Phoenix urbanizes itself

Among all of what today are the largest cities of the United States, Phoenix was very nearly the smallest in the middle of the 20th century.1 In 1950 it had only 106,818 people—it was smaller than New Bedford!—and its metropolitan area had a population of 331,770. All the other now gigantic Sunbelt cities were much larger: Houston had a population of 596,163 (metro area: 919,767); Dallas 434,462 (metro area: 1,136,144); and Atlanta 331,313 (metro area: 726,789). Phoenix is now nearly fifteen times bigger than it was in 1950. In 2015, it had a population of 1,563,025 (metro area: 4,574,351). It was the 6th largest city in the United States, and its urban area ranked 12th. That is, while the Houston, Dallas, and  Atlanta urban areas still had larger populations, the gap had narrowed considerably, and the Phoenix metropolitan area is now larger than those around Minneapolis and Denver, not to mention Saint Louis and Cleveland and many other once much bigger places.

Phoenix’s growth has occurred almost entirely during the era when new urban areas were being built to work with the automobile. The city comes very close to lacking the kinds of pre-automotive inner-city neighborhoods that you can still find in several other Sunbelt cities, for example, Montrose in Houston and Midtown Atlanta, that could theoretically form the core of denser and less automobile-oriented urban areas. There are only some scattered remnants of pre-1950 housing. And Phoenix’s downtown for many years was a sad remnant of a downtown built for a much smaller city. My perhaps not altogether accurate memory of central Phoenix in the 1960s and 1970s is of a place with maybe half a dozen government buildings, some low commercial structures, and a great many parking lots.

Despite its status as an essentially post-1950 city, Phoenix, like several of its counterparts elsewhere in the Sunbelt, has been trying on at least a small scale to become a more urban place since approximately the 1990s. The city government with considerable help from the private sector has been attempting to make downtown a bit more substantial, and in the 21st century the Phoenix area has added a longish light-rail line, which has enjoyed considerable local support.

I spent a day in Phoenix last week. It was the first time I’d been there in several decades, and, while I realize that it’s mildly ridiculous to speak of an agglomeration of four and half million people as “urbanizing” itself, I don’t know how else to characterize Phoenix’s recent transformation, which I found fascinating.

About downtown, there are now half a dozen skyscrapers, mostly housing financial institutions; several newish hotels; and some major entertainment venues.

The most distinctive component of downtown Phoenix’s transformation may be the emphasis on housing: the powers-that-be would clearly love Phoenix to be known as a desirable place for millennial members of the “creative class” as well as for retirees. If you believe some of the literature put out by real estate brokers, you’d think that downtown housing in Phoenix was booming. It isn’t, exactly. But several dozen upper-middle-class apartment buildings—including some high rises but mostly of the four-or-five story sort—have indeed gone up, and more are under construction.

Apartment buildings on Roosevelt Street, Phoenix

New apartment buildings on the edge of downtown Phoenix. An “urban lifestyle” is advertised. Is it provided?

The real estate brokers seem especially proud of Roosevelt Row, a street just north of downtown proper where a few pre-World-War-II residential buildings have survived, and where there are also some cafés and restaurants in pre-World-War-II commercial buildings.

Roosevelt Row, Phoenix.

Some of the surviving older buildings on Roosevelt Row.

I thought it was wonderful that these rather small older buildings were being treated lovingly but couldn’t help but note that there are still substantial gaps between them, and there were hardly any pedestrians walking on the cracked sidewalks when I was there. Progress has been made; there’s a ways to go. The other bits of new housing in downtown also mostly seemed rather isolated. There just isn’t enough housing or a full enough range of close-by shops to lead to much pedestrian life. No casual observer would think “urban neighborhood” in looking at the ragged landscape of new residential construction around downtown Phoenix, but the fact that there is new, often pricey downtown housing at all is perhaps the salient fact.

Possibly of even greater consequence: Arizona State University has opened a branch downtown, and there were quite a few university types walking along the campus’s three blocks, which have been in part pedestrianized. This is only area in downtown that felt at all like a traditional city, although I discovered that you can’t actually enter ASU’s buildings without a special key. ASU’s downtown campus is not very inviting to strangers.

Pedestrians are thin on the ground elsewhere, except where homeless (or anyway economically marginal) people congregate, for example in Margaret T. Hance Park, admirably built over a freeway just north of downtown, and in the Transit Center. I’m told that there are many more pedestrians when there’s a baseball game at Chase Field,  a convention at the Convention Center, or an event at the Talking Stick Resort Arena or Phoenix Symphony Hall. Note that list of facilities, all built with government support—the powers-that-be have been willing to spend quite a lot of money to turn downtown Phoenix into a destination. And, since many new buildings are going up, it’s possible that they really will succeed in creating the kind of pedestrian zone to which most people drive.

CitiScape, Phoenix

Advertisement for CitiScape, a major downtown complex still in part under construction. (The ad is mounted on a construction barrier.) Note the throngs of pedestrians. It’s very likely that more people are shown in this ad than were present on the streets of all of downtown Phoenix when I was there.

Perhaps that’s as much as one can expect—downtown Phoenix actually seemed to me more solidly built-up and more pedestrian-oriented than, say, downtown Houston.

The Valley Metro Light Rail line is the other major component of Phoenix’s “urbanization.” It runs 42 kilometers (26 miles) from Mesa on the east (which—with its population of something like 470,000—has sometimes advertised itself as the largest American suburb), through Tempe, past the airport, through downtown, then north along Central Avenue through Midtown (like Wilshire Boulevard a kind of linear extension of downtown along which several office and apartment buildings have been built over the years). It then passes through several residential neighborhoods north and west of Midtown.

Map of the Valley Metro Light Rail line, as well as of Phoenix’s street grid. GIS data from OpenStreetMap and Valley Metro.

The line generally runs in the center of wide arterials.

Valley Metro Light Rail on Central Avenue, between downtown and Midtown.

It splits into two downtown, running on parallel one-way streets, and has its own right-of-way through part of Tempe.

Valley Metro Light Rail in Tempe, almost the only area where it has its own right of way. The downtown skyline can be seen on the horizon just right of center. The Midtown skyline is to the right of that.

The line is not particularly fast—it takes approximately 85 minutes to get from one end to the other, for an average speed of 30 km/h [19 mph]). It does not use signal preemption but does employ a system in which traffic lights can be delayed slightly (although an engineer told me that this doesn’t work very well), and left turns across the tracks are always prohibited when a train is coming. Because the streets along which the line runs are generally much more important than all but a small number of cross streets, traffic lights are green more often than not, and the system suffers fewer traffic-light delays than some of the rail lines in, for example, Los Angeles. Still, there is quite a lot of stopping at places other than stations, especially downtown.

With the exception of downtown Phoenix and pleasant and bustling downtown Tempe (where the main Arizona State campus lies), the landscape through which the light rail line runs is not particularly conducive to walking to and from the stations. Modest areas (like parts of Mesa) feature an assortment of used car lots, trailer courts, fast-food restaurants, small apartment buildings, and motels. More upscale areas like Tempe and some of the neighborhoods north of downtown have new car lots, fancier and occasionally taller apartment buildings, and offices. Much of the route just east of downtown contains low industrial structures, although a few apartment buildings and—near the Airport—hotels are creeping in. Despite Phoenix’s hot summers, there are hardly any neighborhoods along the line with substantial numbers of shade trees; apparently, they just require too much water. Nonetheless, in spite of what looked to me like a hostile landscape, people do get on and off at every stop and make their way to where they’re going—or, in some cases, to a nearby (infrequently running) bus. It must be said that there are sidewalks everywhere, and that car drivers in the Phoenix area seem to respect pedestrians assiduously.

Valley Light Rail is apparently considered quite a success, and extensions are planned. The line’s been carrying more than 50,000 people a day. That’s a drop in the bucket set next to the 6,000,000 people a day who ride New York’s subway, but it’s in line with the number of passengers on new light rail lines in other Sunbelt cities and is three times as many people as ride the Cleveland Rapid—but only half as many as ride the shorter light rail line in much smaller Edmonton.

Phoenix is not and will never be the kind of place of which I’m likely to become fond, but the fact that an urban area so completely of the automobile age would voluntarily put so much energy into becoming a little more like a traditional city strikes me as being exceptionally noteworthy.

  1. Las Vegas gives Phoenix some competition in this respect. Its 1950 population was 24,624. With its 2015 population of 623,727 (metro area: 1,951,269, or CSA: 2,362,015), it’s grown even faster than Phoenix.
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Waiting for traffic lights to change on the new Expo Line

When I was in Los Angeles three weeks ago, I naturally rode the new Expo Line between Santa Monica and downtown a couple of times. I can confirm that the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a hit on its hands. The trains were pretty full, and, while there is no way to prove this, it did seem as though the passengers included people from many different social backgrounds.

Buying tickets for the Expo Line.

Inside an the Expo Line train.

Getting off the Expo Line.

I can also confirm what some other observers have pointed out: The trains spend a huge amount of time waiting for red lights at street intersections, approximately six minutes over the course of one fifty-two-minute trip. It’s almost beyond belief that the second largest urban agglomeration of the Western world would have spent something like two and a half billion dollars to build a rail line that has to wait for cars, but that’s the way it is. The same problem occurs on the Blue Line to Long Beach, the Gold Line to East Los Angeles, and the Orange Line BRT in the San Fernando Valley. Every stereotype of where Los Angeles puts its priorities is confirmed by this pattern. Signal preemption is not exactly high-tech any longer, and, if that seems too complicated, crossing gates at every intersection would seem like a no-brainer to me.

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Being a pedestrian in central Kuala Lumpur

I spent a few days in Kuala Lumpur last week. While travelling I was reading a terrific book, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya : negotiating urban space in Malaysia,1 by Ross King, a professorial fellow at Melbourne University. I had been in KL (as everyone calls it) several times since the 1990s (I was there on September 11, 2001) and had always found the geography of the place a little mystifying. Professor King makes things clearer. I’m simplifying his argument unfairly, but his vision of a city whose form has been determined by several quite distinct cultural and political forces explains a great deal. These forces include a century of British colonialism of course; but also immigrant Chinese economic energy—and a preference for high-density shophouses; Malay resentment—and a preference for low-density housing; and the aesthetic choices of several successive Malaysian prime ministers in the years since independence, who were almost entirely responsible for the creation of Putrajaya, Malaysia’s new (and still rather empty) capital something like 30 km south of KL.

Professor King deals only in passing with aspects of life in KL that are an issue in cities everywhere, for example, the relationship between cars and everything else that moves. This is an area in which I have an interest, and it’s also an area that figures prominently in on-line tourist reports on KL, which seem to be dominated by descriptions of the difficulty that car traffic creates for walking there. These reports include “Walking in Kuala Lumpur—are you mad?”, “Kuala Lumpur–is this the most pedestrian-unfriendly city in the world?”, and “Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a pedestrian-impossible city”. There is also quite a substantial—and somewhat less irateacademic literature on this subject—click here2 and here3  for examples.

Walking under the Monorel in the Bukit Bintang area. A somewhat typical, messy but perfectly usable sidewalk. Photo taken 2005.

The difficulty of being a pedestrian is central KL has become an area of concern to the powers-that-be. The Federal Government’s Economic Transformation Programme, which aims to make Malaysia a fully developed country by 2020, notes KL’s pedestrian-unfriendliness. It recommends the establishment of a network of well-maintained walkways.4 Thus far, this has chiefly resulted in repairs to certain sidewalks; a few signs;

Directional signs for pedestrians.

pedestrianization of a few streets;

Covered pedestrianized street in Chinatown.

and the building of a small number of overhead pedestrian facilities, notably between Bukit Bintang and KLCC, two major shopping areas that make up the newer central business district. The latter path is even air-conditioned.

The Bukit Bintang-KLCC walkway.

Work has also begun on the “River of Life” project, which is supposed to create walking paths along the Klang River and two of its tributaries, which divide the old central business district into formerly British and formerly Chinese and Indian sections. This seems like a terrific project to me if only as the area, now difficult to access, contains quite a number of impressive colonial-era buildings. Not much appeared to have been accomplished, however, as of last week.

Along the Klang River in Kuala Lumpur’s old CBD. This area is supposed to get proper walkways. Note the LRT in the distance.

An objective evaluation of conditions for pedestrians in KL might suggest that in this respect (as in many others) KL is in some ways a more modern city than tourist reports imply. Pedestrians in central KL have it pretty good compared with their counterparts in, say, Delhi, Jakarta, and many other Third World cities. The sidewalks in commercial areas are generally crowded. You don’t feel you’re violating local mores in walking on them. (This is not so true, however, around the National Museum and in the parklands west of the Klang, where tourists are more likely to go than locals.) There are plenty of traffic lights, and car drivers generally obey them (motorcyclists not so much). And there are sidewalks along most streets in the central city, which do not seem to be encroached on too often, although they could still use better upkeep.

In other respects, however, pedestrians soon learn that they’re not in, say, Switzerland. For example, as elsewhere in Asia, those on foot sometimes have to wait several minutes for traffic lights to change. This is a deeply irritating—and easily reduceable—annoyance. Even more serious, the chief contributor to pedestrian precariousness in Kuala Lumpur is that drivers of turning vehicles basically never yield to pedestrians. This is perhaps above all a cultural problem, and I don’t know whether even draconian enforcement and steep fines would solve it. For what it’s worth, this is not a concern at all in nearby Singapore, where drivers making turns generally yield to pedestrians much more reliably than they do in, say, American cities. The problem of casual driver aggressiveness is (curiously) not even mentioned in the government reports and newspaper stories on walkability that I’ve seen, which tend to focus on improving the infrastructure rather than changing the culture. Of course, the former might be easier to implement!

It cannot be stressed too much that central KL occupies only a tiny part of the KL urban area (sometimes called the Klang Valley), which now has a population approaching eight million. You really can’t talk about conditions in the central city without considering what it is part of. The statistics are messy and difficult to analyze, but it’s pretty clear that automobile ownership in Malaysia is higher than one would expect on the basis of income alone;5 perhaps half the urban area’s households have access to a vehicle. The KL area is crisscrossed by an unusually substantial network of expressways, on which traffic generally flows fairly well, except when it doesn’t. Traffic jams are thought to be a major problem. I certainly haven’t visited all of KL’s many suburbs but am pretty sure that it’s accurate to say that housing outside the center consists mostly of apartment buildings and what most Americans would call row houses. It is dense by American standards, but it is definitely mostly set up for automobile use nonetheless. The Kuala Lumpur urban area is no model of compact urban development. In an urban area consisting mostly of automobile-oriented suburbs, it’s easy to see why pedestrian comfort in the central city hasn’t been a high priority. There are of course government agencies responsible for planning, but I have the impression that planners in KL (like many of their counterparts elsewhere) spend more time decrying “sprawl” than actually doing anything about it—they just don’t have the power.6

Planning’s one great success has been the establishment of quite an elaborate rail network.

The Monorel passes office buildings, high-rise parking facilities, apartment buildings, and some older structures.

KL’s government decided in the early 1990s to deal with the congestion problem by building rail lines, and (like many other governments at the time) it enlisted the help of private enterprise. Three different rail lines were built: a monorail (called the “Monorel” in Malay); an elevated railway; and an elevated railway with a longish subway section through the central business district. The latter two lines are called “LRT”’s even though they are completely grade-separated. The government also had KTM, the national railway, upgrade suburban railway lines, and it oversaw the construction of a new, genuinely high-speed line to the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport (the “KLIA Ekspres”) and the new capital in Putrajaya (served on the airport line by local trains branded the “Express Rail Link”). All of the suburban rail lines and two of the rapid transit lines come together at KL Sentral, a railroad station and shopping node that’s so bustling that in passing through you might think for a moment that you were in Western Europe or Japan—until you try to walk there (it’s practically impossible).

Inside KL Sentral.

The rail lines aren’t perfect. Because of the way they were built, the lines don’t fit together in an altogether rational way. Transfers among the lines can be awkward and only became free after the government took the system over in 2004 (and there is still no fare integration between the rapid transit lines and the “komuter” railroads). Still, the government has maintained its commitment to improving the rail system. KL Rapid, the government agency responsible for urban railroads, is in the process of building a fourth line that runs from the far northwestern suburbs to the far southeastern suburbs (an isolated segment in the northwest has opened), and two more lines are planned.

KL Rapid LRT, Monorel, Komuter, KLIA Eksores, ERL

Passenger rail lines in the Kuala Lumpur area. Data mostly from OpenStreetMap and the OpenStreetMap files at Metro Extracts, modified considerably. Closely spaced parallel linear features are difficult to show on maps generated with GIS since the lines used to represent them can overlap, and one must choose which comes on top. On this map red lines are shown over orange ones.

Generally, the trains seem to be fairly crowded, but most trains are short, and patronage overall (at something like 400,000 passengers a day) has actually been somewhat disappointing. One factor may be that the trains (except for the line to KLIA) are rather slow. The two “LRT” lines to Putra Heights, a suburb maybe 22 km from the central city, each takes more than hour from central KL.

In other words, while the train system is in some ways quite impressive, the best it could be expected to accomplish in the short run is to make a small dent in Kuala Lumpur’s orientation to the automobile.7 Kuala Lumpur is not going to become a pedestrian paradise any time soon. That doesn’t mean that its central city couldn’t be made a little more pedestrian-friendly, if only to improve conditions for all the train passengers expected to arrive there, not to mention tourists likely to share their thoughts on the Internet.

  1. Ross King, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya : negotiating urban space in Malaysia. Honolulu : Asian Studies Association of Australia in association with University of Hawai’i Press2008. (There is also a National University of Singapore edition.)
  2. Zakaria Juriah and Ujang Norsidah, “Comfort of walking in the city center of Kuala Lumpur,” Procedia, social and behavioral sciences, 170 ( 2015), pages 642-652.
  3. N.I. Bahari, A.K. Arshad, and Z. Yahya, “Pedestrians’ perception of the sidewalk facilities in Kuala Lumpur’s commercial areas,” International sustainability and civil engineering journal, volume 1, number 2 (December 2012), pages 28-36.
  4. See also the newspaper story “Pedestrian facilities need upgrading for KL to be world-class city,” The Star online, 12 June 2015.
  5. See, for example, Noresah Modh Shariff, “Private vehicle ownership and transport planning in Malaysia,” International Proceedings of Computer Science and Information Technology, volume 26 (2012); and Jamilah Mohamad and Amin T.Kiggundu, “The rise of the private car in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia : assessing the policy options,” IATSS Research, volume 31, issue 1 (2007), pages 69–77. Malaysia has a per capita GDP is something like $9,800 (as estimated by the United Nations), but at PPP it’s approximately $27,200 (as estimated by the Central Intelligence Agency)—the exchange rate makes many things cheap.
  6. See, for example, Malik Asghar Naeema, “Policies and issues concerning urban sprawl and compact development paradigm adoption in greater Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia”, MIT-UTM Malaysia Sustainable Cities Program, Working papers series (2016).
  7. One source describes an ambitious but surely unrealizable goal of having 50% of the population move by transit in a few years. See Onn Chiu Chuen, Mohamed Rehan Karim, and Sumiani Yusoff, “Mode choice between private and public transport in Klang Valley, Malaysia,” Hindawi, the scientific world journal, volume 2014 (2014), article ID 394587, 14 pages. Other sources report somewhat more modest but still perhaps optimistic goals, for example a 40% modal share by 2030. See, for example, “40% public transport modal share achievable, says SPAD,” The Star online, 12 May 2015.
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Why aren’t there more pedestrians and transit users in high-density Westwood?

An important article by Mark R. Stevens in the January 2017 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association1 suggests that an increase in population density leads only to a modest decrease in automobile use. The article is based on meta-regression analysis, a technique familiar in medical research that has the great advantage of increasing validity by merging the results of numerous case studies.

The author finds that there is some relationship between density and automobile usage, but that the “elasticity” is only between .22 and .10. That is, a 1% increase in density would reduce driving between .1 and .22%. This is an incredibly important finding, since densification of American cities has often been proposed as a way to decrease automobile usage.

The article comes with several critiques from other scholars.2 Some point out that an elasticity of .22 is not so low. Others criticize various aspects of the study. I’m particularly inclined to agree with the criticism of Ewing and Cervero that the meta-regression technique is flawed in this case by the inclusion of several studies of foreign cities, including several Third World cities. In Mexico City, for example, many well-off people live in close-to-center-city high-density neighborhoods—and are far more likely to own, and use, automobiles than the relatively poor people who tend to live in lower-density, often informal developments at the edge of the city. It’s not clear that instances like this are particularly relevant to understanding the relationship of density and driving in cities in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world. Still, cases like this do not really undermine Mark R. Stevens’ basic finding that the correlation between increasing density and reduced automobile usage is not spectacularly high.

I spent last weekend in Los Angeles, and I was particularly reminded of this article when I passed through the stretch of Westwood along Wilshire Boulevard just east of Glendon Avenue. I have no special knowledge of this area, but I’ve visited it many times and have always been struck by the near absence of anyone walking on the streets despite the presence here of numerous 25-or-so-story apartment buildings. There may be no urban residential district in the United States with bigger buildings and fewer pedestrians. Here’s a photo:

The Westwood Wilshire corridor looking east from a couple of blocks east of Westwood Boulevard.

The lack of pedestrians is in many ways somewhat surprising, and not only because of the area’s density. The Westwood Wilshire corridor is close to UCLA; there are many stores and quite a number of pedestrians in nearby Westwood Village; and the area has excellent transit: Wilshire Boulevard has some of the most frequent bus service in the United States.3 But you sure don’t see many pedestrians on Wilshire Boulevard, with the partial exception of a tiny number of people on their way to or waiting at bus stops. And, well, it’s hard not to seem a bit racist in talking about this, but the fact that most of the people you see at bus stops or walking look Hispanic suggests that they aren’t the people who live in the apartment buildings; the area is less than 2% Hispanic. Presumably many of these people work in the buildings in one capacity or another. I’ll admit that the river of traffic on Wilshire Boulevard is a deterrent. It’s not very pleasant walking there (although I suspect that most pedestrians would hardly notice if they had some company). There aren’t any stores on this stretch of Wilshire either. But, still, you’d expect a high-density residential area to be a little more, well, “vibrant.”

All this led me to look up census data for this area when I got back home. There are some difficulties with interpreting census data in this district, because there are small apartment buildings and single-family houses behind the wall of tall apartment buildings on Wilshire, and the tract and even the block-group and block boundaries inevitably cover areas of both high-density and medium-density housing. None of the census numbers apply to the apartment buildings only. But they still tell you something. In 2010, there were 6457 people living on the first six or seven blocks of Wilshire Boulevard east of Glendon Avenue.4 The population density of these blocks was 16,150 people per square kilometer (41,828 per square mile), which is pretty high. Here’s a map:

Population density in part of Los Angeles’ Westside, 2010, at the block level. The Westwood Wilshire corridor described in the text is outlined in black. GIS data from NHGIS.

For anything other than rudimentary population figures, you must look at American Community Survey data at the tract or block-group level. In the three tracts that cover the bulk of the area,5 74.6% of the working-age population drove to work and only 1.2% took transit in 2008/2012. Here’s a map:

Percent of workers 16 and over who took public transit to work, 2008/2012, by census tract, in part of Los Angeles’ Westside. The Westwood Wilshire corridor described in the text is outlined in black. The low-density area with high transit use west of the corridor is the West Los Angeles Medical Center of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. GIS data from NHGIS.

In other words, the Westwood Wilshire corridor, despite its density, is extraordinarily automobile-oriented.

I also looked at some other census numbers. The corridor is a well-off, cosmopolitan area. Per capita income in 2007/2011 was high at $83,274. There are a fairly large number of older people (23.2% 65 and over) and few children (10.9% less than 18). 32.2% of the population was born outside the United States. The ancestry of the population is 11.2% Iranian and 8.6% Russian; it’s very likely that most of the people with Russian ancestry are Jewish. Tracts with somewhat similar characteristics (although with many fewer Iranians) in New York (parts of Forest Hills, say) or Chicago (along Lakeview Avenue in Lincoln Park, for example) would have many more pedestrians and a much larger transit share.

When I’ve asked local people to account for the absence of pedestrians in this area, I’ve gotten an answer along the lines of “Nobody walks in LA,” and, when I’ve asked about the low transit use, the response has mostly been a grimace. An ethnographer must be a little skeptical of the responses (s)he receives, but, while there is no way to be certain, perhaps in this case one should trust the answer. In Los Angeles doing errands on foot and bus riding are associated with poor people, and many middle-class people with a choice will not do errands on foot or ride buses.6 Cultural prejudices matter.7 There is also of course the fact that, in an urban area with a weak downtown like Los Angeles, transit just isn’t as useful for as many work journeys as it is in cities with a stronger center.8

It must be added that, despite the stereotype, there are plenty of places in Los Angeles with a substantial number of pedestrians, including quite a number largely frequented by members of the middle-class, for example, the walkway along the beaches in Santa Monica and Venice; central Santa Monica; the Melrose District; and perhaps central Hollywood and (increasingly) parts of Downtown. There are also areas where poorer people congregate, notably Broadway downtown. Of course, it’s significant that pedestrians’ goals in most of these areas are often recreational. You don’t see many people who are, say, carrying groceries home on the Third Street Promenade.

Data from the Westwood Wilshire corridor, in other words, support Mark R. Stevens’ argument in the article cited above that the relationship between high density and low automobile use isn’t as substantial as one might imagine it would be. One possible lesson to draw is that changing the culture of places like the Wilshire corridor would be more effective in reducing driving than building infill. Of course, this isn’t something that can be engineered by government action.

It’s an interesting and important question whether the arrival of Metrorail to Westwood in something like 2024 will lead to more transit usage and more pedestrians. It might. I lived in Washington, D.C., as the Metro Red Line was being extended into the northwest sector of the city. After stations opened, many more people could be seen walking in the streets. Presumably automobile use declined during this period. Since rail transit is usually not quite as stigmatized as—and is also faster than—bus transit, it’s perfectly logical that adding rail in areas of high density would have some effect.

But new subway lines are far and few between. There are plenty of urban neighborhoods in the United States with fairly high densities where only a change in culture would seem able to reduce automobile use.

  1. Mark R. Stevens, “Does compact development make people drive less?” Journal of the American Planning Association, 83:1, pages 7-18.
  2. See previous footnote, pages 19-28, especially Reid Ewing and Robert Cervero, “Does compact development make people drive less? The answer is yes,” Journal of the American Planning Association, 83:1, pages 19-25.
  3. The 720 express, according to the printed timetable, runs as often as every 2 minutes during rush hour and every 8 minutes at midday. There are also local buses.
  4. That is, the first six blocks on the north side of Wilshire and the first seven on the south side.
  5. Tracts 2652.01, 2652.02, 2656.01. These tracts cover the Wilshire corridor as well as several adjoining blocks. The three tracts had 9261 people in 2008/2012 and a population density of 6860 per square kilometer. I am pretty sure that most of the population in these tracts lives in apartment buildings on Wilshire.
  6. In the 5-county Los Angeles metropolitan area, there’s a highly significant negative correlation (-.332) at the tract level between the percentage of workers 16 and over who use public transit to get to work use and per capita income; that is, higher income is strongly associated with lower transit use. In the Chicago metropolitan area, there’s a (not very significant) positive correlation (+.057) between these two variables.
  7. So, probably, does the proximity of UCLA. 16.0% of the working-age population in the three tracts reported that they walk to work. They’re not very visible, however. Perhaps they quite reasonably avoid Wilshire.
  8. Here’s a related factor. Despite the frequency of bus service, it isn’t very fast. It takes nearly an hour even on the 720 to travel the 18 kilometers (11.2 miles) between Westwood and downtown Los Angeles. There aren’t that many stops, but there are dozens of red lights and a huge amount of traffic to contend with.
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Fantasy transit in Chicago: a proposal

Building urban rail lines has always been expensive, and one of the consequences of this is that many more lines have been proposed than built. The shelves of Northwestern University’s excellent Transportation Library, for example, contain approximately 75 books or reports in which rail lines for Chicago are proposed; only something like a dozen of these lines have actually been constructed.1 Of course, numerous proposals have been made for building lines that have never even made it to the books and government reports that are collected by libraries. Here’s a 1913 proposal on a map at the University of Chicago Map Collection that was only published in cartographic form. None of the proposed new lines was actually ever implemented.

The Internet of course has been a perfect home for proposals to build new urban rail lines. Numerous “fantasy-transit” sites discuss these. Alon Levy’s Pedestrian Observations, which features long cost-benefit analyses of proposed lines, may be the best of these sites. It has quite a lot of competition.2 Other sites that deal with urban transportation issues in general, like Yonah Freemark’s The Transport Politic and Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit, have also often discussed potential new lines.

I’ve enormously enjoyed reading the posts on these sites—if you like urban rail, then contemplating new lines is a simple pleasure—but I don’t know how much effect they’ve had on actual public policy. To take just one example, if the politicians and government officials who actually decide what to build had paid much attention to what gets written on these sites, thousands of additional kilometers of “heavy-rail” transit lines would have been added—while most of the numerous short, slow, infrequent, and expensive street-running streetcar lines that have been constructed or started in the United States over the last decade would never have been considered worth building.

Discussions of new transit in Chicago in recent years have been very much like discussions of new transit elsewhere. There have been hundreds of proposals to build new lines, hardly any of which seem to have much chance of actual implementation. One example is TransitFuture’s proposal to create a grid of new CTA lines mostly to the west of the existing lines.

There have also been numerous proposals to make better use of the rail lines now run by Metra, the commuter rail agency. Many of these lines run through dense areas of the city and inner suburbs but have few city stops and infrequent service. Adding stops and service, and instigating fare integration with the city transit agency, the CTA, would seem like a no-brainer, but, despite all the proposals, nothing ever happens. The chief reason may be institutional. Metra clearly feels that longer-distance commuters constitute its major market (although many of the city stations do a great deal of business). It also fears anything that could lead to a loss of revenue.

The model for making more intensive use of suburban rail lines is of course Western Europe, where numerous cities have to a large degree integrated their rapid transit and suburban rail systems. Paris, London, Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, and Oslo are perhaps the cities that have moved furthest in this direction. In all these places, suburban lines have been brought through the inner city in tunnels; the lines run as often as subway lines typically do; and one fare lets you ride on both the subway system and what was once the suburban system. This arrangement solves several problems at the same time. Frequent service on the suburban lines brings genuine rail rapid transit to numerous areas that did not have it and (often) express subway service to areas already served. Inner-city tunneling brings the suburban trains from peripheral stations to places where travelers actually want to go. And, even if the suburban trains themselves don’t take you to your destination, improved connections with the existing subway system enormously increase the range of easily reachable destinations. Furthermore, fare integration encourages full use of the entire system. In addition, the reduced role of stub-end stations at the edge of the CBD allows much faster service and eliminates the need to store trains on expensive land close to the city center. And (in some cases) electrification of suburban train lines (required for passage through tunnels) has made the trains faster and quieter.

Similar arrangements are rare outside of Western Europe, but they do exist. In Asia, Tokyo and Osaka have joined their suburban and urban rail systems by allowing subway trains onto the suburban railways and making through fares available. In the Western Hemisphere, only São Paulo has set up a system somewhat comparable to those in Western Europe (although without any new tunneling): subway lines and the old and much improved suburban lines have been joined into one gigantic system (see my earlier post on this system). There are some moves in this direction only in a small number of cities in North America. Denver’s brand-new suburban rail lines have fare integration with the rest of the transit system, and Philadelphia built an underground line connecting its two suburban train stations that opened in 1984, but there is no fare integration with the subway system. Furthermore, both Toronto and Montréal are planning an enormous increase in service levels on certain suburban train lines (although apparently with no fare integration in Toronto).

There have been proposals to set up “through-running” of a sort in Chicago, of which the most serious is probably CrossRail Chicago. This proposal avoids the need for downtown tunneling by suggesting that lines be joined via the St. Charles Air Line south of downtown. CrossRail comes much closer to being a thoroughly worked-out scheme than just about anything else proposed by members of the public. If it were actually built, I have no doubt that life in Chicago would be improved enormously, but it does need to be said that the line would have the peculiarity of not serving the central Loop at all, much less its northern extension. It also would have poor connections with the CTA, which does not have any rail line to Union Station, or, in fact, to most other Metra stations in Chicago and its suburbs.3 The fact that CrossRail in one form or another has been around for a decade without acquiring significant government support could be interpreted in any number of ways. Maybe it just isn’t quite radical enough to excite very many people.

Perhaps I’ve missed something obvious, but I’ve never actually seen a completely worked out proposal for through-running Chicago’s suburban trains that included service to the Loop proper and to its northern extensions.4 The geography is, indeed, a bit awkward, since service from the north now ends up in stations west of the Loop. Pedestrian Observations blogger Alon Levy, a supporter of through-running in New York (where the geography is also awkward), in a discussion of through-running in Chicago, seems to have just given up. But I wonder whether this is not rather premature. It is true that new downtown tunnels would be fantastically expensive and that the cost would have to include electrification of the lines passing through them. In a city and state with a structural deficit of billions of dollars a year, it might seem absurd to imagine that money could be found. But let us imagine that the federal government does indeed get into the business of building infrastructure on a large scale in the next few years and at least fantasize what might be done with it.

One obvious problem with rail transit in Chicago is that it (inevitably) tends to focus on the central business district as it was some decades back, when it was largely confined to the Loop proper. But the most prestigious retailing in Chicago’s CBD moved north, up Michigan Avenue, many years ago. There is only one rail station in this area now, the Red Line’s Chicago stop, and it’s three blocks from the major retail establishments at, and near, Water Tower Place. This area, in fact, is not just a retailing center. Numerous hotels and densely built-up residential districts are close by, as are Chicago’s most prestigious hospital, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and its neighbors, the highly regarded Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Chicago Children’s Hospital. There are also numerous offices in the area, and even more closer to the River, a few blocks south. Setting up through-running of suburban train lines would ideally solve the problem of poor rail transit in this area.

As it happens, Metra’s major north-south line (UP-North) is roughly 2 km west of Water Tower. Why not run this line east from just south of the Clybourn station over to Michigan Avenue (or just east of it)? Passengers wanting to travel south to Ogilvie Station (formerly the Northwestern Terminal) could change at Clybourn, which is served by two UP lines. There would be connections with the Red and Brown Line stations on Chicago Avenue. The tunnel would turn south somewhere around Michigan Avenue (or maybe Columbus). It would need to be very deep, partly because the area is so built up, and partly because the turn near Water Tower Place would only be possible with a radius large enough to require passing under some existing buildings. The tunnel would join with the already electrified Metra Electric at Millennium Park. There would have to be another east-west tunnel somewhere south of this, perhaps under Monroe Street, that would have connections with Red and Blue Line stations as well as with those on the Loop. Again, a very deep tunnel would be required, partly so that it could pass under the existing subways and other infrastructure and partly because large-radius turns to and from Metra Electric and the tracks to Union Station would require going under some existing buildings. The tunnel would join with the existing tracks north of Union Station (and, in an ideal world, with the Rock Island tracks as well).

Here’s what this looks like on a map:

Metra and CTA in central Chicago.

Central Chicago showing proposed new Metra lines as well as existing CTA and Metra lines. The filled circles are stations. The large green circles mark both new stations and existing stations that would presumably acquire new underground tracks. Most of the base data come from the City of Chicago’s data portal.

And here’s the larger picture: a view of Chicago and its inner suburbs showing the relationship between CTA lines and Metra rapid transit lines:

CTA lines and the five Metra rapid transit lines mentioned briefly in the text. Assumes that rapid transit is extended only to inner suburbs. There are of course many other possibilities.

This arrangement would permit many different service patterns. Perhaps Metra Electric (“IC”) trains could be rerouted through the east-west Loop tunnel and end up in O’Hare (thus providing the express service to O’Hare that Mayor Emanuel has been supporting). Trains from Evanston (or further north) might pass via Water Tower and the Millennium Station to the east-west tunnel, and turn south at Union Station to, say the Burlington Line (although there is more city demand on the Rock Island Line, which now terminates at the LaSalle Station). Additional suburban lines could be joined in eventually.

Service on the Chicago and inner-suburban portions of the main suburban lines might be every 15 minutes all day and every 7.5 minutes through the east-west tunnel (since two lines would share it), and could, of course, be even more frequent during rush hour. If more suburban lines were brought into the system, service on the shared tunnel stretches could become even better. Chicago and its inner suburbs would thus gain an enormous amount of new rapid rail transit that would in fact be much more rapid than the existing lines. Suburbanites would find it much easier to get where they wanted to go, either because the trains would actually take them there or because connections would be easier. The elimination of noisy diesel engines on the affected routes would improve the environment. And fast-accelerating electric trains could make a few additional city stops without increasing their total transit time unreasonably. The trains would also no longer have to crawl into stub-end stations at 10 kph, since the stations would be through stations.

Altogether something like 5.8 km of tunneling and several new stations would be required. This construction, along with electrification, might cost something like ten or fifteen billion dollars, a huge amount but not an unimaginable sum in an urban area of perhaps eight or nine million people if there were a generous federal subsidy. The Chicago urban area is only a little smaller than the Paris and London urban areas where much larger rail building plans have been completed, and where even larger and more expensive projects are under way. Construction would of course take several years but would not have to be enormously disruptive, since the new tunnels would generally be so far beneath the surface.

Of course, all this is just a fantasy!

  1. Figure based on a quick perusal of titles with subject heading “Local transit—Illinois—Chicago (or: Chicago Metropolitan Area)–Planning” or having a call number beginning with HE4491.C4. I didn’t look at every item.
  2. See blogroll on Pedestrian Observations for a very partial list.
  3. I acknowledge the exceptions, Irving Park, Main Street Evanston, Oak Park/Harlem-Lake, 35th-Lou Jones/Sox-35th. Downtown, the LaSalle Street and Millennium stations are within a block of CTA lines.
  4. “Itinerant urbanist” Sandy Johnson once proposed an east-west Loop line, but it misses the Near North Side.
Posted in Transportation, Urban | 6 Comments

The “park connectors” of Singapore

Singapore is often described by urbanists as having gotten a great many things right. An explicit goal of Singapore’s planning is to have a “car-lite” society. Singapore’s government has taxed automobiles at a very high rate for many years. It also charges for parking and for automobile access to its downtown. In addition, an excellent two-line rail system was built in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and since 2000 it’s been extended by an enormous amount.

Northeast Rail Line, Singapore

The interior of a car on the Northeast Rail Line, Singapore. Note the open gangways. The Northeast Line, like other new rail lines in Singapore, is driverless.

Furthermore, Singapore has built a huge stock of reasonably high-density public housing and has induced most of its population to move in. In recent years it’s upgraded most of the original structures. As a result, Singapore is often said to have the world’s most elegant public housing.

Pinnacle@Duxton, recently constructed public housing in Singapore.

Many statistics support the view that Singapore’s planning has been pretty successful. Public transit usage is very high and continues to grow. Traffic jams are rare. Air quality is chiefly compromised by the burning of forests in nearby Sumatra, not by locally produced automobile exhaust.

A more cynical view would note that automobile ownership of something like 15% is pretty substantial given the high taxes. There is quite an elaborate network of freeways covering the island, and the cost of entering downtown by car (between 0.50 and 2.50 Singapore dollars depending on the time of day, that is, approximately between 0.35 and 1.75 USD) is not enough to discourage driving there. Roads in Singapore are actually pretty crowded. There is also the odd issue that the association of automobile ownership and wealth has perhaps not surprisingly added to the prestige of owning a car.1

Then there’s the question of facilities for pedestrians. I’ve been in Singapore every few years since the 1990s, and the thing that used to bother me most was how difficult it was to walk long distances there. It’s always been comfortable enough to walk along Orchard Road (Singapore’s main central shopping area) as well as in its downtown, and to some extent in near-downtown carefully preserved ethnic districts like Chinatown and Little India. All these areas are pleasantly crowded; they mostly have wide sidewalks; and the urban landscape has an attractively complicated texture. But everywhere else one had to walk along busy roads with few pedestrians and to wait endless minutes for red lights to change. The high-density HDB (Housing and Development Board) projects with their tower-in-a-park designs and lack of shopping streets or complete grids seemed especially unattractive for walking. Furthermore, most of the island’s many parks were somewhat empty, and I couldn’t help but notice that nearly all the runners in parks were ethnic Europeans, that is, presumably expatriates or tourists. I asked Singaporeans about this on several occasions and was reminded that it was always hot and humid in Singapore (it is) and that urban pedestrian life was simply not part of Singapore’s traditional culture. This may be perfectly true, but it’s also the case that a rail system cannot function fully unless some of its users are willing to walk to it. I haven’t been able to help wondering whether Singapore’s distinctive addition of people-movers (called the “LRT”) to its rail lines wasn’t a function in part of its citizens’ reluctance to walk even short distances to the trains.

Things have changed since the 1990s. Singapore’s planners have clearly realized that poor pedestrian facilities were anomalous and have begun remedying the situation, and I spent some time last week exploring the results.

Part of the Whampoa park connector, which winds past many HDB (Housing and Development Board) projects north of downtown.

Most of the new pedestrian facilities are part of a system of what are called “park connectors,” built largely along the many partly artificial waterways that drain the island (Singapore gets more than 2300 mm of rain a year).2 The name is a little odd and may reflect a reluctance on the part of Singapore’s planners to take pedestrian facilities quite seriously. The park connectors do often connect parks, but, in fact, they don’t always, and I was struck by the number of people walking along the park connectors who were carrying shopping bags. That is, the “park connectors” get some practical use too. But you also see quite a number of hikers, runners (who seem to be native Singaporeans), and even some cyclists.

Singapore MRT lines and park connectors.

Map showing rail lines and major pedestrian facilities in Singapore. The latter include all official “park connectors” and some adjoining segments of the Southern Ridges and Singapore River trails. Short paths in parks are excluded. Based on data from OpenStreetMap (but I’ve modified a great deal.)3

Parts of the system of park connectors date as far back as 1992 (and some follow routes that existed before this), but growth was slow at first. There were 12 km of park connectors in 19964 and perhaps 100 km in 2010.5 In recent years much more energy has been put into constructing them, and in September 2015 the park connector system reached 300 km in length. Many new segments are under construction or planned, including a 150-km Round Island Route. (For comparison, the rail transit system is up to 170 km.) As the system has grown, the park connectors have been given much more consistent visual branding

Standard signs along park connectors. There are also fairly standard maps, and “PCN” (for “park connector network”) is painted on the ground every so often.

and they are even increasingly mentioned in tourist literature.

A small fragment of a “Singapore Island map” on the verso of: The official map of Singapore. Singapore : Reddot Maps, 2017. Several of the major park connectors (along with other tourist attractions) are shown on the map.

In addition to formally designated park connectors, there are also some urban trails through the few areas of more or less natural landscape left in Singapore. A series of what were once rough trails along the Southern Ridges near the old port have been improved and even acquired an extremely pleasant canopy-top walkway.

Forest Walk in the Southern Ridges.

There are also some pretty nice trails up to Singapore’s 164-m high Bukit Timah (the highest place on the island). I suspect that Singapore here, as it must do in many other ways, is competing with Hong Kong, which has what may be the world’s best network of urban trails. There is nothing Singapore can do to acquire Hong Kong’s mountains, but it’s come as close as it can with the Southern Ridges and Bukit Timah trails.

Besides these trails, the Rail Corridor that was left by the removal of tracks on the Singapore portion of the old Singapore-Kuala Lumpur railway is supposed to be turned into an additional facility for pedestrians and cyclists. It’s been described as Singapore’s “High Line,” but, in fact, it’s nothing like the High Line, since only a small part of it is raised, and it mostly passes through industrial or medium-density areas. It’s more like many of the rail trails that have been built all over the world in recent years.

The unimproved Rail Corridor between the Hillview and Cashew MRT (subway) stations.

Fixing the Rail Corridor up will take some money since there are missing bridges and a need for improved drainage, but, when I was in Singapore, the whole southern part of the Corridor was closed to facilitate the work.

A missing bridge in the Rail Corridor near Hillview MRT station.

Singapore’s pedestrian facilities are definitely still a work in progress. There are many gaps in the “network.” This doesn’t matter in the way it would for a rail network, but it does matter some. Also, most of the routes intersect with numerous streets, and only in a few cases is crossing facilitated by tunnels or bridges. Sometimes crosswalks help (Singapore drivers usually respect these), but, whenever there’s a major street to cross, park connector users must deal with a slow-to-change traffic light. Cyclists are even more inconvenienced than pedestrians by the lack of long rights-of-way. There is also the larger issue that, in building park connectors mostly along watercourses or in parks, planners have of necessity paid little attention to where people might actually want to go. This is of course a problem with pedestrian facilities all over the world. They mostly get built where it’s easy and cheap to build them.

Despite these caveats, Singapore’s pedestrian connectors strike me as a major accomplishment. One can be as dubious as one wants about the authoritarian side of Singapore’s government, but one must admit that Singapore’s tradition of central planning has resulted in some extremely impressive urbanism.

  1. For additional information on the history of Singapore’s planning, see (among other sources): Martin Perry, Lily Kong, and Brenda Yeoh. Singapore : a developmental city state. Chichester : John Wiley & Sons, 1997.
  2. Major sources: Planning Singapore: from plan to implementation / edited by Belinda K. P. Yuen. Singapore : NUS Press, 1998, especially pages 31-41. Also: the well-indexed major newspaper Straits Times and the National Parks Website.
  3. Closely spaced parallel linear features are difficult to show on maps generated with GIS since the lines used to represent them can overlap, and one must choose which comes on top. On this map red lines are shown over blue ones which in turn can cover purple lines.
  4. Yuen, previous footnote.
  5. Mark Lewis. The rough guide to Singapore. London : Rough Guides, 2010.
Posted in Transportation, Urban | 1 Comment

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 newcomers.1 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 tracts.2

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 ACS:3

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 Chicago.4

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 nation.5 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.
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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 city.1 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 Trole,2 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.
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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.




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I was in Tashkent (Toshkent in Uzbek) for a few days in late October. I found it a rather uncomfortable place. Problems started at the airport, where it was necessary to negotiate an enormous undisciplined crowd to inch through passport control—and then wait an hour for baggage, and finally face another crowd at customs. Even at Incheon, where my trip to and from Tashkent started and ended, Uzbekis found it impossible to queue up. The Korean security guards were made so uneasy by massive Uzbeki line-cutting that they disappeared. It is tempting to speculate that a life lived in an exceptionally authoritarian and kleptocratic state leads to a tendency to disobey rules and ignore other peoples’ needs whenever the chance arises, but that would surely be simplistic.

My only previous trip to Tashkent had been in the fall of 1970. Neither of my trips lasted long enough to make me quite sure of my judgments, but it’s clear that quite a lot has changed since 1970.

Some of the changes are pretty trivial. Statues of Uzbek heroes have replaced statues of Soviet heroes. The former Revolution Square, which once held (in turn) statues of Lenin, Stalin, and Marx, has been renamed Amir Timur Square, and now features a statue of Amir Timur (Tamerlane), who is remembered more fondly in Uzbekistan than in the many lands to which his armies laid waste.1

Statue of Amir Timur in Amir Timur Square, Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Statue of Amir Timur in Amir Timur Square.

There are also a fair number of new highways and overpasses. Rising levels of car ownership, as in most places, have made things harder for pedestrians.

Major highway in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Sebzor ko’chasi, a major north-south highway, which cuts right across central Tashkent.

Much of Tashkent used to be made up of traditional, one-story, Central Asian buildings on irregular streets. Many of these buildings were badly damaged in a major earthquake in 1966, and it’s likely that the government was rather embarrassed by them anyway. While some such neighborhoods away from the center have been reconstructed, many traditional inner-city neighborhoods have just been levelled. There’s now a huge amount of unbuilt-on land, bordered by green metal fences.

Fence, Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Green fence, hiding remnants of a traditional neighborhood in central Tashkent that has been largely obliterated.

In parts of the central city, however, urban planning has created a completely new kind of landscape with government buildings and parkland connected by wide streets, a few of which are closed part-time and used for recreation and informal markets.2

Art market, Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Open-air art market in central Tashkent.

The most appealing parts of Tashkent for me were the remaining Soviet-era residential neighborhoods. Soviet housing doesn’t enjoy a very positive reputation, and for good reasons. It was never very well built, and apartments were always tiny, often lacking even bathrooms. Furthermore, the towers-in-a-park designs are frowned on in urbanist circles, although of course in Soviet times the spaces between buildings were set up for pedestrians, not cars. Nonetheless, on a beautiful fall day in Central Asia, the Soviet-era neighborhoods, with their generous tree cover, looked pretty good to me

Soviet-era neighborhood, Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Soviet-era neighborhood, practically hidden under a canopy of trees. The condition of the sidewalk is typical.

except where they’ve been redesigned to allow parking.

Parking, Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Former open space devoted to parking in a commercial center in a Soviet-era neighborhood.

Then there’s Tashkent’s subway, which is impressively decorated in the ponderous Soviet style. If Tashkent had more tourists, the subway would be a major tourist attraction—except for two things. First, photographs are strictly forbidden. Second, to enter the stations one must not only subject oneself to a thorough bag search but also show identification and undergo an interrogation. When the security guards discovered that I could communicate with them in Russian, they didn’t want to let me go. Our conversation was of the standard banal sort that everyone travelling in untouristed areas gets used to. I was asked not only “Where are you going?” and “How long will you be in Uzbekistan?” but also “Are your married?” and “How much money do you make?” This might have seemed like simple friendly banter had the questions not been asked by well-armed, uncosmopolitan, and somewhat bored young men whose job was to intercept terrorists. I pretended not to know a word of Russian on my second and third subway trips, but I was still not made to feel very comfortable. Perhaps the need to undergo an interrogation partly explains the fact that the subway appears to have relatively few passengers.3 The emptying out of parts of the central city probably hasn’t encouraged Metro use either. The Metro does take you to quite a few places in Tashkent, however.

Tashkent subway.

Map showing the Tashkent Metro with the street network in the background. GIS data modified from the version of OpenStreetMap. This data set clearly shows only a small proportion of Tashkent’s parkland, but I don’t have the resources to correct it.

Tashkent seemed to me too visibly authoritarian a place to be very appealing, but visiting it was enormously satisfying.

  1. For a description of the changing statues in this square, see: Rustin Zarkar, “Goodbye Lenin, hello Timur : the evolution of national monuments in Uzbekistan’s capital city,” Ajam media collective, 7 July 2015.
  2. For a pretty good description of Tashkent’s planning history, see: Anette Gangler, Heinz Nagler, Frank Schwarze, and Eckhart Ribbeck, Tashkent in change : transformation of the urban structure. Stuttgart : Universität Stuttgart, 2012?
  3. Statistics support the notion that, in proportion to its size, Tashkent’s subway has few passengers. According to Wikipedia, the Tashkent subway has 52.2 million passengers/year. The Minsk subway, around the same length (37.2 vs. 36.2 km) has six times the number of passengers.
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