Other cities learned from Chicago’s privatization of parking meters

Failures in one city can help other cities learn what not to do:

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel aggressively pushed to privatize 311 in 2015, telling journalists it would save the city “about a million dollars a year” to run the system using contractors. Hiring an outside operator would save the city from shouldering the cost of sorely needed improvements to a 20-year-old system, he suggested.

City officials weren’t thrilled at the idea. A famously unpleasant privatization effort was still in people’s minds. About 10 years ago, Chicago made an 80-year deal to pass control over its parking meters to a private firm in exchange for a $1.2 billion lump sum. The firm promptly made more than half that lump sum in revenue for itself—and still has 70 years of returns. (I wrote about this in WIRED last year.)

But that parking meter deal has been remarkably generative: It has dampened enthusiasm for privatization in cities around the country. Left to its own rational profit-making devices, a private company will systematically squeeze services to the bare minimum and avoid additional investments. That’s fine for margins, but not always great for the public.

And so when Emanuel proposed privatizing 311, scores of Chicago aldermen felt emboldened to fight.

At least other cities and Chicago now think twice before privatizing certain services. This could also lead to at least a few interesting interesting research questions:

  1. Part of the pitch for privatization was increased efficiency. Would more reluctance for such deals hold back cities in certain ways?
  2. How have private companies shifted their efforts now that cities may be wiser about making such deals? I assume this means that profit margins on such deals are smaller…

Deep Tunnel as the wrong solution to water issues (plus alternative uses)

Henry Grabar poses an interesting question: what if the Deep Tunnel project, one of the largest civil engineering feats in the world, does not solve flooding and stormwater issues in the Chicago region?

What if Chicago took a wrong turn in 1972 when, in the spirit of civic grandee Daniel Burnham (“Make no little plans”), it opted to build the world’s largest sewers instead of making all possible efforts to keep rainwater out of them? Scott Bernstein, the founder of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, says that the Deep Tunnel imposed a massive opportunity cost because the city and the district did little else to adapt. The MWRD spent billions on what engineers call “gray infrastructure” (pipes, tanks, pumps) and virtually nothing on “green infrastructure”: rain barrels, detention ponds, green roofs, porous pavements, and other adaptations that would have kept water out of the system…

The project proceeded regardless. Even with downsized reservoirs and a longer time frame, Chicago’s ambition captured the attention of civil engineers around the world. Today, most U.S. cities whose combined sewer overflows are governed by consent decrees with the EPA are working on Chicago-style digs. St. Louis, which has the fourth-largest sewer system in the country, is under a consent decree to commit $4.7 billion to ending its overflows through deep tunnels…

While engineers’ penchant for megaprojects endures, some American cities are preaching deterrence. If Chicago built a bathtub, Philadelphia is trying to transform itself into a sponge with park space, street trees, and permeable pavement. The city is spending $2.4 billion to implement the nation’s largest green infrastructure plan, an experiment that positions it as the anti-Chicago. The city thinks keeping water out of the system will save billions of dollars compared to a rejected tunnel proposal—and that green initiatives will produce positive externalities, like improving air quality and creating verdant streets.

In Chicago, meanwhile, the MWRD has committed to creating just 10 million gallons of green infrastructure capacity under its EPA consent decree. Compare that to neighboring Milwaukee, a deep-tunnel city that now believes its green infrastructure will, by 2035, surpass the capacity of the tunnels and hold up to 740 million gallons of rain where it falls.

Hindsight may always be a little tricky in these cases as we have the advantage now of being able to see the Deep Tunnel project in action. Does it actually accomplish its goals? Was all the spent money worth it? At the same time, a project of this magnitude should have generated plenty of discussion and at least a few alternative options.

If Deep Tunnel does not work as intended or does not solve all of the flooding and stormwater problems, I wonder if it could be used in other ways. I’m thinking of other major infrastructure projects that have been reversed or reused, like urban highways that are torn out (like in Boston or San Francisco) or former railroad lines turned parks or recreation areas (think the High Line). Some other options for the Deep Tunnel:

  1. Underground roads. With Elon Musk’s Boring Company working on underground roads plus Chicago’s legacy of Lower Wacker Drive, perhaps traffic could be rerouted deep underground.
  2. Underground freight movement. Given Chicago’s railroad bottleneck, this could be an interesting solution.
  3. An underground park and recreation area. It would certainly be unique. Think a combination of spelunking, rock climbing, and exploration.
  4. A military installation and testing area.

Gautreaux remediation may end soon in Chicago

Filed in the 1960s, decided in the 1970s, and with remediation lasting decades, a case involving a class-action lawsuit charging racial discrimination in public housing in Chicago may end in 2024:

The Chicago Housing Authority and lawyers representing CHA residents have asked U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen to approve the agreement creating a road map for the CHA to complete its obligations under the so-called Gautreaux litigation.

Under the plan, the nearly 53-year-old case would come to a close by July 2024, marking an end to a landmark chapter in the national civil rights movement.

The settlement agreement provides a detailed timeline for the CHA to complete all planned mixed-income units and strengthen its housing voucher program to better enable families to move to more affluent areas if they choose to do so…

The lawsuit changed the face of public housing by instituting “scattered site” projects built on a small scale and dispersed in neighborhoods throughout the city — a stark contrast to the high-rise buildings constructed in the 1950s and 1960s.

This important lawsuit and ruling has both had significant effects on how policymakers have addressed concentrated poverty (more emphasis on scattering poor residents) as well as likely had limited effects because of the limited number of poor residents who have had and taken advantage of new opportunities to live in wealthier communities.

What is also striking about this is that the era of large-scale public housing and its associations with concentrated poverty are likely over. Hopefully, this does not mean less attention is paid to residential segregation and affordable housing issues but it is easier for the general public to ignore problems that are less visible.

Yahoo News leads with Chicago murders and then says it is not the murder capital

If the point of a news story/video is to say something is not true, would you lead with the data from the not true side?

ChicagoMurderCapital121818.png

Here is the way this seems to work: grab your attention with a publicly available statistic that stands out. Oh my, how could there be so many murders in one city?? But, several sentences later, tell the reader/viewer that multiple other cities have a higher murder rate. And include in the last sentence that the murder number in Chicago has been down in recent years. So, wait: Chicago really isn’t the murder capital?

I’m trying to figure out how this adds to the public discourse. Here are a few possibilities:

  1. It is simply about clicks. Get people’s attention with a statistic and a video, throw in some data. Easy to produce, not much content.
  2. The goal is to highlight the still-high number of murders in Chicago.
  3. The goal is to point out that other cities actually experience more murders per capita.
  4. To give those who teach statistics an example of how data can be twisted and/or used without telling much of a story.

 

Comparing 4 years to finish rebuilding a major interchange to other major undertakings

After the Illinois Department of Transportation recently announced construction on the Jane Byrne will take four more years, the Chicago Tribune compared this time frame to other tasks:

Two world wars were fought and won in less time. Rows of skyscrapers went up in less time. The transformation of Navy Pier, less time. New Comiskey Park, less time. Dan Ryan reconstruction, less time. Millennium Park, less time. The Deep Tunnel Project — oh, wait. That engineering feat began in the mid-1970s and isn’t expected to be completed until 2029. Somebody, go pick on them…

Still, four years is a long delay. Especially for a network so central to Chicago. We’ll never understand why IDOT didn’t order more intense work or bigger crews around the clock and on weekends. Let’s just say that if Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker shares Emanuel’s devotion to penalties and accountability, he’ll make new friends by the thousands.

Is this part of a larger trend of major infrastructure projects today running over schedule and over budget? There are hints yet people are unlikely to hear much about or celebrate projects that are completed on time and near budget.

Comparing the completion time to other projects may not be fair. Some of these sites were closed or not in use when the construction happened. Some happened with some private money at play. Others had more space to work with. Doing the work when the state and other taxing bodies had more money (or were less worried about debt) could help. And World Wars have their own logic compared to construction projects. (That said, I am still amazed how much the United States was able to mobilize and produce in a roughly 5 year span during World War II. Such devotion to the war mission led to unbelievable change.)

Would it simply be better for the Chicago region to accept a Carmageddon week where the interchange is closed and all the possible crews are brought in for 24 hour shifts for that time to rush work forward? Find a week with less traffic, probably a summer week, and give drivers plenty of notice about other options (ranging from mass transit to alternative highways, such as I-294, that can route traffic around the center of the city). Suffer short-term pain, make some serious progress, and show that efforts are underway to reduce the long-term burden of the interchange construction.

Chicago architects as political lobbyists

The tension between the art and business sides of architecture is evident in a new report from the Chicago Tribune:

A virtual who’s who of Chicago architects has given tens of thousands of dollars to City Council members who hold near-total power to determine whether their projects get built, a Tribune investigation has found. Architects even have hosted fundraisers for aldermen…

The bulk of the money flows to City Council members in Chicago’s fast-growing wards. The architects and their developer clients have reason to stay on good terms with aldermen, who hold the power to advance a project, send it back to the drawing board or kill it.

From the start of the current building boom in 2010 through mid-November of this year, those with an occupation listed as “architect” have given more than $180,000 to aldermen, their ward organizations, and other city politicians, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois campaign finance records show.

The architects’ firms have donated even more, bringing the total haul for politicians to well over $350,000.

One sociological study of the field of architecture, Larson’s 1994 book Behind the Postmodern Facade: Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America, discusses how architects found themselves in the postwar era needing business, therefore designing a lot of buildings with little aesthetic beauty or input, yet wanting to privilege the artistic and aesthetic side of the discipline.

This also echoes research on urban growth machines which tend to emphasize the role of business leaders and politicians in stimulating and carrying out urban development for the sake of profits. This report suggests architects are part of this game too; by donating money and hosting events, they can help ensure they see profit from new development projects (as opposed to other firms participating or projects not getting off the ground.

Does the knowledge that architects are part of the power games that help determine the physical and social structures of a city sully their work? Or, does it shed light on how cities actually come to pass where even those supposedly devoted to beauty and the experience of a structure participate in lobbying?

Old Navy map of Chicago emphasizes trendy, whiter areas while ignoring other areas

A shirt recently on sale at Old Navy made some interesting choices in displaying Chicago neighborhoods:

Freeman, 35, who does freelance writing on comedy for the Tribune, tweeted out a picture of the T-shirt on Thursday. He was out looking for pajamas for his young children last Saturday and saw the T-shirt at the Old Navy in Oak Park.

“May have found the worst Chicago map ever — on a shirt at Old Navy,” Freeman tweeted. “Wicker Park has its own listing but #2, #13 and #14 sum up the entire south and west sides.”

Indeed, every neighborhood from Galewood to Little Village to Lawndale to Austin and the Island is part of the “Far West Side,” according to the map. Englewood, West Englewood, Gresham, Marquette Park, Brighton Park and a host of other neighborhoods are part of the “Southwest Side.”…

A spokesman for the city department in charge of official maps pointed out that Old Navy has a presence in Chicago, which might excuse a mistaken T-shirt.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I wonder if this reflects what a suburbanite or a tourist might know. Most of the smaller areas are closer to the Loop and Lake Michigan. The O’Hare and Midway Area neighborhoods are named after the one location in each place that an outsider might ever visit.

2. Another possible defense for the neighborhoods listed: it would be harder to fit all 77 official community areas and 178 official neighborhoods on a shirt.

3. It would be interesting to know how well Chicagoans know all the community areas and neighborhoods.

4. How many of these shirts could Old Navy sell? Several thousand? Perhaps the company should know better but the map may have had more exposure through the media reports about it than through actual sales.