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.

Living close to work

Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke tweeted earlier this week about the ability of workers to live near their place of work:

There is a lot to think about here. A little historical context: most workers lived very close to work up until the Industrial Revolution and the urbanization that came with it. The separation of home and work life is a relatively recent phenomenon for humans.

A little data on commute times. The 2017 American Community Survey showed the average commute time was 26.9 minutes. Commuting time can differ quite a bit across metropolitan regions:

McKenzie says the East Stroudsburg, Pa. metro area has among the longest average one-way travel time, clocking in at about 37.9 minutes. The U.S. Census Bureau contacted NPR with new information to include the New York-Newark-Jersey City metro area, which has a travel time of 37 minutes. Travel times for the two metro areas are not statistically different from one another.

Among the shortest average travel times, usually less than 20 minutes, were in Cheyenne, Wyo. and Grand Forks, N.D.

There is an academic term that addresses this issue: spatial mismatch. In this theory, jobs available to lower-income workers are located far from their residences. Imagine a typical well-off suburb: can the workers at the local Target or McDonald’s or gas station or hotel live in that community or nearby? Patterns of residential segregation and exclusionary zoning can mean that cheaper or affordable housing is not available close to certain jobs. This can be a more hidden form of inequality as longer trips to work mean less time for other activities.

This might get trickier for people with more resources and the options of where they want to live. A common American trade-off for the middle-class gets at this: should a homeowner move further out from work to purchase a larger home or live closer to work and job centers (which can include urban downtowns as well as suburban job centers dozens of miles away from urban downtowns)? Is a shorter commute worth having if it comes with paying more money for (possibly smaller) housing?

And perhaps the wealthy can truly live the closest to work if they so choose. Some of them might even locate their business or firm to where they are. Others might have multiple homes, including ones significant distances away where they can get to work by means not available to many such a private jets and helicopters.

So perhaps the issue here is not really living close to work but deeper issues involving mixed-income neighborhoods and moving away from resources (income and wealth) determining where people can life. O’Rourke gets into this a bit more, calling for smarter and denser cities that he says will lead to numerous positive outcomes – which could include shorter commutes.

Dot maps of American jobs

A researcher shows the geographic dispersion of American jobs through an interactive dot map:

This visualization plots one dot for every job in the United States, according to the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics data. The LEHD data is based on state unemployment insurance records, and tabulates the count of jobs by census block. Here, jobs are colored by type, allowing us to see how different industries and sectors exhibit different spatial patterns–some clustering in downtowns, others spreading across city and suburbs alike.

This project was inspired by the Racial Dot Map, as implemented most recently by the Cooper Center at the University of Virginia. I’m grateful to them for hosting such a stunning visualization, and especially for their extensive methodology section, which I drew on heavily to create the map here.

Not surprisingly, jobs are concentrated in different areas. Geographic dispersion is not unusual in the United States as it includes racial and ethnic groups (ongoing patterns of residential segregation), spatial mismatches between where people live and work, and grouping by social class and other categories (like religion or cultural groups – see the books The Big Sort or Our Patchwork Nation).

Why jobs are so grouped could involve a variety of factors including zoning (communities wanting to place certain firms in certain places), economies of scale and innovation (it could make sense to concentrate large numbers of workers and/or organizations near each other), and historic patterns of businesses locating near each other.

Another issue is whether these patterns are generally good for organizations, workers, and communities.

Ikea is raising pay to help workers but many who need jobs can’t easily make it to their suburban locations

Jamelle Bouie points out that Ikea is doing a good thing in raising wages but their jobs aren’t easily accessible to many who need them:

With that said, it’s worth noting that there’s less than meets the eye to Ikea’s promise to hew to local and municipal minimum wage hikes. Most Ikea stores are located in suburbs, as opposed to urban centers. The Ikea near Charlotte, North Carolina, for instance, is located on the outskirts of the area, as is the Ikea near Seattle (in Renton) and the one in Dallas (near Frisco). By virtue of geography, these stores will avoid city-mandated wage hikes.

What’s more, for as much as Ikea and similar stores might be good for workers, their overwhelmingly suburban locations make them isolated from large numbers of potential workers who lack employment opportunities in their own areas and neighborhoods…

The result is that, for both groups—but low-income blacks in particular—there is a “spatial mismatch” between neighborhoods and employment opportunities.

Put simply, the greater the sprawl of jobs in an area, the less likely it is that black residents will have easy and reliable access to them. Or, as UCLA professor Michael Stoll writes in a 2005 paper for the Brookings Institution, “Blacks are more geographically isolated from jobs in high job-sprawl areas regardless of region, metropolitan area size, and their share of metropolitan population.” And this isn’t an accident: “Metropolitan areas characterized by higher job sprawl also exhibit more severe racial segregation between blacks and whites,” he writes.

All of this is exacerbated by our shoddy, car-centric transportation policy. To get to any job in a place like Virginia Beach, Virginia—where 10- to 15-mile drives are a fact of life—you need a car. Yes, there is a public transportation system, but it’s irregular (the agency had a rate of 18 missed trips per day in March), limited in scope, and unreliable for most workers who need to be on time. But cars are expensive, and black and Latino households are much less likely to own cars than their white counterparts. What comes next is predictable: Plenty of low-income people can’t find or keep jobs because they are isolated from opportunities.

All correct though the increasing number of lower-income suburban residents may be closer to some of these Ikea stores. At the same time, most suburban residents will still need cars to get to the store, vehicles that are relatively expensive parts of household budgets.

Additionally, this helps highlight some of the contradictory nature of Ikea. On one hand, it is a quirky store in the American landscape, exposing Americans to interesting designs and promoting a more DIY mentality. On the other hand, it is just another big box store with locations near major highways, big parking lots, and lots of square footage.