The Chicago area’s net migration is not bad but it can’t attract new residents

The newest Census data suggests both Chicago and the Chicago region are losing residents. But, it may be less about people moving away and more about an inability to attract new residents:

ChicagoAreaPopulationChange2019

Some experts note the metro region also isn’t attracting enough newcomers to make up for people who move away. Immigration from other countries also has long helped stem population loss, but in recent years this influx has been less robust, according to census estimates. Meanwhile, birthrates are slowing statewide, which means there are fewer new residents to make up for other losses…

“We don’t have a particularly high rate of just out-migration, but very few people come here relative to our population, compared to the rest of the country,” said Daniel Kay Hertz, research director at the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

Using numbers from the 2015 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. census, his agency found that Illinois ranked in the middle of the pack nationally on the rate of people leaving the state, but was third from the bottom on the rate of people coming in…

“The narratives around the state matter and can shape people’s decisions,” Hertz said. “And the ones in Illinois are really, really, really negative in ways that I think overstate some of the issues relative to other places.”

Any major metropolitan area is going to have some people moving out as they get new job opportunities, see greener pastures elsewhere, move for family reasons, and so on. The goal then is to also attract new residents even as some are moving out. Population increases come from new residents plus more births than deaths.

This one expert cited above hints at an interesting conundrum for any city or region beset with population loss or narratives of decline: how do you reverse the trend once it starts picking up steam? As noted, the narratives both within and outside the Chicago region and Illinois are not good: pension debts, inequality, corruption, social issues that have lasted decades, higher taxes, a lack of innovation, not a business-friendly climate, harsh winters, important but bottlenecked infrastructure. If Chicago was the exemplar American city at the turn of the twentieth century, that is no longer the case. Other cities are on the rise, particularly in the Sunbelt stretching from Washington D.C. (with the expansion of and attention paid to the federal government, perhaps now truly the second most important American city) to Houston (whose population keeps growing and may soon surpass Chicago).

It is hard to know exactly how much the larger narrative pushes people to avoid the Chicago area in favor of other places. At the same time, status matters. People and businesses want to go to places that are on the way up, that are gaining people, that have an energy moving toward the future. Chicago and its region still have a lot to offer. For example, millennials still like portions of Chicago for their thriving cultural scenes plus relatively cheap housing compared to other major cities. Perhaps Chicago’s long-term fate is to roughly stay the same at the center of the Midwest region, a significant portion of the country that may also be losing population and status.

Chicago area voter turnout around 13-15%

The Daily Herald describes the low turnout in municipal elections in the Chicago area a week ago.

Only 13 percent of the suburb’s registered voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s election, the lowest rate for any election since at least 2006…

With hundreds of races in each county, some drew more voters than others. The Hinsdale High School District 86 tax hike question in DuPage County brought more than 40 percent of the district’s voters to the ballot box, with the looming threat of massive extracurricular cuts if the request didn’t pass. It did.

But scores of other races had less than 5 percent turnout, according to vote totals available on some election websites, mainly because they weren’t contested…

The growth in actual voters is little comfort to political scientists, local politicians and suburban election officials, who worry low voter turnout shows a dangerous level of apathy by the electorate.

While the article tries to bring out the positive news – there are more registered voters compared to the last set of municipal elections and some races had higher turnout races – it is hard to sugarcoat these figures. The Chicago suburb in which I live had low turnout for the first mayoral race in years. These local elections can have a significant impact as local leaders react to external pressures as well as have internal discussions. Not every local official makes significant changes and many local officials may run to make small improvements and preserve the nature of their community. At the same time, many communities have key moments in their past to which they could point to as sending the community down a different route and altering the community’s character.

Again, if Americans claim to like local government and local control in suburban settings, why do they not vote in larger numbers for the officials who will help guide their communities and local governments?

Determining the complicated boundaries of the Chicago suburbs

Prompted by the discovery of Green Oaks, Illinois earlier this week, I went searching for a list of all of the Chicago suburbs. Instead, I found a discussion about where exactly the Chicago suburbs end. Here is an expert talking about this very issue in summer 2018:

The best definition of where the “suburbs” are, according to Ellis, is probably the boundaries of the Chicago-Naperville-Joliet Metropolitan Statistical Area

But calling everything inside those boundaries “the suburbs” is probably too simple…

So, Ellis said, the suburbs end to the west at the Fox River, to the south along the Lincoln Highway, and stretch along the train lines as far south as Michigan City, IN and as far north as Kenosha, WI.

The second map probably also conforms to cultural understandings in the region about what is really a suburb. There are places that could be within the far-flung orbit of Chicago but do not think of themselves or are not regarded by others as true suburbs.

This is an issue for many metropolitan regions, particular due to two changes:

1. Suburban areas keep developing further from the central city.

2. More people commute suburb to suburb rather than into the central city on a regular basis.

With more housing available further from the city as well as the presence of jobs in far-flung job centers, more residents can be part of a metropolitan region even if they rarely make a trip into the big city or do direct business with the big city.

Still discovering the existence of some Chicago area suburbs

I recently ran across a news story about a Chicago suburb I did not recognize. Where is Green Oaks, Illinois? Here is the front page of the community’s website:

GreenOaksWebsite

The Census characteristics of the community suggest it is small (roughly 3,600 residents), white (over 85%), wealthy (median household income just over $160,000), and educated (over 63% with a bachelor’s degree or higher).

Given the population of the Chicago region (over 9 million residents) plus Illinois’ penchant for local governments and taxing bodies, perhaps this is not surprising. It is easy to miss a community of less than 4,000 people with a community name that comes out of the mad lib list of Chicago suburb names (Oak, Forest, Park, Green, Hills, cardinal directions, etc.).

At the same time, as someone who studies the Chicago suburbs, not even being aware of this community is a point to file away…

OECD report blasts Chicago area transit

A new report from the OECD suggests transit in the Chicago region could improve a lot:

“The current state of transit ridership in Chicago is relatively depressing,” concludes the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based research agency whose backers include the world’s richest nations, among them the U.S.

The report found a lack of coordination among the four transit agencies and their four separate boards as well as insufficient accountability. Those issues intensify the economic impact of congestion on Chicago, estimated at over $6 billion in 2011 by the Texas Transportation Institute, the report said.

Although the new study largely echoes previous critiques of the area’s transit system and contains no startling findings, it offers a view of Chicago from a global perspective. And in doing so, the report gives an unflattering assessment of a transportation network that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other leaders have aspired to be world-class…

One of the findings bolsters a recommendation made this year by the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force: that a single superagency should replace the RTA and oversee the CTA, Metra and Pace.

Could a report from a reputable international organization finally spur organizations and governments in the Chicago area into action? I’m skeptical. I would guess a lot of actors would frown on the idea of a overarching superagency that could override their particular concerns. Imagine Chicago neighborhoods and far-flung suburbs with competing interests both being dissatisfied with the decisions made by a board of bureaucrats.

At the same time, not pushing reforms means the Chicago could be leaving a lot of money and time on the table.

The closing of a Chicago Tollway oasis

In the 1950s, the new tollways constructed in the Chicago area included the occasional rest stop, including the Des Plaines Oasis which closes this weekend:

We spent 24 hours at the Oasis talking to people from all walks of life. Here’s a peek at what we saw and heard…

An extremely mismatched couple staggers in, tipsily leaning into each other. She’s tall and elegant in a long cashmere coat and large gold earrings, her hair stylishly up.

Him, he’s wearing ill-fitting pants and a bad baseball jacket with a white body and blue sleeves…

It’s not quite light out yet, but the Oasis bustles with customers. Many of them are truck drivers, like Freeman Barber of Cobbs Creek, Va.

Barber wears a shiny black jacket decorated with several American flag pins and a baseball hat bearing the acronym BARF…

Two buses pull up. Dozens of teenage girls — hair pulled into ponytails, some still in pajama bottoms and fuzzy slippers — pile out.

They bypass the lunch crowd at McDonald’s and line up for the bathroom, talking as they wait. Moms, dressed more conservatively, join them.

In other words, a slice of life amongst American highway drivers. This is a good example of a modern-day journalistic human interest story that doesn’t tell us much about the more quantifiable side (number of people there each day, amount of goods sold, how much it costs to keep open, etc.) of the oasis.

It is interesting to note that this oasis is part of a longer chain of official Tollway rest stops that go all the way from the Chicago area through eastern Pennsylvania. This road, stretching from I-90 in Illinois to I-80 in Indiana and Ohio to I-76 in Ohio and Pennsylvania, was one of the first long highways in the United States. The reason it is a tollway is because it was built before the official Federal Interstate Act of 1956 which provided lots of federal funding for the American interstate system. States were responsible for funding highways then and Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois put together a common road across their borders. Plans for highways in the Chicago area began in the 1920s and 1930s but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the tollways were built.

Having been in a number of these rest stops along this east-west route, here is my quick rankings of rest areas (from best to worst) between the Chicago stops through eastern Pennsylvania:

1. Tied for first: newer Ohio and Pennsylvania rest areas. They tend to feature good fast food options and airy buildings.

2. Illinois Oases. Pretty clean and lots of food options. Bonus: they take up less space since they span the highway and can be accessed from both sides.

3. Older Ohio and Pennsylvania rest areas. Dingier, worse food options.

4. Indiana rest areas. Nothing inspiring here.

A bonus: 5 fun facts about the history of the Des Plaines Oasis, including its short appearance in the The Blues Brothers.

New report says Chicago area transit agencies have a host of issues

Here are some of the issues facing Chicago area transit agencies according to an Illinois task force:

• The Metra scandal demonstrated that “those responsible for the transit system do not always have the rider’s best interests at heart.” Many transit board members are appointed without background checks and there are no ethics rules or discipline for those guilty of misdeeds, the task force found.

• There are four transit boards with 47 people appointed by 16 elected officials. The system leads to a lack of accountability and “makes it difficult to know who is responsible when the system is not functioning well,” the report stated. Instead of pushing for excellence, boards are more about representing political or geographic constituencies.

• A 2007 Illinois auditor general’s report found duplication and lack of coordination among various transit fiefdoms. That situation hasn’t improved in the past six years, the task force found.

• A coordinated regional transit plan to increase ridership is lacking. Traffic congestion has nearly tripled since 1980 but the percentage of commutes to work using transit have dropped from 18 percent to 13 percent in that time frame.

• The transit system under-serves the region. Only 53 percent of jobs in the six-county area can be reached using transit within 90 minutes, according to one estimate and another projection puts that number at 24 percent.

• Funding formulas encourage turf wars and a “divisiveness that splits the region and creates competition,” the report found.

Sounds like too many agencies with members who represent all sorts of groups (and perhaps not the riders) leading to a system that is not so great.

If the problems are easy to spot, what are some workable solutions? Illinois is known for fragmented government bodies – many levels with lots of groups having access to tax dollars – so this wouldn’t necessarily be easy to change. Are there models from other metropolitan areas that could produce a better mass transit system? What might Chicago area residents get in mass transit if these problems were reduced?