Longer freight trains in the United States

Astute observers at crossings for freight trains might have noticed this over the last decade: on average, freight trains have become longer.

Freight trains have grown in length by about 25% since 2008, with trains on some railroads averaging 1.2 to 1.4 miles in 2017, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office…

Seven major railroads operating in the U.S. are running longer than average trains on specific routes, although some indicated that’s just a small percentage of total traffic. “One railroad said it runs a 3-mile-long train twice week,” the GOA noted.

With the government asking drivers to report long waits at crossings, perhaps the length of trains could change or they might move faster:

The agency recently launched the website www.fra.dot.gov/blockedcrossings with the intent of capturing data on blocked crossings to help identify chronic situations where trains cause traffic jams and hamstring first-responders for long stretches of time…

But will knowledge equal power? The hope is communities that experience the worst train-generated gridlock could lobby for federal dollars to build grade separations or use the knowledge to pressure railroads to offer operational fixes.

This is just made for the Chicago region where numerous at-grade crossings and a railroad bottleneck can lead to frustration or safety concerns.

But, this data does not seem that surprising. There are now more people living in the United States and so why wouldn’t there be more stuff shipped around the country? Presumably, a longer train is more efficient than running more trains. As the recent radio ads from the pipeline industry suggest, would drivers and residents prefer more trucks on the road to ship items than freight trains?

The long-term solution would seem to be the slow work of converting high-traffic at-grade crossings to bridges or underpasses or at least making this an option in some communities so that a slow, long, or stopped train is not a huge impediment. These projects can be costly and disruptive to nearby properties, particularly if located in downtowns. Additionally, intermodal facilities can be located further out in populated regions so as to keep long trains away from more populated areas. (The intermodal facilities can lead to their own problems.)

Finally, if the government wanted to solve the problem, why rely on drivers to report the data? This seems more likely to collect information from (1) certain people (perhaps more technologically savvy, perhaps those who can organize a campaign) and (2) certain locations that are problems. Is this a case where the squeaky (car) wheels will win out and see change?

Reminder: only 17% of the jobs in the Chicago region are downtown

An article I posted about earlier in the week included this statistic:

Downtown Chicago accounts for 17% of jobs in the six-county region, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security…

But most of the region’s jobs — almost 3 million — are outside of downtown and may require more complicated commutes. More than 400,000 people commute every day from Chicago to jobs in the suburbs, according to the Regional Transportation Authority

This 17% is still a sizable percentage of jobs within the region. Put those jobs together with other economic resources, cultural opportunities, political resources, and historical inertia and the Loop is still a center of the region.

But, this also suggests 83% of the jobs in the region are outside Chicago’s downtown. Many Chicagoland residents do not need to go near downtown for work. Many commutes are suburb to suburb. As the second paragraph above notes, even hundreds of thousands of Chicago residents travel from the center to the suburbs for work.

At the least, such numbers should help us reconceptualize cities, suburbs, and regions. The varied pieces within a region are interdependent. Problems need to be solved across communities and taxing bodies. Celebrations take place across the region. The problems of either cities or suburbs are not only theirs to address. The communities are competing against other regions more than each other.

Three larger issues underlying mass transit problems in the Chicago suburbs

Suburbs in the Chicago region are looking for ways to help workers make the “last mile” connection between existing transit and their workplaces but there are few easy solutions:

Transit advocates and local officials are looking at ways to fill the “first mile/last mile” gap, which could include shuttle buses, bikes, scooters, better sidewalks, ride-share vehicles and, eventually, autonomous or self-driving vehicles…

Suburbs with manufacturing and warehouse businesses offer examples of the last-mile problem. Bedford Park has just 600 residents, but 400 businesses and about 30,000 jobs at big companies like Cintas, FedEx, Home Chef and CSX. Located near Midway International Airport, the village has for years promoted itself as business-friendly, and has seen jobs grow…

The last-mile problem goes beyond Bedford Park and into other other suburbs with light manufacturing like Addison, where it’s difficult for workers to connect with Metra because of varying shifts, Wennink said. It also affects white-collar work zones, like the office complexes of Naperville and Warrenville, Wennink said.

A longer-term solution to the job/worker disconnect is to have more jobs located in transit-oriented development areas, Wennink said. But in the meantime, businesses, employers and towns are trying a patchwork of fixes.

These commuting issues connect to three broader issues that, if addressed, could help address the last mile problem:

1. As noted, the Chicago region operates on a hub-and-spoke model where train lines and other transit options tend to radiate out of downtown but then there is little connecting the spokes. As one example, efforts to create a rail line that would connect some of the existing rail lines and job centers did not get very far.

2. Individual suburbs will find it difficult to address these issues on their own without more regional or metropolitan-wide support (and resources). These are collective problems but the preference for local governments in the suburbs plus limited organizational capability or power in the Chicago region means the efforts will likely remain just a patchwork.

3. While this might look like a transit problem, it could also be a housing issue. If people do not or cannot easily live near where they work, then transit is needed. The deeper underlying issue, however, might be residential patterns regularly organized by race/ethnicity and class that makes it difficult for many of the workers described in the article to be close to their place of employment. The social science term for this is spatial mismatch.

Identifying “the wrong side of the tracks” in wealthy suburban areas

In wealthier suburban areas, where are the “wrong side of the tracks”? One writer explores this question in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs:

Pity the poor people of Wilmette. Most of them have done quite well in life. They’re doctors, academics, architects, attorneys. But they have the misfortune of living down Green Bay Road from — and sending their children to New Trier with — people who’ve done even better…

They don’t just do it in Wilmette, either. I once met a woman from Kenilworth — the second wealthiest municipality in Illinois, in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the nation — who told me, “In Kenilworth, there’s a ‘kennel’ side and a ‘worth’ side.” She, of course, was from the kennel side, presumably west of Green Bay Road, where the houses are slightly smaller.

There’s nothing more North Shore than trying to convince people you’re not as rich as everybody else on the North Shore — that you’re a member of the lower-upper class who grew up on the wrong side of the Metra tracks. Saying “I’m from the North Shore” — especially to someone whose first exposure to that world was Risky Business, Mean Girls, or Rahm Emanuel’s biography — paints a picture of elitism that many residents would understandably like to disassociate themselves from…

Sociologists would say that poor-mouthing in rich suburbs is a result of the fact that we measure our wealth not in absolute terms, but in relation to those around us. Economist Robert H. Frank conducted a study in which he asked people whether they would prefer to live in World A, a 4,000-square-foot house in a neighborhood of 6,000-square-foot mansions, or World B, a 3,000-square-foot house surrounded by 2,000-square-foot bungalows. Most chose World B.

Three quick thoughts:

1. The term hinted at in the last paragraph above is “reference groups.” Who do people tend to compare themselves to? It is often not in absolute terms but comparisons to people they aspire to be to.

2. Continuing from #1, this reminds me of some recent commentary on the top 20% or so of Americans who feel anxiety about their status and are chasing people higher up in the class ladder even as they are comfortable compared to most Americans. (See the book Dream Hoarders.)

3. Of course, there are residents of the North Shore who are not as well off. Or, suburbs without as much wealth or with significant numbers of poorer residents are not that far away. Are they even visible when the middle to upper classes are only looking at their level and above?

Chicago suburbs without property taxes – but perhaps not for much longer

In a region known for high property taxes, at least a few suburbs outside Chicago have no property taxes:

A town of about 40,000, Carol Stream managed to avoid a property tax even when another outlier, Schaumburg — a village with a much larger retail base — took the leap during the Great Recession.

But officials say Carol Stream is facing significant budget pressures from rising pension costs. If it maintains the status quo, projections also show the village would exhaust capital reserves during the third year of a five-year plan for roadwork and infrastructure projects…

In Oak Brook, another town that doesn’t charge a property tax, candidates in the last mayoral race took stock of the financial challenges from flat sales tax revenues. Carol Stream also saw a 2.4% drop in sales tax dollars — the village’s largest revenue source — from calendar years 2017 to 2018.

Suburbs have multiple ways to reduce or eliminate residential property taxes. Sales tax revenue can come from shopping malls, big box stores, and other retail options. Schaumburg and Oak Brook have sizable shopping malls surrounded by many more retailers. Communities can also seek out industry; Carol Stream founder Jay Stream intentionally set aside much land for industrial parks (which are still there). Some suburbs would not like this as industry could conflict with an ideal of quiet neighborhoods of single-family homes.

The article suggests these suburbs with no property taxes will have to reconsider because of declining sales tax revenues and rising pension costs. Given the fate of shopping malls and the problems facing retailers, even in successful malls in wealthy areas like in Oak Brook and Schaumburg, communities need additional revenue.

Suburbs typically do not have the ability to quickly counter declining sales tax revenues. In order to not have property taxes in the first place, certain decisions had to be made long ago. Then, later decisions build within a framework of no property taxes. Making changes to land use takes time for study, approval, development, and then reaping benefits. A suburb cannot say it wants to bring in more sales tax revenue and line up a set of retailers operating within a year.

The fate of these suburbs will be worth checking in five years to see whether they can hold on against levying property taxes.

(Reminder: this does not mean residents in these communities do not pay any property taxes. Rather, their suburbs do not collect property taxes even as school districts and other taxing bodies do.)

The role of disasters – such as the Great Chicago Fire – in pushing people to leave cities for suburbs

A thought experiment considering what would happen if the Chicago Fire of 1871 never happened includes this tidbit about suburban growth:

But then, after that second big fire in 1874, Chicago officials extended the restriction on wooden buildings to cover the whole city.

Elaine Lewinnek, author of the new book The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl, says the aldermen contributed to suburban sprawl by making it cheaper to build outside the city. After they changed the law, a real estate booster reported “a brisk demand for building just outside the city limits.” (Some of those areas outside the city limits in the 1870s later became part of the city through annexations.)…

“Things were already changing, as railroad lines and industry were crowding out housing,” Keating says. “The fire made this happen more quickly but it would have happened anyways. People moved more quickly south to Prairie Avenue or out to new suburban towns like Riverside.”

“The fire pushed 27,000 humble homes out of the central city and the North Side, leading to fewer residences downtown,” Lewinnek says. “Yet suburbanization was already happening before the fire, in elite suburbs like Riverside and more humble suburbs too.”

I have not heard this argument before. At the time of the fire of 1871, suburban populations were very modest. Railroad lines had only been in present in the region for a few decades. For example, the suburb of Naperville, which had just lost out on being the county seat to Wheaton, had just over 1,700 residents in 1870 while Wheaton had 998 residents and Aurora had over 11,000 residents.

As noted by numerous scholars, by the late 1800s fewer areas surrounding Chicago were willing to be annexed into the city (unlike communities like Hyde Park). This is usually attributed to the declining status of city life compared to suburban life alongside the declining price of public infrastructure that made it possible for suburbs to have electricity and their own water supplies. But, the scholars above hint at another factor that would become a long-running feature of suburban life: cheaper housing. If Chicago required less flammable materials for homes, people would move to suburbs that did not have such regulations.

More broadly, it would be worth examining whether major disasters in urban areas push people to move to surrounding areas or even other regions. Do earthquakes in the LA area influence population patterns? How about hurricanes in the southeast? Do people leave population centers after terrorist attacks? It would take some work to separate out the effects of disasters on movement compared to other factors.

I have always lived within roughly 15 minutes of a major highway: easy access, no noise

In the homes in which I have lived, I have always had relatively easy access to highways. A short ten to fifteen minute drive is all it would take to get to a major highway and, barring traffic, an additional thirty minutes could take us to a major airport, downtown, or out of the metropolitan area.

On one hand, this is a major convenience. Metropolitan regions have areas that are closer or further away to transportation options. In the Chicago region which features a hub and spoke model of transportation (particularly the railroads but also the highways past I-355), living further out from the city means residents could be located further away from major roads. Trips get longer when it takes more time to get on the faster roads.

Additionally, we get the benefit of living near the highway without the negative externalities of being too close. We do not hear the highway. We do not live near the businesses that tend to collect at a highway exist (gas stations, fast food restaurants, etc.). The lights along the highways and exits are beyond our sight.

One way to see these advantages at play is in real estate listings. In the Chicago region, locations near major highways (and rail lines), tend to have this listed in the property description. Of course, some properties may be too close and this can detract from the home and property. These properties can still sell – they may still be in desirable locations and be nice residences – but that road noise can detract from the private experience many suburbanites desire. In our last housing search, we saw a number of homes within hearing distance of highways and this is not something we wanted.