Questions about a study of the top Chicago commuter suburbs

The Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul just released a new study that identifies the “top [20] transit suburbs of metropolitan Chicago.” Here is the top 10, starting with the top one: LaGrange, Wilmette, Arlington Heights, Glenview, Elmhurst, Wheaton, Downers Grove, Naperville, Des Plaines, and Mount Prospect. Here is the criteria used to identify these suburbs:

The DePaul University team considered 45 measurable factors to rank the best transit suburbs based on their:

1. Station buildings and platforms;

2. Station grounds and parking;

3. Walkable downtown amenities adjacent to the station; and

4. Degree of community connectivity to public transportation, as measured by the use of commuter rail services.

A couple of things strike me as interesting:

1. These tend to be wealthier suburbs but not the wealthiest. On one hand, this seems strange as living in a nicer place doesn’t necessarily translate into nicer mass transit facilities (particularly if more people can afford to drive). On the other hand, having a thriving, walkable downtown nearby is probably linked to having the money to make that happen.

2. There are several other important factors that influence which suburbs made the list:

Communities in the northern and northwestern parts of the region tended to outperform those in the southern parts, with much of the differences due to their published Walk Scores. Similarly, communities on the outer periphery of the region tend to have lower scores due to the tendency for the density of development to decline as one moves farther from downtown Chicago. As a result, both Walk Scores and connectivity to transit tended to be lower in far-out suburbs than closer-in ones.

It might be more interesting here to pick out suburbs that buck these trends and have truly put a premium on attractive transportation options. For example, can a suburb 35 miles out of Chicago put together a mass transit facilities that truly draw new residents or does the distance simply matter too much?

3. I’m not sure why they didn’t include “city suburbs.” Here is the explanation from the full report (p.11 of the PDF):

All suburbs with stations on metropolitan Chicago’s commuter-rail system, whether they are located in Illinois or Indiana, are considered for analysis except those classified as city suburbs, such as Evanston, Forest Park, and Oak Park, which have CTA rapid transit service to their downtown districts. Gary, Hammond, and Whiting, Indiana, also are generally considered cities or city suburbs rather than conventional suburbs, because all of these communities have distinct urban qualities. To assure meaningful and fair comparisons, these communities were not included in the study.

Hammond is not a “conventional suburb”? CTA service isn’t a plus over Metra commuter rail service?

4. The included suburbs had to meet three criteria (p.11 of the PDF):

1) commuter-rail service available seven days a week, with at least 14 inbound departures on weekdays, including some express trains;
2) at least 150 people who walk or bike to the train daily; and
3) a Walk Score of at least 65 on a 100-point scale at its primary downtown station (putting it near the middle of the category, described as “somewhat walkable”).

This is fairly strict criteria so not that many Chicago suburbs qualified for the study (p.11 of the PDF):

Twenty-five communities, all on the Metra system, met these three criteria (Figure 2). All were adjacent to downtown districts that support a transit-oriented lifestyle and tend to have a transit culture that many find appealing. Numerous communities, such as Buffalo Grove, Lockport, and Orland Park, were not eligible because they do not currently meet the first criteria, relating to train frequency. Some smaller suburbs, such as Flossmoor, Kenilworth and Glencoe, while heavily oriented toward transit, lack diversified downtown amenities and the services of larger stations, and therefore did not have published Walk Scores above the minimum threshold of 65.

I can imagine what might happen: all suburbs in the top 20 are going to proclaim that they are a top 20 commuter suburb! But it was only out 25…

5. There are some other intriguing methodological bits here. Stations earned points for having coffee available or displaying railroad heritage. Parking lot lighting was measured this way (p.24 of the PDF):

The illumination of the parking lot was evaluated using a standard light meter. Readings were collected during the late-evening hours between June 23 and July 5, 2012 at three locations in the main parking lots:
1) locations directly under light poles (which tend to be the best illuminated parts of the lots);
2) locations midway between the light poles (which tend to be among the most poorly illuminated parts of the lot); and
3) tangential locations, 20 and 25 feet perpendicular to the alignment of light poles and directly adjacent to the poles (in some cases, these areas having lighting provided from lamps on adjacent streets).

At least three readings were collected for category 1 and at least two readings were collected for categories two and three.

There is no widely accepted standard on parking lot lighting that balances aesthetics and security. Research suggests, however, that lighting of 35 or more lumens is preferable, but at a minimum, 10 lumens is necessary for proper pedestrian activity and safety. Scores of parking lot illuminate were based on a relative scale, as noted below. In effect, the scales grades on a “curve”, resulting in a relatively equal distribution of high and low scores for each category. In several instances, Category 3 readings were not possible due to the configuration of the parking lot. In these instances, final scores were determined by averaging the Category 1 and 2 scores.

I don’t see any evidence that commuters themselves were asked about the amenities though there was some direct observation. Why not also get information directly from those who consistently use the facilities?

Overall, I’m not sure how useful this study really is. I can see how it might be utilized by some interested parties including people in real estate and planners but I don’t know that it really captures enough of the full commuting experience available to suburbanites in the Chicago suburbs.

Wheaton to get new downtown overpass – for pedestrians

The City of Wheaton has long looked into the possibility of an overpass in or near the downtown so that traffic could avoid the frequent trains on the Union Pacific (formerly Chicago & Northwestern) tracks. It looks like Wheaton is going to pursue an overpass in the next year, but only for pedestrians:

In 2010, Metra officials had announced plans for the proposed pedestrian overpass, as part of more than $3 million worth of improvements that Metra and the Union Pacific Railroad had drawn up for the Wheaton depot. The work also was to include moving the Wheaton station’s platforms entirely west of West Street.The project had been set to be completed in 2011 but hit a snag, Metra officials said, after complications related to gaining a needed easement from a private landowner on the south side of the tracks. Without that easement, the work could not proceed, said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis…

The pedestrian overpass would be the first of its kind at Wheaton’s Metra station. The College Avenue station, a mile or so east, has a pedestrian tunnel, but Wheaton Metra commuters have no easily available bypass to get from one side of the tracks to the other.

Gillis said the pedestrian overpass would be constructed between 530 and 550 feet west of the West Street rail crossing.

It appears this was first announced in the Metra “On the Bi-Level” newsletter for the UP West line March 2009. I’ll be curious to see how this overpass looks and how it fits in with the surrounding area.

This will be helpful at the downtown commuter train station. However, it doesn’t help with a vehicular traffic and congestion issue in Wheaton: getting over the railroad tracks when going north-south. The bridge on Manchester Road is helpful but it requires going out of the way and it not right along the Gary Avenue/Main Street/Naperville Road corridor.

My take on why such a vehicular overpass has not been built is that it would change the historic downtown too much. Proposals made in the past would have required severely altering the Main Street/Front Street intersection, home to some of downtown Wheaton’s oldest buildings. Better options may have included extending Naperville Road across the tracks but this runs into the Courthouse area, the library, and a residential neighborhood and the Gary Avenue corridor is more residential. In the end, Wheaton may just have to live with trains stopping traffic: those same trains gave the community a reason for existing as Wheaton was initially founded around the then Galena & Chicago Union railroad tracks in the 1850s.

How to keep the seat next to you on the train empty

Chris Wilson examines an argument recently made by a writer about how he is able to keep the seat next to him on the train empty:

In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Wideman describes how, during his regular commute between New York City and Providence on the Acela, he almost always enjoys a double seat to himself. I call that divine intervention. He chalks it up, after considering and rejecting the alternatives, to being black…

Wideman, a successful writer, describes his observations as a “casual sociological experiment.” But he lacks any controlled variables. Granted, the only direct way I can think of to test his hypothesis would be to adjust his complexion while holding everything else—dress, demeanor, reading material—as constant as possible. The ethics of doing this notwithstanding, the makeup is murderous to your pores.

A couple of thoughts:

1. It would not surprise me at all if race was the important factor in this situation.

2. But this is a nice illustration of how one could go about testing this hypothesis: devise an experiment where the person next to the empty seat alters their appearance/features and then sees how people respond.