. Dealing with ACS data is not like dealing with traditional census data, which aims to report conditions on a single day. During a five-year period over the course of which there were substantial changes, even a small spatial difference in different years’ sampling would result in inaccuracies in maps like these that show changes. I don’t know the extent to which the Census Bureau corrected for this.

Let me add that, even if there is reason to suspect that the figures are only approximations, broadly speaking they seem about right. Here’s a 2011/2015 map of per capita income in Chicago and vicinity:

Per capita income by census tract, Chicago and vicinity, 2011/2015

Here’s a comparable map for the region:

Per capita income by census tract, Chicago region, 2011/2015

These maps look pretty accurate.

Income is of course not the only way to measure gentrification. Changing education levels and a change in the distribution of occupations are two additional areas where census data are available.

Here’s a map of Chicago and vicinity showing the change between 2006/2010 and 2011/2015 in the percentage of people 25 and older with a college degree:

Change in [ercent of population 25 and over with college degree by census tract, Chicago and vicinity, 2006/2010-2011/2015

Here’s a comparable map for the region:

Change in [ercent of population 25 and over with college degree by census tract, Chicago region, 2006/2010-2011/2015

Here too there are surprisingly complicated patterns that do not suggest wholesale recent replacements of minimally educated people by well-educated ones in a spatially simple wave. A major impediment to interpreting these maps is that there has generally been an increase in the proportion of the population with a college degree, even among relatively poor people. Some of the tracts where there are have been the largest increases in the percent of those with college degrees are in fact in problem-ridden areas on the South and West Sides. In many cases the percent went from very low to just low. You really need a general map showing percentage of the population 25 and over with a college degree to interpret these maps. Here is such a map for Chicago and vicinity in 2011/2015:

Percent of population 25 and over with college degree by census tract, Chicago and vicinity, 2011/2015

And here’s a regional map:Percent of population 25 and over with college degree by census tract, Chicago region, 2011/2015

Generally speaking, the maps of change in education level, at least for areas that started with a moderate level of educational attainment, have a message that’s similar to that of the income maps: There seems to have been continued slow increase in education levels in many North and Northwest Side neighborhoods (especially those away from the long-prosperous Lakefront), as well as around the Loop, but, over the five years covered by the two ACS surveys, changes were so spotty that they are hard to interpret in a simple way. There does not seem to have been a wave of gentrification displacing all before it. However, with education as with income it’s pretty clear that the city did better than the metropolitan area, the state, and the nation5. There is every reason to think that there’s been continued slow gentrification as measured by educational level, just as there has been by income; it’s just that it hasn’t been spatially simple.

Maps that show changes over more years reveal much simpler geographies. Here’s a set of maps much like those above that shows changes between 2000 (with data from the old long form) and 2011/2015 (with data from the ACS). There were many adjustments in census tract boundaries in these years, and I’ve used the analysis worked up by the Longitudinal Tract Database project at Brown University to put 2000 data into 2010 boundaries. As the authors6 of this wonderful source of data would be the first to admit, reworking data compiled for one set of boundaries into a different set of boundaries inevitably results in some distortions.

Despite this caveat, these maps all show a much more lucid geography than the 2006/2010 to 2011/2015 map set, no doubt in part because, with more years, patterns got clearer. It also seems to be the case that changes were more intense and more geographically coherent in the first years of the 21st century than afterward. To sum these up: There was a pretty substantial increase in income and educational attainment in many North Side neighborhoods (especially away from the Lake) in the first dozen or so years of the 21st century. The areas around the Loop (including those on the South Side) also did well. Some poor neighborhoods got poorer, while others (Bronzeville, for example) may have really turned around. Chicago in general did better than its suburbs. Nearly all the dramatic increases in income and educational attainment in the Chicago area occurred within the city’s boundaries.

Change in real per capita income by census tract, Chicago region, 1999-2011/2015

As for those dramatically rising rents, it may just be that many people are having to pay a larger percentage of income for housing than they used to. (Condo owners, the value of whose properties is in many cases lower than before the Great Recession, may be paying less.) Whether the current construction boom will change this, time will tell.

  1. Examples of this view:

    Jeffrey M. Timberlake and Elaina Johns-Wolfe. “Neighborhood ethnoracial composition in Chicago and New York, 1980 to 2010,” Urban affairs review, 2016.

    Chicago gentrification map, 2000 to present,” Governing the states and localities. 2017.

    One trouble with this approach is that it ignores the fact that there are degrees of gentrification. The common trope of a gentrified neighborhood as one slowly transformed from a neighborhood of the poor (or a non-residential area) into one to which a few artists and other eccentrics have moved into one increasingly fashionable and eventually affordable only by the wealthy is a pretty good description of what has actually happened in some cases, at least in New York.

  2. Thus, for example, Logan Square has often been said to be a recent target of gentrifiers (although the housing along Logan Boulevard has arguably never been housing for the poor and certainly isn’t now). See, for example, Kelly Hayes. “The unbearable whiteness of brunch : fighting gentrification in Chicago,” Truth-out. 13 January 2017.

    For an analogous piece on Pilsen, see Mae Rice. “Can anyone stop Pilsen from gentrifying?The Chicagoist. June 28 2016.

  3. I’ve preferred to use per capita rather than household income as a measure, since it’s not influenced, very much anyway, by changes in household size. Maps of changed household income look very much like maps of changed per capita income, although they do show outer-city and suburban areas, where household sizes are larger, comparatively somewhat richer than inner-city areas.

    All figures on the income maps have been corrected for inflation, based on mid-year CPI data.

  4. Here are some figures. These are from the 2006/2010 and 2011/2015 American Community Survey, downloaded from the Census Bureau Website or NHGIS:

    2006/2010 Chicago city per capita income 27148
    2006/2010 Chicago MSA per capita income 30453
    2006/2010 Illinois per capita income 28782
    2006/2010 U.S. per capita income 27334

    2011/2015 Chicago city per capita income 29486
    2011/2015 Chicago MSA per capita income 32009
    2011/2015 Illinois per capita income 30494
    2011/2015 U.S. per capita income 28930

    Difference 2006/2010-2011/2015 with 8.7% inflation factored in:

    Chicago city        -0.0%
    Chicago MSA      -3.3%
    Illinois                  -2.5%
    U.S.                       -2.6%

    New York during this period also had a real per capita income change (30498 to 33078) of -0.0%; San Francisco (from 45478 to 52220) of +5.6%.

  5. Here are some figures:

    2006/2010 Chicago city percent of population 25 and over with college degree 32.246
    2006/2010 Chicago MSA percent of population 25 and over with college degree 33.359
    2006/2010 Illinois percent of population 25 and over with college degree 30.277
    2006/2010 U.S. percent of population 25 and over with college degree 27.902

    2011/2015 Chicago city percent of population 25 and over with college degree 35.552
    2011/2015 Chicago MSA percent of population 25 and over with college degree 35.461
    2011/2015 Illinois percent of population 25 and over with college degree 32.300
    2011/2015 U.S. percent of population 25 and over with college degree 29.770

    Difference 2006/2010-2011/2015:

    Chicago city        +10.3%
    Chicago MSA      +6.3%
    Illinois                  +6.7%
    U.S.                       +8.2%

    Note that in 2006/2010, the college degree percentage was higher for the MSA than for the city, while in 2011/2015 the percentage was higher for the city (possible factor: the definition of the MSA changed slightly between those years).

    In New York during this period the percentage of the population 25 and older with college degrees went up by 7.2% (from 33.271 to 35.650); in San Francisco by 5.1% (from 51.221 to 53.831). In comparison to other cities, Chicago thus seems to be doing better at attracting college graduates than at attracting the rich, perhaps tending to add people at an earlier stage of their careers than, say, New York.

  6. John Logan of Brown University, Zengwang Xu of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and Brian Stults of Florida State University.
Posted in Urban | Leave a comment

BRT, TRT, and a Metro U/C in Quito

There has been an enormous increase in the amount of bus rapid transit (BRT) in the world over the last forty years. While there are substantial BRT lines in many cities in well-off countries (for example, in Ottawa and Los Angeles), a very large proportion of new construction has occurred in middle-income countries, especially in Latin America. According to the BRTData site, more than half the world’s BRT passengers are in Latin American cities. BRT does not have the aesthetic and practical advantages of being completely separate from the street network, but it provides a fairly speedy transit service for a relatively modest price and can be installed much more quickly than a rail line. It fits medium-density cities in middle-income countries very well. Curitiba, Brazil, was probably the first city to adopt modern BRT on a large scale, something it began to do in 1974. The largest network is in Bogotá, where the first segment of the TransMilenio system opened in 2000.

Quito’s BRT network is less well-known, but Quito may have been the first large Latin American city outside of Brazil to adopt BRT (1995), and it may have more BRT kilometers in relation to its population than any other big Latin American city1. Its first line, a trolleybus line, called “El Trole” in local Spanish, remains quite distinctive.

I was in Quito last week for the first time since 1978 and naturally spent some time taking a look at transit there.

Quito’s transport history can only be understood in light of its physical geography. Most of the population of Quito lives in a long valley at an elevation of approximately 2800 m, stretching something like 30 km north-south but only between 3 and 4 km east-west. On the west is the 4785-m-high active Volcán Pichincha, which forms an absolute barrier (although there is housing on the lower slopes). To the east there are much lower and less regular ridges followed generally by deep valleys, and the city has spread eastward in many places. But the city’s main “desire lines” are definitely north-south. There can be huge traffic jams on major roads, especially near and just to the north of the Centro Histórico, and there is a serious pollution problem.

The city’s human geography has also played some role in determining the history and location of its transit lines. The Centro Histórico—sometimes labeled the best-preserved colonial city center in Latin America—was pretty rundown thirty years ago, but, with the rise of mass tourism and a widespread understanding of the touristic value of having an attractive central city, it has slowly been revived. Buildings have been renovated; museums have been built; policing has improved; and the streets are often pleasantly crowded—even the ones with 20% slopes!

The Plaza Grande in Quito’s Centro Histórico.

Many central-business-district functions can still be found in the Centro Histórico, but, as money from oil and other sources has worked its way through Ecuador’s economy, such activities have grown in scale, and new private and government offices and tourist facilities have sprung up over a fairly substantial zone north of the Centro Histórico, following a universal rule in urban geography that, other things being equal, the CBD tends to move toward wealth. Generally, neighborhoods north of the Centro are much better off (and more traffic-ridden) than neighborhoods south of the Centro, a fact that has played a major role in transport planning.

Until the mid-1990s, the city’s “public” transport consisted entirely of private bus lines, running as in much of the Third World largely when vehicles were filled. There was only light regulation of these lines, and the buses (it was said) often become involved in crashes and were major contributors to the city’s poor air.

Quito’s elaborate BRT system has been created over the last 21 years as a way to ameliorate these issues: to reduce traffic jams, to improve air quality, and to fulfill a desire to have a safe and modern public-transport system. There are three distinct groups of BRT lines. The now 24-km-long Trole is the oldest. The Ecovía, a more traditional BRT line with a length now up to at least 22 km, running generally a few blocks east of the Trole2, was the second line. The initial segment opened in 2001, and major extensions have been added since. A third set of BRT lines (which has gone under several different names3) began to be constructed along the western edge of Quito in 2004, and significant extensions have followed. Its length is now approximately 25 km (although there are still some short sections where buses do not have their own right of way). Because the major roads along which the western lines were constructed pass something like a kilometer west of the Centro, the western corridor includes a spur that intersects with the two other lines just north of the Centro Histórico. These lines are shown on the accompanying map. All three groups of lines run roughly north-south and serve neighborhoods on both sides of the Centro Histórico, although in every case the northern lines were built first.

Rapid transit in Quito

Quito’s Metrobús-Q lines and the approximate alignment of the Metro. Base data from OpenStreetMap, modified a great deal.

Quito’s BRT lines benefit from lane separation and fare prepayment but do not otherwise have access to all the possible advantages of BRT. They generally run along major roads that have cross streets. Although there are a few underpasses at major intersections, there is no signal preemption, and buses must stop for red lights. Bus lanes are separated from lanes for cars by a low barrier, but are used for ambulances, police cars, and sometimes (illegally) for other traffic too. There generally isn’t room for passing lanes, and there isn’t much express service. Stops come along every 500 meters or so. Quito’s BRT lines are faster than traditional buses, but they are definitely not speedy.

Nonetheless, the lines do attract quite a number of passengers. The Trole’s weekday passenger load of something like 250,000 is extraordinary in an urban area of 2.7 million. Approximately half a million passengers a day ride the three groups of lines. Crowding—and associated pickpocketing!—are the chief subjects of user complaints. To improve service, the city has been running vehicles ever more frequently and has purchased new and larger buses. About half the vehicles on the Trole line when I was there were “biarticulated” 27-meter-long diesel buses. These can transport 250 passengers, but of course they are noisier and more likely to pollute than the older trolleybuses.

Santa Clara trole station

The Santa Clara trole station. Note the “biarticulated” bus.

All of the lines have been built by a public authority, the name of which has changed from the Sistema Integrado de Transporte Metropolitano (SITM-Q) to the Empresa Pública Metropolitana de Transporte de Pasajeros de Quito (EPMTPQ). The lines are referred to by the brand name Metrobús-Q. Operation of the lines has been split between government and private companies. Fares are 0.25 USD on all the lines—and that includes free transfers to feeder lines that serve some terminals. The low fare is said actually to pay for operational costs.

There seems to be a general feeling in Quito that, as successful as the BRT system has been, it has definitely not solved the city’s traffic and pollution problems, and a 22-km-long Metro line has been under construction since 2012. It’s scheduled to open in 2019. The line roughly parallels the BRT routes, although it makes minor detours to serve places (like the University and parts of the Centro Histórico) that the BRT lines miss.

Quito Metro under construction

The Iñaquito Metro station under construction, in one of the prosperous residential and commercial neighborhoods north of the Centro Histórico.

I was quite impressed that a medium-sized city in a medium-income country would have put so much energy into building its public transit system.

  1. Among sources consulted:
    (1) The newspaper El Comercio, which has good coverage of transit issues;
    (2) Lloyd Wright. “Latin American busways : moving people rather than cars,” Natural resources forum, volume 25, issue 2 (2001), pages 121-134 (also available in JSTOR);
    (3) Dario Hidalgo and Pierre Graftieux. Case study : Metrobús-Q, Quito, Ecuador. World Bank, 2008?;
    (4) Gerhard Menckhoff. Latin American experience with bus rapid transit. 5th International Environmentally Friendly Vehicle Conference Baltimore, September 10-12, 2012.
  2. The branch to the south of the Centro Histórico is sometimes just known as the Corredor Sur Oriental.
  3. The original northern branch is sometimes called the Corredor Central Norte. Its more recent southern extension is sometimes known as the Corredor Sur Occidental. The whole line is sometimes labeled the Troncal Occidental.
Posted in Transportation, Urban | Leave a comment

Change in population by “race” and Hispanic status, Chicago area, 2010-2011/2015

The Census Bureau released the 2011/2015 American Community Survey (ACS) tract-level data this week. I’ve used these data to map tract-level ethnic changes between 2010 and 2011/2015 for the Chicago area. These maps are comparable to the 2000-2010, 1990-2000, and 1980-1990 maps that I made while working at the University of Chicago Library’s Map Collection.

Note the following:

[1] ACS data are for five-year periods, not single years. The median year of 2011/2015 data would be 2013, and these maps can be thought of showing changes for an average of three years from 2010, but in fact (as confusing as this may be) they show changes between April 1 2010 and the 2011/2015 period.

[2] ACS data are not anything like as accurate as decennial census data or even the long-form data they replace. They are based on a sample, and it’s a much smaller sample than was used to compile the long-form data. The margins of error can be huge, especially for smaller numbers. Thus, at the tract level, these data are at best only rough approximations. The sample sizes are large enough so that general trends should be meaningful, but it’s perhaps best not to pay too much attention to the figures for individual census tracts.

[3] The “race” data for non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic African-Americans, and non-Hispanic Asians and Pacific Islanders include only people who classified themselves as being of a single race. This includes the great majority of respondents for all years and probably does not alter the broad patterns at all. It’s possible, however, that including people who identified themselves as being “multiracial” would have affected the results for quite a number of tracts in the city of Chicago. The question of just how to apportion these data, however, is not one that has an obvious answer.

[4] The boundary of the city of Chicago is shown by a heavy black line. Freeways are shown in blue. Tract boundaries are shown in gray. The location of dots within tracts is random.

Some general conclusions:

The Chicago area gained very few people between 2010 and 2011/2015, but there were some noticeable changes in the distribution of its population by “race” and Hispanic status. Many distributional shifts continued those of earlier decades, but there were some (mostly) subtle changes as well.

[1] There continued to be a substantial increase in the number white people in the city of Chicago, especially in the area around the Loop and on the North and Northwest Sides. Older, formerly mostly white inner suburbs continued to lose some of their white population. Somewhat new: There was only a modest increase in white population in the outer suburbs. A factor here is surely that there just wasn’t that much outer-suburb greenfield construction in this post-recession period.

[2] Problem-ridden African-American neighborhoods like Englewood and North Lawndale continued to lose population. Healthier, mostly African-American neighborhoods like Bronzeville continued to gain population. There was also a gain in African-American population in many suburban areas and here and there in the city of Chicago. Hardly any part of the Chicago area is still nearly all white.

[3] Asian population declined in some of the Far North Side enclaves where Asians had concentrated in earlier decades, but it increased in some other tracts not far away. There was a continued growth of Asian population near the Loop and west of Chinatown—in Bridgeport and McKinley Park, for example—and, on an even larger scale, in many suburban areas, especially in the West and Northwest. But, except for Chinatown, no part of the Chicago area is nearly all Asian. Middle-class and wealthy Asians tend increasingly to live among white people of comparable economic status.

[4] A few gentrifying North Side neighborhoods lost Hispanic population, but Hispanic population grew substantially in a great many other places, for example, further north and west on the North Side and in many suburban areas.

Here is a set of maps for Chicago and vicinity:

Population change by “race” and Hispanic status, 2010-2011/2015, Chicago and vicinity.

And here’s a set of comparable maps for the Chicago region: 

Population change by “race” and Hispanic status, 2010-2011/2015, Chicago region.




Posted in Urban | Leave a comment

The Songdo International Business District: report from the ground

Many of the world’s major urban building efforts have occurred as part of “megaprojects.” It would be very difficult to define “megaproject” in a way that everyone would agree to, but it’s probably fair to say that urban megaprojects are conglomerations of large buildings built within a few years of each other on the basis of a good deal of central planning1. The Hudson Yards project in New York is one example. Canary Wharf in London and La Défense in Paris are earlier instances. Many, maybe most, of the world’s biggest urban megaprojects have been built in the cities of the Persian Gulf and China, which of course have been growing quickly and doing so with government always a major actor. Examples of such megaprojects are Jumeirah Lake Towers in Dubai and the Lujiazui area in Pudong, Shanghai.

The developers of most 21st-century megaprojects have felt that they had to advertise that their projects are ecologically sound and easy to access and move around in by transit and on foot. There is of course a serious difficulty here, since it’s not simple in enormously large-scale projects to create the kind of small-scale detail that is typical of areas that most pedestrians seem to find pleasant. Even when megaprojects have good rail transit access, setting up pedestrian-friendly connections between stations and destinations has been a huge challenge. The vast concrete platform at La Défense has sometimes been held up as a perfect example of what not to do (although it’s full of people at most hours of the day and evening). The difficult-to-cross roads in Lujiazui present another issue. No one would argue that Lujiazui is very pedestrian-friendly (although it’s got plenty of pedestrians anyway, and the pedestrian bridge over an important intersection has become a popular gathering place).

I visited the Songdo International Business District last week. Songdo (as most people call it, at least in English) is a megaproject in Incheon, South Korea. One doesn’t think of South Korea as having quite such a dynamic economy as, say, China or the Persian Gulf countries, but, in fact, South Korea been growing quite steadily for several decades. Its GNP per capita on a PPP basis is now only a little below Japan’s (and much higher than China’s), and the Seoul metropolitan region (which includes Incheon) now has a population by some measures of something like 24,000,000. The Seoul area features several of what can loosely be called megaprojects, of which Songdo is surely the best known. It has sometimes been billed the largest privately developed real estate project in the world.

Songdo has been built on filled land in the years since 2009. Its peculiar location is a function of its proximity to Incheon International Airport, which opened in 2001. Access is via the 18-or-so-km-long Incheon Bridge.


Map of Songdo International Business Center. Data, mostly derived from OpenStreetMap, may not be quite up to date, especially the building footprints. The heavy red line shows the route of the Incheon subway line 1. Incheon Bridge is on the left.

You can also get to Songdo via the Incheon subway line 1, completed in 2009.

Incheon subway line 1 entrance

Entrance to Campus Town station of Incheon subway line 1. There are many additional photos (and a report on the line) at the Website.

This line connects to the A’rex Line to the Airport, as well as to several Seoul subway lines. Like most other Seoul-area subway lines, its stations are close together, and it can take quite a while to get where one is going. A subway trip to the Airport (according to the Google Map) would likely require at least an hour and a half (the route is circuitous). It would take even longer to get to central Seoul, a distance of more than 40 kilometers, 47 stations away. Buses are faster to many destinations. The bus ride across Incheon Bridge to the Airport, for example, requires approximately 30 minutes.  Perhaps the inefficiency of subway travel to and from Songdo explains that fact that the stations had only a handful of passengers when I visited.

Songdo was built self-consciously as an international city. The hope was to attract foreign companies and foreign residents. Songdo’s design reflects this goal. There is very little in Songdo that’s particularly Korean (except for a tiny Disneyfied “Korean village” in a park). Some promotional literature even claims Songdo was designed to look like Manhattan. In fact, except for the height of some of the buildings, it doesn’t resemble Manhattan at all. Most structures are of the tower-in-a-park type. They do not (as buildings in Manhattan do) fill nearly all their lots and touch their neighbors. The plan (although not the architecture) of Songdo could practically have come off an “international-style” architect’s drafting board in the 1930s2.

Buildings fall into the usual types. Songdo includes several large corporate and governmental skyscrapers of which the largest is the Northeast Asia Trade Tower;

Songdo, NEATT and Central Park

NEATT (the Northeast Asia Trade Tower) from Central Park.

a great many high-rise residential buildings;

Songdo apartment buildings, including hill in Central Park.

Apartment buildings north of Central Park.

and numerous educational institutions, including the University of Incheon and the Korean outposts of at least four foreign universities. It also includes a commercial district, a convention center, several museums, a substantial park, called Central Park in English, and some smaller parks. There are a number of pleasant design features. The parks, for example, include some hills (see above); this isn’t really expected on filled land. Also, the groupings of skyscrapers can create some aesthetically pleasing geometric patterns. As is often the case, these are perhaps most striking from the air or from several kilometers outside Songdo itself.

There is a huge amount of promotional literature about Songdo, mostly extolling its ecological and technological virtues. Click here for the official Website and here, here and here for some additional descriptions from corporate contributors. One of Songdo’s chief claims to fame is that its major buildings are almost all LEED-certified. Songdo also self-identifies as a “smart city”: residents all have wifi access; and traffic and sewage collection among other things are controlled by computer3. Of course, as admirable as this is, it isn’t something that’s visible to the naked eye. There has also been some academic (or quasi-academic) literature in Songdo, but the pieces I’ve read appear to be based more on the promotional literature than on fieldwork4. Songdo is an ambitious place, as one can perhaps gather from this poster that I saw on a construction site.

Songdo sign showing local buildings and other important structures.

A Songdo poster showing NEATT and the G-Tower (which mostly houses government offices) among some of the world’s other important buildings.

When I visited (on a warm but rather gray weekday last month) I was chiefly struck (as other visitors have been) by how empty the place was. There are not many pedestrians on the self-consciously built pedestrian paths, some of which run rather pleasantly through forest strips along major roads. In a country less law-abiding than South Korea, these empty paths might have set off alarm bells; there are no “eyes on the street” (except maybe CCTV cameras).

Songdo. Linear path along major road.

This empty footpath is not far from a busy arterial.

There is also a very nice network of bicycle paths, but I saw hardly any cyclists. The dense commercial district also seemed rather deserted.

Songdo street.

Convensia Street, a major northeast-southwest artery.

There is, however, a fair amount of traffic on the exceptionally wide roads, theoretically facilitated by the fact that, as in other Asian cities, it takes a very long time for traffic lights to change.

Incheon Songdo street crossing.

A street crossing a couple of blocks from the city center. Red paint marks bicycle lanes.

A great deal of parking is available, and only some of it is underground.

University of Imcheon campus.

University of Incheon campus. Note parking at left.

It needs to be said that Songdo isn’t “finished.” There are many un-built-on lots, and numerous buildings are still under construction.

Songdo construction

New apartment towers under construction in Songdo.

Most of the new buildings are residential structures (despite Songdo’s formal name, apartments have attracted more interest than offices). Perhaps when all the building is completed Songdo will have a bit more bustle. There is also of course the possibility that it will just end up with more cars, which the wide roads will probably be able to handle. I rather suspect that, despite the emphasis on sustainability in the promotional literature and the inclusion of facilities for pedestrians and cyclists, Songdo was chiefly designed to be moved around in by automobile. If that’s true, Songdo would of course be just like most of the world’s other new urban constructions of the last several decades, and it would be fair to accuse its promotional literature of being less than honest.

I have no idea whether market conditions in South Korea would have allowed the creation of a denser, more truly pedestrian-oriented Songdo5. The lack of bustle at the moment can’t in any case be blamed straightforwardly on any Korean aversion to crowds. Central Seoul and several of its neighborhoods (most famously Itaewon and Gangnam) are pleasantly crowded places. Songdo isn’t. Do its residents and workers perhaps see the place’s emptiness as a sign of progress? The fact that Songdo’s official Website shows more people in some photos than I saw while walking around for a whole day suggests that this isn’t really the case, that is, that Koreans have the same positive feelings about busy urban neighborhoods that many Westerners have come to have in recent years, but I’ll admit that I don’t have a deep enough feeling for Korean culture to be sure. As I walked around Songdo, I kept thinking of the shots of an empty EUR in the famous last minutes of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse. To someone who prefers to encounter a few people not enclosed in cars while walking around cities, it’s somewhat depressing that contemporary planning is still producing such empty places even though it knows better.

  1. For a book-length description of urban megaprojects, see: Urban megaprojects : a worldwide view / edited by Gerardo del Cerro Santamaría. Bingley : Emerald, 2013. The book defines urban megaprojects as “large-scale urban development projects that sometimes have an economic design component, that usually aim at transforming or have the potential to transform a city’s or parts of a city’s image, and are often promoted and perceived by the urban elite as crucial catalysts for growth and even as linkages to the larger world economy” (page xxiv).
  2. Despite the focus on international design, Songdo is said to have been much more successful at attracting Korean residents and companies than foreign ones.
  3. The promotional literature also claims that Songdo is a “ubiquitous city,” but I really don’t quite know what this phrase means in English.
  4. See, for example, John D. Kasarda, Greg Lindsay, Aerotropolis : the way we’ll live next (New York : Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2011), especially pages 3-6 and 353-358; and Parg Khanna, “Beyond city limits : the age of nations is over, the new urban era has begun,” Foreign policy, no. 181 (September-October 2010), pages 120-123 and 126-128, especially pages 127-128. Click here for JSTOR access to the latter.
  5. It’s not simple to determine just how dense Songdo is. The site is 600 hectares (1500 acres), but its southeastern and southwestern edges are not yet developed. Its current population is said to be 36,000. Its overall population density would thus be 6,000 per square kilometer (15,584 per square mile)—but more if one only includes developed land. Its population density is thus pretty high by American standards but lower than Seoul’s 10,400 per square kilometer and only approximately a quarter of Manhattan’s.
Posted in Transportation, Urban | Leave a comment

Walkable urbanism without many walkers

I was recently in Atlanta for the first time since the late 1980s. I had been struck then at how un-urban the place was, despite the impressive new subway. There were few pedestrians downtown, and, on a walk up Peachtree Street to Midtown—Atlanta’s “second downtown,’’ roughly two miles (3.2 km) north—I had the distinct feeling that I was in a location where I wasn’t supposed to be on foot. There were huge amounts of traffic, but, in a large dead zone north of downtown, just about no one else was walking, with the exception of (for want of a better term) a few “street people.”

Since the late 1980s, Atlanta’s hosted an Olympics; it’s grown enormously; and its government has made a real effort to encourage the construction of apartment buildings in its central core. Its tourist maps now color Peachtree Street north of downtown orange-pink, implying that the street’s a continuation of downtown.

Atlanta tourist map cropped

A small excerpt from a tourist map that I picked up at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in October 2016. The closest thing to a title is: Atlanta

And, indeed, it now feels all right to walk there, at least by day. Many new apartment buildings have been built north of downtown, and there’s been some renovation of older buildings as well.

Atlanta Midtown

Peachtree Street NE, Midtown.

But there are still only a few pedestrians, walking along next to rivers of traffic. Even in central Midtown, except at lunch hour, the sidewalks are pretty empty. I didn’t have the feeling that I was violating local mores in walking there, but, on any given block at any given moment, there were probably twenty times as many cars as pedestrians.

Note that most of Midtown gets a “very walkable” walk score on the Walk Score Website, and a few small areas are even “walker’s paradises” (1065 Peachtree Street NE, for example). Midtown even boasts about its walkability (see the sign).

Atlanta, Midtown, sign advertising walkability over an empty sidewalk.

“Wonderful walkable Midtown”–but where are the walkers?

The problem with this boast is that there aren’t very many pedestrians. This seems very odd to me.

I had a similar feeling earlier this month on my first trip to Oak Park in at least a decade.

Oak Park is often (along with Evanston) classed as one of Chicago’s most “urban” suburbs. Its association with Frank Lloyd Wright and other well-known architects certainly puts it into Chicago’s intellectual orbit. And its population can without doubt be described as urbane and mildly left-leaning with a long history of doing the right thing—at least in theory–when it comes to integration. Physically, Oak Park has many urban characteristics as well. It has good CTA and Metra service, and its central residential areas consist mostly of apartment buildings1. Oak Park gets a walk score of 74 (just behind Chicago’s 76), and central Oak Park is classified as a “walker’s paradise” with walk scores of around 90.

Oak Park, however, has a somewhat tortured history when it comes to accommodating pedestrians. In 1974 (like several other smaller U.S. cities in the same era) it turned its main street, Lake Street, into a pedestrian mall. This change apparently did little to attract large numbers of customers downtown, and the city undid the pedestrianization of Lake Street in 1988.

On my visit, I was struck by the near absence of pedestrians in downtown Oak Park. I did see one camera-toting tourist, very likely on his way to look at Wright’s Unity Temple. I also saw a couple of (again, I don’t know what phrase to use) street people. But, in half an hour of walking on Lake Street and Oak Park and Harlem Avenues, I saw no one else, except for a couple of people getting into or out of cars—who don’t count! The old downtown looked more or less prosperous. The 1920s buildings are mostly renovated. There aren’t many empty storefronts. I was impressed by the fact that most of the stores are local. They include a couple of bookstores, a movie theatre, numerous restaurants, and several specialized boutiques. But they sure don’t seem to have many walk-in customers.

Oak Park, empty sidewalk.

Lake Street, Oak Park.

There may be some technical reasons for this. The sidewalks are quite narrow. And there’s a lot of traffic, particularly on major streets like Lake Street and Harlem Avenue. Also, it turned out to be hard to cross some streets, since it took forever for lights to change, partly because drivers making turns get special signals and partly because the signal sequence takes a couple of minutes. Also, annoyingly, pedestrians are forced to press a button to get permission to cross. Suburban traffic engineers are clearly in charge of Oak Park’s traffic flow.

It took a while to realize that in most ways the traditional-looking downtown is just a façade. As in most American suburbs that have preserved some of their older buildings, there are acres of parking behind the traditional storefronts. Presumably, many (maybe most) customers come in through what were once back doors.

Oak Park, parking behind Lake Street,

Parking in mid-block, Oak Park.

But I was still a bit mystified by the absence of pedestrians in the core of downtown. You’d think that the train stations, the nearby apartment buildings, and the charming small shops would generate a few.

The afternoon when I first went to Oak Park was a muggy weekday. So I went back with a camera a couple of days later, when the weather was cooler, and it was closer to rush hour. There were a few more pedestrians (more than in midtown Atlanta), but I had to wait ten minutes to take a picture that had a lot of people in it.

Oak Park, pedestrains downtown.

Rare moment of crowdedness, Lake Street, Oak Park.

A minute later, the sidewalk was empty again. Oak Park’s downtown—and Atlanta’s Midtown—definitely feel like places where the automobile comes first.

Again, as I argued in an earlier post, real walkability (as opposed to walk scores) appears to have something to do with the pedestrian-vehicle ratio. Where there are more cars than walkers, walkers do not feel very confident that they’re in a place where they belong, and they vanish. I think this may be factor in both Atlanta and Oak Park.

This is of course a phenomenon that should surprise no one. Most American places are inhabited chiefly by people who drive everywhere. This seems to be true even in a city like Oak Park that grew up as a fairly dense railroad suburb and whose downtown must once have been filled with pedestrians, and that theoretically encourages them. It’s even won an award from the National Complete Streets Coalition and is allowing new high-rise housing in and near downtown. Atlanta has supported the “complete streets” idea too. The catch is that this has not really succeeded in changing things very much. “Walkability” has to some degree become a real estate boast that, like many other real estate boasts, has only a loose relationship to reality. This is depressing. But it’s just the way it is.

Of course, it’s no doubt a sign of real progress that “walkability” has become something to boast about. I can’t imagine that that would have been true twenty or thirty years ago.

  1. These are described in some detail in a post on the Chicago urbanist Website.
Posted in Transportation, Urban | Leave a comment

Moscow’s new circumferential rail line

There are only a tiny number of fully developed circumferential metro lines in the world, that is, circular or ring lines that intersect with several radial lines and that therefore enormously increase potential interconnections. Curiously, many of these lines were not really planned as circumferential metro lines at all. The earliest example is the Circle Line in London, which runs on a right of way that mostly dates to the 1860s and 1870s. The “Inner Circle” was a byproduct of the Metropolitan and Metropolitan District Railways’ need to bypass the central part of the City of London and was not bisected by radial “tube” lines until the 1890s. Tokyo’s Yamanote line, probably the busiest urban circumferential line in the world, has in some ways a similar history. It’s a late 19th-/early 20th-century railroad line that existed before Tokyo had any subway lines. Beijing’s first Ring Line, completed in 1987, was also built before there were a substantial number of radial lines to connect with. It was essentially constructed in conjunction with the removal of the old city wall.

Moscow’s Ring Line was probably the first circumferential line planned as such. It was built between 1950 and 1954 when Moscow had three radial lines crossing in its center. The Ring Line, running very approximately 3 km from the city center, not only increased connections but also provided access to most of the mainline railway terminals. Moscow’s original Ring Line was in some sense a model for later planned ring lines: the circular part of Seoul’s Line 2; Shanghai’s Line 4; Beijing’s second Ring Line (Line 10); the Oedo Line in Tokyo (run as a closed U rather than a circle); the not-yet-quite-complete Circle Line in Singapore; Taipei’s planned Circle Line; and the projected Grand Paris Express line. All of these were built—or are planned to be built—to complement a substantial number of radial lines.

Moscow has just acquired its second circumferential line, the 54-km-long Moscow Central Ring Line (Московское центральное кольцо, which can also be translated Moscow Central Circle Line), which runs at an average distance of approximately 8 km from the city center.

Moscow urban rail lines.

Map of the Central Ring Line, showing its relationship to the older, mostly radial Metro lines. (Two of the short non-radial lines are isolated fragments of Moscow’s planned third circumferential line). Raw GIS data (which I’ve had to modify) are from OpenStreetMap. Map compiled with ArcGIS.

The Central Ring Line opened on September 10, and I rode it last week. Like Tokyo’s Yamanote line, it was originally built as a railroad line. The tracks and right of way, controlled by Russian Railways, had been used only for freight for nearly 100 years. A decision was made a few years ago to reuse the right of way for a second circumferential passenger line. The tracks were completely rebuilt, and the line was electrified. The trains are still run by Russian Railways, but the line is labeled Line 14 of the Metro, and a Metro ticket provides access. The stations on the line were self-consciously set up to be as close to Metro stations as possible, although there are some gaps of as much as 750 meters, and there are as yet hardly any underground passages between the older Metro lines and the Central Ring Line1. Moscow uses electronic tickets only, so free transfers present no administrative difficulties, but long outdoor walks in January are probably not much fun.


Central Ring Line train crossing the Moscow River. Note Moskva-Siti in the background.

The trains are state-of-the-art. The Lastochka rolling stock is modern. There is free wifi. Stations have countdown clocks. Verbal and visual announcements are made in Russian and English. Bicycles may be brought on board. The trains even have toilets. The author of a newspaper story in Novaia gazeta said that riding the trains made her feel that she was in Europe2.


Delavoĭ t͡sentr station. Note the bicycles.

Trains do not run as often as on the traditional Metro lines, where headways of 90 or 95 seconds are common. They only operate every six to twelve minutes depending on the time of day. Trains for the moment are much shorter than the stations. Most of the trains I took were pretty full, but there were only a few standees. This suggests that current service levels approximately meet needs. Of course, a twelve minute wait for a train can play havoc with a commute.


Inside a train. Note the Roman-alphabet sign (it alternates with a Cyrillic sign).

The logic underlying the building of the line is the same logic underlying the building of other circumferential lines. The connectivity of the Metro system has been increased enormously. Movement from one suburban area to another no longer requires travel to the center. The line was also built to reduce crowding on central city lines and especially the original Ring Line. The Moscow Metro, despite the growth of automobile use in the city, is still patronized as heavily as it’s ever been. There are approximately 6,000,000 passengers a day, and trains can be very crowded. Moscow’s population, unlike that of most European cities, has been growing quickly, so some kind of relief has been felt to be essential.

The Moscow Central Ring Line has another function. It helps redress a fundamental imbalance in Moscow’s geography. The city’s center has been booming3. Relatively wealthy people have increasingly been choosing to live there, and there are elaborate and growing facilities for tourists. The center is full of restored (or reconstructed!) historical buildings, shiny new hotels, restaurants, and high-end shops. Much of the central city has been rearranged so that in many ways it’s become more like a Western European city. There are heavily-used pedestrianized streets, for example, and even some bicycle paths (although, except for those in parks, these seem to be very lightly used). The Central Ring Line, especially in its eastern half, directly serves some of Moscow’s rather grubby inner suburbs. A newspaper story even called it “a gift from the powerful to the poor”4. If it was a gift, it was something of a Trojan horse. The industrial areas through which much of the Line passes are overdue for redevelopment, and one of the goals of the establishment of the Central Ring Line was to encourage this process. One old industrial (and mining!) area next to the line has already become “Moskva-Siti” (more formally the Moscow International Business Center), the location of six of Europe’s seven tallest buildings (see photo above).

I had last been in Moscow in 2000, and it was clear then that the rise of automobile ownership had had an unusually harsh effect on the quality of life for non-automobile users. Car drivers seemed never to give pedestrians the right-of-way and paid little attention to red lights, and they felt able to park anywhere.

Things have changed. Automobile drivers are now far more likely to stop at crosswalks for pedestrians than drivers in most of the United States. Red lights are usually obeyed. Parking rules are often respected. It’s not that Moscow has become a paradise for pedestrians. It can be a very long wait for red lights to change. Nothing has been done about Soviet planning’s insistence that pedestrians cross major streets through tunnels—which never have escalator access. And the hard-to-avoid, enormously wide prospekty that were bulldozed through the city during Soviet times now carry mind-bogglingly large amounts of noisy, polluting traffic and are very peculiar places for casual walking. But Moscow really isn’t a bad place for pedestrians at all, and there are a lot of them. You will have company in even the most pedestrian-unfriendly places. Some Muscovites seem to be in the habit of walking nearly as much as, say, some New Yorkers.

A factor here is that rail rapid transit—an essential complement to comfortable pedestrian life in most big cities—is once again being heavily supported by the government. The Metro remains one of the wonders of the world. Even if ponderous Soviet aesthetics are not your thing, a few of the stations in the central city would seem extraordinary to anyone. Trains run as frequently as they do anywhere. And the Metro is growing more than any other European rail transit system. The Central Ring Line is not the only new route. Several additional new line segments have opened recently, and more are on the way. The largest-scale component of this will be the Third Interchange Contour (Третий пересадочный контур in Russian), a third circumferential line, overlapping (and somewhat to the south of) the Central Ring Line and more fully integrated with existing Metro lines. For a city like Moscow, where settlement extends more or less evenly in all directions, a system of multiple radial and circumferential rail transit lines—which transit blogger Jarrett Walker calls a “polar grid“—really makes sense, and the fact that plans to build this are actually being carried out is pretty impressive.

  1. These are supposed to be coming in 2018. See the September 10 2016 Моё метро : специальный выпуск that was being distributed in Metro stations in September for details. An online version of this is available here.
  2. Елена Дьякова, “Next station is Лихоборы… : Московское центральное кольцо : вид из поезда,” Новая газета, 13 September 2016.
  3. For an academic study of gentrification in central Moscow from several years ago, see: Anna Badyina and Oleg Golubchikov, “Gentrification in central Moscow—a market process or a deliberate policy? : money, power, and people in housing regeneration in Ostozhenka,” Geografiska annaler, series B, volume 87(2), pages 113-129, available through JSTOR here.
  4. Inna Doulkina, “Du pain pour le peuple,” Le courrier de Russie, 15 September 2016. Yuri Popov reasonably argues (personal communication) that the Central Ring Line can better be considered a gift from the rest of the country to Moscow, since, unlike other recent Russian urban rail lines (all paid for by city governments), it was funded by the Russian Federation government. I’m grateful for Yuri’s comments, which caused me to reword a couple of sentences in this paragraph on October 19. I also changed the original report on the Central Ring Line’s headways as a result of Yuri’s sharing the timetable.
Posted in Transportation, Urban | Leave a comment

Is Chicago building too much?

Even though its population is stable or declining, Chicago has been building a great deal1. Figures from the Census Bureau suggest that this is indeed an odd situation. Here’s a chart showing the relationship between residential building permits issued in 2015 and estimated change in population from 2014 to 2015 for American metropolitan statistical areas2:

Building permits and population change

And here’s another that shows the relationship between the valuation of these 2015 residential building permits and (again) estimated change in population from 2014 to 2015 for American metropolitan statistical areas:

Building permit valuations and population change

These graphs require a bit of explanation. Note that:

[1] The data shown are for metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), not cities and not “combined statistical areas” (CSAs) (the latter would subsume Baltimore, Riverside, and San Jose, for example, into larger units). It is possible to get building permit data for “places” (like Chicago), but, because different cities have different relationships to their MSAs, MSA-level data may be more useful for urban-area-to-urban-area comparisons.

[2] The graphs identify a few large urban areas by codes that (I hope) are easy to interpret. “Chi”=Chicago.

[3] 2014-2015 population change is estimated data. Some have questioned the Census Bureau’s determination that the Chicago MSA suffered a population loss in this period.

[4] Results would have been bit different had I chosen different years for the graphs (for example population change or permits from 2010 to 2015)—but they would not have been very different. There is a pretty high correlation between data sets for different years.

[5] Not every housing permit leads to construction.

There is, in general, a close relationship between the number of building permits and the size of population change (correlation= .891, r-squared=.793), and there is nearly as high a correlation between permit valuations and the size of population change (correlation=.888, r-squared=.789). Urban areas that are growing fastest build more.

Note the extent to which Chicago is an outlier. It is building much more than its population loss suggests it should be. (New York, often accused of not building enough, is also building more than its population change would predict. San Francisco, also criticized for building too little, seems to be building nearly as much as it should be given its medium-high population growth.)

Of course, any healthy city, even if it’s losing population, is going to want to do some building. Older structures do need replacement. But it’s not likely to build an enormous amount.

Is Chicago building too much? A case could be made. The fact that real estate in Chicago remains much cheaper than in coastal America would provide some support.

Of course, Chicago, like all American cities, has a complicated geography. While some parts of the Chicago area are losing population quickly, other areas are growing. One reason that Chicago is building so much is that areas of population loss and areas of population growth barely overlap at all.

Population loss on the largest scale has been occurring in certain African-American neighborhoods (click here, here, and here for maps). People have been leaving troubled places like Englewood on the South Side and Lawndale on the West Side for decades. Furthermore, in the first decade of the 21st century, the closure of the housing projects caused near total loss of population in a few tracts. There is little new building in these neighborhoods (with the exception of the area on the Near North Side where the Cabrini-Green housing project once stood, which has begun to acquire expensive high-rise housing).

There has also been a slow loss of population in a few generally stable neighborhoods, for example, along the North Side Lakefront, throughout the “bungalow belt” in the outer parts of the city, and in some first-tier suburbs. In these areas, aging of the population, declining family size, and gentrification (in varying proportions) have resulted in minor population loss. There is generally only a small amount of new building in these areas (new housing on the North Side Lakefront would be very attractive, but NIMBYism and the 1970s downzoning make new construction there difficult).

Population gains and substantial new construction have mostly taken place in distant suburbs, within two or three miles of the Loop, and in certain parts of the North Side. New housing is still replacing farmland in the outer urban area. And there has been large-scale replacement (or renovation) of industrial buildings, older office towers, run-down housing, and parking lots near downtown, a process that goes back at least to the construction of Marina City in 1964—and perhaps even further on the North Side Lakefront, which never ceased to be an attractive place to live for hundreds of thousands of people.

It is in these central areas where housing permit valuations in the Chicago area are highest. Is Chicago building too much? The fact that builders keep building suggests that they’re pretty sure that there’s still a market for their products. Slowly rising rents imply that they’re right. (Condo prices are generally still lower than they were ten years ago, however. Most new apartment buildings are rentals.)

The increased residential densities of the inner city generally have the support of many powerful forces: government agencies like the Department of Zoning and the Department of Planning and Development; non-governmental organizations like the Metropolitan Planning Council; corporations that appreciate the advantages of a “vibrant” city center; and urban theorists who favor density3. There is no doubt that many ordinary Chicagoans as well are delighted by the dynamism of the central city.

Edward Glaeser has even argued that Chicago’s habit of continuing to build makes it different from just about all other older, denser American cities4. The resulting relative inexpensiveness of real estate is, according to this analysis, one of the reasons that central Chicago is healthy, since it makes it an attractive place to major corporations. Corporate employees are not faced with the kind of housing-cost challenge that they’d encounter, for example, in New York or San Francisco. The implication here is that, if Chicago built less and its housing became more expensive, corporations would leave, there would be less demand for housing, and prices, eventually, would fall. Chicago may be stuck with continuing to build.

Chicago’s relatively inexpensive housing does create a class of losers. Those of us who’ve invested in Chicago real estate couldn’t easily afford to sell and use the proceeds to move to New York or San Francisco. One might expect that there would be protests about this, but, so far, NIMBYism has mostly concerned itself with building in established neighborhoods5. There seems to be very little effective opposition to what amounts to an inner-city “growth machine” in Chicago.

  1. This phenomenon is documented in great detail on the Chicago Curbed Website, at least for the city.
  2. Data for building permits can be found here and data for population change here. The graphs were generated with PSI-plot. The straight lines are best-fit linear regression lines.
  3. There have been many different actors here over the years. Some of them are described in D. Bradford Hunt and Jon B. DeVries. Planning Chicago. Chicago : American Planning Association, Planners Press,  2013.
  4. Edward Glaeser. Triumph of the city : how our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier. New York : Penguin Press, 2011. Especially pages 241-243.
  5. The most vociferous opponents of development in Chicago have often been activists concerned by the scarcity of affordable housing. Their stance is not completely logical. The best way to assure a supply of affordable housing would seem to be to create an abundance of new housing. I acknowledge that this is a complicated subject.
Posted in Urban | 1 Comment

Lima’s distinctive Metro

I visited Lima’s Metro last week. It’s a very distinctive system, for a number of reasons1.

Routes of the Metro and of the Metropolitano, Lima. Raw GIS data from OpenStreetMap.

[1] Lima’s Metro does not really go downtown, and it doesn’t come very close to Lima’s newer quasi-CBD in and around Miraflores and San Isidro either (see map). This is odd in that nearly all rail rapid transit systems, for reasons that are pretty clear, serve cities’ central business districts. Rail rapid transit, always expensive to build, is really only justified when there are large numbers of passengers, and, even in cities with weak CBDs,  there are still likely to be numerous jobs in government, finance, and tourism in the old downtown, and the largest passenger flows are most probably going to be to and from the CBD. Lima’s Metro comes close to the old Centro Histórico, but the nearest stations are more than two kilometers from the heart of the Centro, and this is an awkward distance to traverse. Jirón Junín, the shortest route between the Miguel Grau station and the Plaza Mayor, takes you along some blocks where (at least when I visited) there were more stray dogs than people; it’s a scary walk. There are buses along Avenida Grau that connect the station with the southern edge of the CBD, but they require an extra fare and quite a few minutes of passengers’ time, and of course you have to figure out an extraordinarily complicated bus system, largely run by private operators.

There do exist a few other Metro systems in the world that don’t go to a CBD, but they’re almost all exceptions that prove the rule. Bangkok’s Skytrain doesn’t serve the older CBD on the Chao Phraya River, but its two lines come together next to Siam Square, the effective center of Bangkok’s modern commercial life. In Miami, the Metro, as in Lima, only skirts the CBD, but it’s connected with Miami’s downtown via the Metromover. There’s also the case of San Juan’s Tren Urbano, which serves the newer commercial district Hato Rey but has never made it to the old city. This line is not generally considered to be a great success. It attracts fewer passengers than any other American rail rapid transit system except Cleveland’s2, which also serves only the edge of downtown. Lima’s Metro arguably has the poorest connection with its main commercial districts of any rail rapid transit system in the world.

Let me add that the fact that Lima’s Metro has attracted numerous passengers without serving its CBD very well does suggest that some of the received conceptions of how people move in cities may not be quite right—this appears to be an under-researched subject. It could be the case that the “desire lines” of people of modest income in Third World cities are quite different than those of middle-income people in North America and Europe. That is, these people could have less interest in travel to the CBD, since the jobs—and products—present there may not be available to them. One of the stops on the Metro where the largest number of people get on and off is Gamarra, the site of a truly enormous clothing market and of bus and van connections to many places. It may be a more important node for relatively poor people than the Centro Histórico.


Lima’s Metro, over Avenida Aviación.

[2] Lima’s Metro is entirely elevated. It’s even been claimed to be the world’s longest urban elevated railroad at 24 km (plus 10 km of surface tracks). (This claim is somewhat dubious.) Its status as an elevated railway is one of the chief reasons it does not serve the Centro Histórico. The line is nearly all built in the center of exceptionally wide streets and is very heavily engineered, in part to mitigate the area’s substantial seismic risks. Its heavy presence makes it a somewhat overbearing neighbor, and it would not have fit (or been very welcome) in the relatively narrow streets of the Centro Histórico or of places like Miraflores and San Isidro.

View from the Miguel Grau station, the closest station to the Centro Histórico.

[3] Lima’s Metro mostly serves modest neighborhoods. Many new Metro lines quite self-consciously serve a mix of districts. They do this in part to be politically attractive and to forestall accusations that their construction favors either the rich or the poor. Lima’s Metro was quite self-consciously built to serve, first, Villa El Salvador in the south, and then, when its general alignment was finally settled on, San Juan de Lurigancho in the north. Villa El Salvador and San Juan de Lurigancho are both huge settlements of (with some exceptions) poor or middle-income people. Villa El Salvador started life as a pueblo jóven (squatter settlement) and is famous for its local activists. San Juan de Lurigancho has a million people, few of whom are wealthy. “Public” transport at both ends of the lines was largely in private hands before the arrival of the Metro and mostly involved vans (“combis”) that travelled only when very full. Combi transport was (and is) neither rapid nor comfortable, and the Metro’s routing was in part determined by the very reasonable desire to improve transport for a large number of people.

The Metro does skirt the far edges of Miraflores and San Isidro, upscale residential neighborhoods and the centers of much of Lima’s modern commercial life. There are two or three stations within three or four kilometers of these neighborhoods, notably La Cultura and San Borja Sur. La Cultura, where the National Library and the Museo de la Nación (but hardly any residences) are located, is connected with San Isidro by freeway. There are bus routes to San Isidro, but the three-kilometer walk is not pleasant. I also walked from Miraflores to San Borja Sur station. The first part of this journey is fine. As in other big Latin American cities, the most bustling, pedestrian-friendly parts of Lima are upscale commercial/residential neighborhoods. But the last kilometer, past large single-family homes with three-meter-high walls topped by electric fences, is somewhat strange. The only other pedestrians were deliverymen, who were communicating with residents by intercom. The Metro does not have the same kind of easy relationship with its surrounding neighborhoods—and perhaps especially its well-off neighborhoods—that one would find in a European city. Even in the poorer neighborhoods, where there are more pedestrians, you often have to cross a major street to get to the station.

[4] The Metro took nearly thirty years to build. Construction was started in 1986, during a brief period of optimism about Peru’s future, and a small section of surface track at what is now the southern end of the line opened in 1990. Since it didn’t go anywhere very useful, it attracted few passengers. Work on the line practically ceased for twenty years, a period when Peru was experiencing out-of-control inflation, the Sendero Luminoso revolt, and other problems. Work resumed in 2009, and the southern two-thirds of the line were completed in an astonishing 18 months. The northern third, which had not even been started previously, opened 33 months later, in 2014, 28 years after Metro construction had begun.

The San Isidro Aramburú station on the Metropolitano BRT, in the middle of the Vía Expresa.

[5] The Metro has BRT competition. Besides finishing the Metro, Peru’s government took advantage of the good economic times of the early 21st century to build a bus rapid transit route, confusingly called the Metropolitano3. Unlike the Metro, it serves the Centro Histórico, Miraflores, and San Isidro, running down the center of a freeway, the Vía Expresa, from south of the Centro Histórico to Barranco, a bit beyond Miraflores. This part of the route is genuine, high-quality BRT, resembling the major lines in Bogotá. The bus right-of-way is completely separate. It includes passing lanes, permitting express service. You pay with a smart card as you enter a station. North and south of the Vía Expresa, the Metropolitano still has its own right-of-way, and you still prepay your fare, but buses do have to contend with traffic lights. The Metropolitano has been drawing approximately as many riders as the Metro. The Metropolitano route, oddly, does not intersect with the Metro at any point.

The Gamarra station.

There seems to be a consensus that Lima’s Metro is a success. It has been attracting approximately 350,000 passengers a day on weekdays and Saturdays, more than had been predicted. This is a respectable figure for a single line in an urban area of medium density. Trains, unfortunately, run very full, but that of course is a sign of success, and surveys suggest that passengers are generally pleased. The fares, 1.50 soles (USD 0.45), cover something like two-thirds the cost of running the trains, so the subsidies required are not ruinous. Linea 1 is considered so successful that two additional lines are now under contract. Both will be subways and one will serve the Centro Histórico (the other line will reach the Airport). Linea 2 will cross Linea 1 at Miguel Grau and the Metropolitano at its Estación Central, thus improving connectivity enormously. Additional routes, including lines to Miraflores and San Isidro, are on the drawing boards. If and when these lines are completed Lima’s Metro will be much more like Latin America’s other major rail rapid transit systems.

  1. Much of the factual information in this text comes from: Jorge Kohon. Metro de Lima : el caso de la Línea 1. Caracas? : Banco de Desarrollo de América Latina, Corporacion Andina de Fomento (CAF), 2016. Also, the newspaper El comercio has good coverage of Lima transit and has proven a fine place to check dates. An excellent summary of the transport situation at the beginning of the 21st century can found in: Roberto Goldszer. “Le projet de métro à Lima,” pages 323-328 in: Urban mobility for all = La mobilité urbaine por tous. Lisse : A.A. Balkema, 2002.
  2. List of United States rapid transit systems by ridership“, Wikipedia, examined 24 August 2016.
  3. See the Metropolitano’s Website for more information.
Posted in Transportation, Urban | Leave a comment

Walking, running, bicycling, and taking trains in central São Paulo

The São Paulo metropolitan area is by most measures the largest or second largest in the Western Hemisphere1, but it doesn’t have a very distinct image in North America or Europe. In so far as most foreigners think of São Paulo at all, it’s often as a congested, polluted, and crime-ridden place. This image is not completely inaccurate. São Paulo’s 21 or so million people2 own more than seven million cars3, and traffic jams are frequent. São Paulo is said, as a result, to have more helicopter commuters than any other city in the world. The urban area is surrounded by hills, and air quality can be terrible. Furthermore, the crime rate is indeed high, although it’s been dropping rapidly over the last fifteen years. In 2015 the murder rate was 8.56 per 100,0004, among the lowest murder rates in Brazil, roughly a sixth that in Saint Louis—but twice New York’s.

Academic studies of São Paulo can also present a rather harrowing picture. Perhaps the best-known English-language work on São Paulo is anthropologist Teresa Caldera’s City of Walls5, which depicts a city in which anyone who can has retreated to a gated community and stopped setting foot in socially mixed public places, leaving the streets to the poor. Some of the extensive Brazilian academic literature on São Paulo also documents the city’s extreme inequalities and intractable planning dilemmas6.

Three recent trips to São Paulo suggest that this view is somewhat out of date. Central São Paulo is certainly a gritty place—graffiti are everywhere—but it has a flourishing pedestrian life, healthy public spaces, and pretty good, and improving, public transportation. In the area between, roughly, the old Centro and Itaim Bibi, streets and parks and the rail system are filled with people, apparently of all social classes, and the new ciclovias (bicycle paths) are attracting a fair number of riders.

Particularly impressive is Avenida Paulista, perhaps São Paulo’s symbolically most important street (see photo).

São Paulo--Av Paulista Sunday

Avenida Paulista on a warm Sunday afternoon in winter.

Avenida Paulista is both a business and a shopping street, and there are apartment buildings at its southeastern end. A substantial number of big companies (Citibank, for example) have their headquarters on the street, and there are several shopping malls and numerous other stores as well. It’s also where major political demonstrations take place. The sidewalks are crowded day and night and could hardly feel safer. Under the current administration of prefeito (mayor) Fernando Haddad, the street has been closed to motorized-vehicle traffic on Sundays. Closing Avenida Paulista must have felt roughly as it would feel in Chicago to close North Michigan Avenue and LaSalle Street on Sundays. The street was just jammed on the rather warm dry Sunday when I was there. There were plenty of diversions. Numerous musicians, for example, had set up shop. Hundreds of people were selling things (mostly craft products). Buskers dressed in fantastic costumes were drawing huge crowds. There were dozens of open-air restaurants, many of which were broadcasting the French/Portuguese Euro championship soccer game. There were also vendors of sorvete (ice), agua de coco (coconut water), and numerous other goodies. Children were diverting themselves using updrafts from subway grates to send light objects high in the air. But it’s possible that walking up and down and people-watching were the major activities of Avenida Paulista’s Sunday crowds—and perhaps of those on weekdays too. There may be no better place in the country to see masses of Brazilians in all their variety.

Also striking is the Minhocão [“big worm”] (see photo).

São Paulo--Minhocão curve

The Minhocão on a Sunday afternoon.

This road, officially the Via Elevada Presidente Costa e Silva, is ordinarily one of the world’s most appalling elevated urban freeways, running only a few meters from apartment buildings in a socially complicated but basically middle-class neighborhood—and said to be one of the factors in the neighborhood’s deterioration. It too has been closed to motorized traffic on Sundays, as well as at night and on late Saturday afternoons. The Minhocão was crowded when I was there, mostly with (often lightly dressed) people walking, running, or bicycling its 3.5 kilometer length. There were also a certain number of picnickers and agua de coco vendors. It’s an incredibly scenic place. You get a startlingly new view of the landscape when you walk along it. Since it has several turns and hills you also get constantly changing views of tall buildings in distant parts of the city as well as of the bustling streets below.

The city’s major inner-city park, Ibirapuera Park, is as crowded as Avenida Paulista (see photo).

São Paulo--Ibirapuera Park pathway

Ibirapuera Park walking/running/bicycling path.

The park features a walking/running/bicycling loop, numerous less formal walking paths, basketball, weightlifting, and skating facilities, and several excellent museums. While I acknowledge that I have no way of identifying the social class of people using the park, it’s pretty clear that there are people there from many social groups.

There are, in fact, substantial numbers of pedestrians in most of the middle-class and wealthy residential neighborhoods in central São Paulo. These neighborhoods are densely built-up with apartment buildings, and generally they feel safe, at least by day. But one should not be naïve here. Most high-rise apartment buildings are surrounded by tall fences and have armed guards. And there are places in the Centro such as “Cracolândia” where there are concentrations of down-and-out people on a much larger scale than anything you’d see in, say, the East End of Vancouver or the homeless peoples’ district of downtown Los Angeles. Even if one avoids the favelas (as I did) and skips Cracolândia, the visitor to São Paulo cannot help but notice that there are large numbers of marginalized or just plain poor people in the city. It’s not clear to a foreigner how much of a danger these people pose, but well-off Brazilians clearly think the danger is immense. This fact colors the use of public space in São Paulo and other Brazilian cities. American cities of course have an analogous problem.

There are also some environmental barriers to pedestrian life. Sidewalks are often cracked. There are steep hills to contend with. And, on rainy days, the sewers are overwhelmed. But you encounter these problems in parts of North America and Western Europe too. Central São Paulo is generally a pedestrian-friendly place.

Other non-automotive transportation facilities have improved too.

The Haddad administration has made a major effort to build ciclovias (bicycle paths)7. More than 400 km of paths are planned, and most of them are in place. Here’s a map:

São Paulo--ciclovias

Ciclovias in São Paulo. Ciclovia data from Vá de bike. Street, park, and water data from OpenStreetMap. The thin black lines are municipal boundaries, from GADM. I do not have data for ciclovias outside the municipality of São Paulo.

I can’t claim that most of the paths in the central city were extremely busy when I was there, but they were certainly attracting users. A newspaper story8 suggests what should have surprised no one. Well-off cyclists, mostly living in the center of the city, generally use the paths on weekends, for recreation. Relatively poor people, mostly living in the periphery, use them to get to work, and they do this every day and in substantial numbers.

A few of the paths, along water courses like the Pinheiros River, allow traffic-free movement for quite a distance, but most of the ciclovias run along urban streets. Ciclovias on major streets like Avenida Paulista and Avendida Faria Lima are designed in a way that seems a bit odd to a North American: They are built in the center of the street (see photo). This clearly solves the “dooring” problem and also assures cyclists’ visibility. It may also help at intersections, where special traffic lights for cyclists provide at least some protection from turning motor vehicles. It can be a long wait, though, for the lights to change. São Paulo’s ciclovias are not built for speedy cycling.

São Paulo--Av Paulista ciclovia on weekday

Avenida Paulista ciclovia on a weekday.

The ciclovia program has apparently aroused a huge amount of opposition. Its opponents’ chief argument is that a great deal of money is being spent on facilities that are used by only a tiny number of people. There is surely an element of truth here, and the expansion of the program has been halted for the moment.

Bicycle paths have recently been built in many other Latin American cities too, for example, Mexico City and Buenos Aires. In many ways ciclovias seem an odd fit for big Latin American cities, where traffic can be heavy and drivers have a reputation for being particularly aggressive. But, in fact, aggressive driving is far less of a problem for cyclists—and pedestrians—than in, say, Middle Eastern or South or Southeast Asian cities. Traffic lights in Latin America are usually obeyed, and sidewalks are normally free of motorized traffic, although you certainly do have to be careful at corners. The ciclovia program in São Paulo and its counterparts in other large Latin American cities seem like exceptionally worthy attempts to reduce the role of the automobile in big cities.

São Paulo’s improving—and still growing—rail transit system is surely of even greater importance than its ciclovia program. Here’s a map:

São Paulo urban rail map

Urban rail lines in São Paulo. Most data edited from files available through OpenStreetMap. The thin black lines are municipal boundaries, from GADM.

All the trains I rode were in good shape. São Paulo’s newest subway line, Linha 4 (the Yellow Line), with its platform doors, its open gangways between cars, its free wifi, and its ubiquitous television monitors, is particularly impressive. In appearance it’s much more like the well-funded, recently built subway lines in Asia and Europe than any other subway line in the Western Hemisphere (see photo).

São Paulo--Inside Yellow Line car

Inside a Yellow Line car.

São Paulo is also (I believe) the only large city in the Western Hemisphere that has fully integrated its old suburban lines and its subway system. Although the rail lines and the two different subway companies have retained their separate corporate identities, elaborate passageways have been built to connect the systems (see photo), and one ticket gets you just about anywhere you want to go.

São Paulo--Pinheiros interchange

The complicated interchange between Metrô line 4 and CPTM (rail) line 9.

It’s true that the old rail lines, like rail lines in most places that were built originally for long-distance transport, sometimes pass rather uselessly through declining industrial areas in the inner city, but they also serve many busy commercial areas (like Avenida Faria Lima and Avenida Luís Carlos Berrini) and of course numerous suburbs that the subway lines don’t reach. The fares—the subject of recent protests—are not strikingly low given the modest salaries for unskilled work. A subway ticket costs $R3.80 (around $US1.20), less if you pay by smart card, but it’s $R5.92 if you need to transfer to a bus. The counterargument is that the one city/one fare policy ends up being a subsidy for the mostly poor people who live in the periphery.

São Paulo’s subway system proper, with 74 route-kilometers, is still rather small given the size of the city, but it attracts more riders per kilometer of track than any other Western Hemisphere metro system, perhaps in part because of its tie-in with the suburban rail lines9.

São Paulo has, in other words, been an enthusiastic participant in the nearly worldwide movement to reduce the role of the automobile in urban life. It’s also clear that some of the negative stereotypes of life in São Paulo are at the very least exaggerated. I can’t claim to be an expert on the city, and I’m perfectly willing to admit that I don’t have much experience at all in the newer suburbs or in the periphery in general, which may well be as pedestrian-unfriendly as in most places. But the central city broadly defined—which covers quite a substantial area—seems to be quite a vibrant, reasonably walkable, and reasonably safe place that, despite the current recession, has been reducing its level of automobile dependence at least modestly in recent years.

  1. World Urbanization Prospects. 2014 edition. New York : United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2014.
  2. IBGE releases population estimates of municipalities in 2014.” Brasilia : IBGE, 2014.
  3. Bruno Paes Manso and Rodrigo Brancatelli. “São Paulo vehicle count to hit 7 million this month.” 2011.
  4. Menor taxa de homocídios do Brasil.” São Paulo : Secretaria da Segurança Pública, 2015.
  5. Teresa Caldera. City of walls : crime, segregation, and citizenship in São Paulo. Berkeley : University of California Press, 2000. Let me add that Caldera does acknowledge (on page 320, for example) that parts of central São Paulo do not quite fit her thesis.
  6. Examples: Alvaro Comin (and others). Metamorfoses paulistanas : atlas geoeconômico da cidade. São Paulo, SP : Secretaria Municipal de Desenvolvimento Urbano (SMDU) : Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento (CEBRAP) : Editora UNESP : Imprensa Oficial, 2012.
    Nestor Goulart Reis. Dois séculos de projetos no Estado de São Paulo : grandes obras e urbanização. São Paulo : IMESP, 2010.
  7. Muita tinta e 2 anos depois, ciclovias passam a fazer parte da vida da cidade,” Folha de São Paulo, 4 June 2016.
  8. Vazio na região central, bicicletário lota na periferia de São Paulo,” Folha de São Paulo, 9 March 2015.
  9. List of Latin American rail transit systems by ridership.” Wikipedia. Consulted July 15 2016. The intense usage of lines can of course partly be attributed to the fact that the system isn’t yet very substantial. As lines to lower-density areas are added, riders per kilometer of track will probably go down.
Posted in Transportation, Urban | 2 Comments

McDonald’s is not moving to downtown Chicago

Newspaper headlines have claimed that McDonald’s is moving its headquarters from suburban Oak Brook to “downtown Chicago”1. It isn’t. The move (if it happens) would be to the Harpo Studios site, which is at 1058 West Washington Boulevard. This is in a neighborhood that historically mostly contained industrial buildings and warehouses. These days, the largest and most solid of these have been converted into “loft” housing. More modest industrial buildings have been replaced by expensive midrise housing—or by parking lots. Here’s a map:


The large black circle shows the location of Harpo Studios. The heavy black line shows how Chicago’s central business district is defined by the Chicago city data portal. Most observers would probably say that it is somewhat overbounded, especially on the west. The green lines are CTA rail lines, and the green circles are CTA rail stations.

Here’s a photo of Harpo Studios that gives a sense of context:

Chicago--Harpo etc 2

Harpo Studios is on the left. The reddish building contains “lofts.” The fence on the vacant lot on the right has a sign advertising three-bedroom apartments to be built on the site that will cost “in the 800s.” There are still some industrial facilities operating within a few blocks of the area shown, but they’re disappearing fast. Three or four blocks away the old food-processing Fulton Market has partly become a district of expensive, fashionable restaurants. This area is not “downtown.” It’s a mile to the Loop proper, across a ten-lane freeway and along streets that carry a huge amount of traffic during rush hour. The official community area name is Near West Side. Real estate agents call it the West Loop.

Google has set up its Chicago offices in Fulton Market, and one of the implications of the newspaper stories is that the “West Loop” might become a new center of corporate headquarters. I wonder. Google is, obviously, different. It isn’t quite comfortable with a traditional corporate image. Its New York offices are in the old Port Authority Building in Chelsea, not far from the High Line and a couple of blocks from the extremely fashionable Meatpacking District. Chicago’s Fulton Market is sometimes known as the Meatpacking District too. It’s in some ways very similar to New York’s. It had comparable historical functions, and it’s now quite the place to go (although its housing is lower-density and much cheaper than in New York’s). Google appears to have chosen its office locations to enhance its (fading) bohemian image. But McDonald’s? There’s something a bit odd here.

A suburban acquaintance once revealed that he thought that “downtown Chicago” referred to the area from roughly Wrigley Field to Congress Expressway within a mile or so of the Lake, a huge, largely residential area of which the CBD is a tiny part. It’s more or less the area where driving is difficult and free parking impossible. People who drive everywhere sometimes do not seem aware of distinctions within dense areas. You could argue that the area around Harpo Studios is a suburbanite’s dream urban location. Traffic moves more freely than it does in the Loop. There are still some open parking lots around. The sidewalks are not too crowded. On nice days middle-class people can be found eating in outdoor restaurants not far away. Could it be that a misunderstanding about the meaning of “downtown” explains McDonald’s’ location decision?

Of course, it’s wonderful for Chicago to acquire new corporate headquarters, as long as only a modest bribe had to be paid. Headquarters bring in tax receipts and prestige. There are also environmental factors to consider. McDonald’s’ old headquarters in Oak Brook is very difficult to get to by public transit. Harpo Studios is two blocks from an El station. It would be hard to argue that the move is a bad thing in any way. But it does make sense to be correct about its spatial significance.

  1. “McDonald’s to move headquarters to downtown Chicago,” Wall Street Journal, June 13 2016. “McDonald’s moving headquarters to downtown Chicago by 2018,” USA Today, June 13 2016
Posted in Urban | Leave a comment