Two dead suburban transportation projects: the Metra STAR Line and the Prairie Parkway

A large metropolitan area of over 9 million residents could benefit from more transportation options for residents and visitors. Here are quick summaries about two projects that never got off the ground:

The STAR Line

The suburb-to-suburb STAR Line rail system was intended to loop from O’Hare to Hoffman Estates to Joliet along tracks formerly owned by the EJ & E railroad, providing an alternative to the suburb-to-city commuter lines.

But Canadian National Railroad bought the EJ & E in 2008 and moved freight traffic onto those tracks, effectively putting the STAR Line on ice. In 2011 Schaumburg pulled the plug on a special taxing district meant to spur development around the convention center, which had been envisioned as a STAR Line hub.

Prairie Parkway

The Prairie Parkway would have circled Chicago’s outer suburbs, linking I-88 near Elburn to I-80 near Minooka. The Illinois Department of Transportation began studies in 2003, and in 2005 President George W. Bush came to Montgomery to sign a highway funding bill and call the Prairie Parkway “crucial for economic progress for Kane and Kendall counties.”

Opponents organized and sued. The highway’s patron, former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Plano, was accused of profiting from land buys near the proposed highway. And in 2012, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its approval of the right of way. It was only in March that IDOT canceled the corridor.

I have always thought the STAR Line was a clever idea in multiple ways:

  1. It would provide needed railroad links throughout the region so that not all riders have to go into Chicago before making transfers. The spoke model in the Chicago region is good for getting to downtown but the biggest number of trips these days are suburb to suburb.
  2. It made use of existing tracks. Although they likely needed more capacity to run regular passenger service and new tracks would be needed along I-90, some of the infrastructure was already there. This is not something to look past in an era when acquiring land can be expensive and time-consuming.
  3. It had the potential to spur transit-oriented suburban development in a number of communities. This is a hot topic in many suburban downtowns and it could have opened up new commuting, residential, and business opportunities.

Yet, the plan was scuttled by several factors:

  1. A lack of money. This project has been around since the 1990s but it was unclear who would fund it.
  2. Control of the EJ&E tracks.
  3. Likely concerns from neighbors to these tracks. When CN purchased these tracks and added freight trains, multiple communities pushed back.

The Prairie Parkway may have not offered as much opportunity to remove cars from roads but could have spurred development on some of the edges of the Chicago region and offered a shorter drive time in these areas. Building belt-line highways like this require some foresight: if they are constructed after too much development has occurred, they can be much more expensive to build. Also, neighbors can object to the plans, such as with the Illiana Expressway which also has not gotten off the ground.

Plopping a New Urbanist metroburb into the middle of sprawling suburbia

I recently discussed plans for a “metroburb” to replace a sizable AT&T office campus in Hoffman Estates. Reading more about the proposal, I wondered: does it really work to put a New Urbanist development right in the middle of suburbia?

Under Zucker’s plan, which would rename the former campus City Works, the four-level, 1.3 million-square-foot main building would house offices of varying sizes and shops. About 175 townhouses and 375 multifamily rental units would be constructed on the edges of the property. The estimated total cost is about $250 million. Unlike a typical suburban subdivision, the town homes would line straight streets and have alleys…

Zucker, 57, is a devotee of the New Urbanism, the urban planning movement that seeks to replace the car-oriented monotony of suburban sprawl with lively, mixed-use streetscapes that encourage walking and the formation of community.

Chicago suburbs like Arlington Heights have put New Urbanist thinking to use in greenlighting high-rise housing near train stations. That approach is called transit-oriented development, or TOD. Under Zucker’s plan, Hoffman Estates, which doesn’t have its own train station, would do a variation of transit-oriented development.

“Taking the TOD (elements) and putting them inside a building is really the novel part of this,” said Jim Norris, the suburb’s village manager.

While this may be a clever use of what is a large facility, the overall fit between the redevelopment and the surrounding area could be less than ideal. Here is why:

  1. They want to include transit-oriented development elements even though there is no mass transit nearby. Indeed, this office corridor owes much to roads and Interstate. This could represent an opportunity to push for mass transit to the area: rapid buses along major roads? light rail?
  2. It seems like much of the redevelopment is focused on orienting residents, customers, and workers to the original large facility. While this may be a good use of the existing space, how many people from outside of this development will come in? Will this just be a self-contained area?
  3. The new tissue intended to connect the redeveloped area – walkable streets, alleys, interesting places to go – may or may not connect with anything beyond this development. This happens sometimes with suburban New Urbanist developments; they look and feel great on the inside but then have little interaction with the terrain that surrounds them. In other words, it requires requires a car to get to these interesting New Urbanist areas.

In the long run, a redevelopment that has a more permeable edge as well as is situated in a community that truly wants more New Urbanist development overall rather than in just an isolated location could lead to better outcomes.

Increasing the density of London’s suburbs

The mayor of London recently released a new planning document for the city and it includes more housing in the city’s suburban areas:

Often, [suburbia] stays under the radar of urban theorists and policymakers. But it is emerging as a major untapped resource and, therefore, a battleground in the struggle to find somewhere, anywhere, to put new housing. Last week, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, revealed his draft for the new London Plan, the document that will guide the planning decisions of the city’s boroughs. He wants – and who wouldn’t? – more housing, more of it affordable, well designed and energy-efficient, complete with spaces that encourage walking, cycling and the use of public transport. He has limited powers – he can’t, for example, ordain the large-scale public housing programmes that even the estate agents Savills now thinks are necessary – but he can manipulate the planning system to promote some kinds of development over others.

His eyes alighted on the suburbs. Between the First and Second World Wars, while London’s population increased by 17%, its land area doubled, a reflection of its rapid suburban expansion at a much lower density than its historic centre. In theory, this means that if suburban densities could be nudged up, very many more homes could be accommodated within London’s boundaries. As Professor Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, says, Greater London could house 20 million people if it was all built to the same density as the inner borough of Islington.

So Khan wants to encourage, within 800 metres of transport links, developments that provide more housing in the same space. In doing so, he hopes to encourage smaller-scale developers and lower-cost housing, in contrast to the luxury towers promoted by his predecessor, Boris Johnson, in the name of meeting housing needs. This might mean building on gardens or building at four storeys instead of two.

He has, say Tory opponents, “declared war on the suburbs” and will make them “overcrowded and harder to get around”. Yet making suburbs denser could make them better. In principle, having more inhabitants means more life in town centres and high streets, which makes shops and businesses more viable and makes it easier to sustain such things as local bus services.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Building suburbs to higher densities is a popular idea among a number of architects, planners, and urbanists in the United States for many of the same reasons but opposition from established suburbanites can be fierce as increased density is perceived to threaten a suburban way of life (more land, more driving, more exclusivity in terms of class and race).

I wonder if the solution in the London area is in the part cited above: keep the higher densities to mass transit nodes. Plans do not necessarily have to include higher densities everywhere in suburbs; rather, transit-oriented development could concentrate more and cheaper housing in locations where new residents can easily access mass transit options for the entire region.

The difficulties in changing bedroom suburbs into vibrant mixed-use places

What does it take for a bedroom suburb – the stereotypical placeless home to subdivision after subdivision – to change into something else? Here is a quick summary of the efforts in one Chicago suburb:

Bartlett was a typical “bedroom” community — people who worked in downtown Chicago took the train back and went straight home. The Metra station used to be surrounded by industrial buildings, said Tony Fradin, the village’s economic development coordinator. There was no reason to hang around downtown, and no practical way to avoid driving everywhere you needed to go.

The process of transit-oriented development, like the growing of a sapling into something that will provide shade, takes a long time and a lot of patience, said RTA and village officials. Bartlett got started by putting more development near its Metra station in 2005, replacing the obsolete industrial buildings with three-story condominiums and two-story mixed residential and retail space near the train. The complex includes the popular 2Toots Train Whistle Grill, which carries customers their food on a model train, and O’Hare’s Pub, which offers live music. The developments were backed by a tax-increment financing plan…

But the recession put a stop to further development. In 2013, Bartlett tried again to improve its downtown, applying for an RTA grant in 2014, and completing its TOD plan late last year, said Fradin.

Fradin said Bartlett hopes the plan, which includes ideas to improve pedestrian safety such as new crosswalks, will create a more urban, “walkable” feel. Bartlett plans to market a 1.8-acre site across from the Metra tracks and hopes to attract a developer in the next year or two for a high-density residential building, as outlined in the TOD plan. Another possible development site is a 5-acre, Metra-owned patch of land directly adjacent to the tracks, which Metra has held for years for possible parking.

Three things stand out to me from this example as well as the efforts I have observed in my research of suburban communities:

  1. These redevelopment efforts take time. The story above cites 2005 as the starting point of this kind of development and the suburb is still working at it twelve years later. One or two significant buildings or developments might be exciting but more is likely needed. The transformation of downtown Bartlett could take decades.
  2. Not all bedroom suburbs will be successful in developing a vibrant downtown, even if they follow all or many of the steps that characterized other successful suburbs. Sometimes it works but a lot of things – including internal decisions as well as outside forces that are beyond the control of a suburb – have to go right.
  3. Even if this more vibrant, around-the-clock downtown develops, it would be interesting to see what happens to all of the community since many do not live right downtown. Do these new developments around the train station cater primarily to young professionals? Do people from the edges of Bartlett regularly go to their own downtown or do they seek out other suburban spots (like Elgin or Woodfield/Schaumburg or the I-90 Corridor)? Do all residents want the quiet character of their bedroom suburb to change or feel that resources should be diverted toward

Chicago set to expand TOD boundaries

The City of Chicago wants to expand the area that would be eligible for transit-oriented development guidelines:

According to the Tribune, the mayor is expected to introduce a reform that would allow developers to build new TODs within 1,320 feet of a transit station—which would more than double the surface area that developers could build within. In addition, the new rules would also allow developers to build TODs within 2,640 feet of designated pedestrian streets.

Here is a bit more on the background:

Generally, the city requires that developers include one vehicle parking space per residential unit, however the TOD ordinance allows developers to cut down their parking requirements by at least half if the project is located 600 feet from a transit station…The mayor believes that the big investment in renovating the CTA stations along the Brown, Red and Blue lines will serve as a catalyst to seeing more transit-oriented developments, and wants to expand the constraints that developers currently have to build within. “This ordinance will capitalize these investments by accelerating development near transit stations,” the mayor recently declared.

This may not sound like much – the TOD boundaries increase from 600 to 1,320 feet from the transit station – but it could have quite an impact in certain neighborhoods:

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 11.57.02 AM.png
[Pretty much everything would be on-limits in the West Loop, River West and River
North neighborhoods if the changes are made.]

The average citizen may not pay much attention to such things but zoning and land regulations have a lot of influence on urban patterns. This change could provide more incentive for denser developments around transportation nodes.

It would be interesting to hear Emanuel’s justification for this: is this about capitalizing on developers who really want to build in these places? Is it about going green? Is it about cutting down on traffic?

Some Chicago suburbs welcome luxury apartments

A number of Chicago suburbs have new or recently approved luxury apartment complexes:

Suburbs that have long thought of themselves as bucolic communities filled with houses and families are warmly embracing the very type of residence that used to make them leery: the apartment.

Just don’t call them rentals, a word that conjures up an image different from the projects that municipal governments are selling to their constituents. Almost 4,000 apartments in well-appointed, amenity-filled buildings with rents to match are under construction or proposed in suburbs throughout the Chicago area. They are designed to attract young professionals and empty nesters with roots in the suburbs…

Some, but certainly not all the projects are transit-oriented, constructed near suburban downtowns and train stations or they are being used to create a downtown where there never was one before. But as they move forward, communities are grappling with concerns about density and traffic congestion, and affordable housing advocates worry that low and moderate-income residents who rely more heavily on public transportation don’t have the option of living near it…

“Many of them equated rental housing with low-income property,” Strosberg said. “It’s more recent that they’ve appreciated that rental comes in all different forms. There’s market-rate housing that appeals to a significant portion of their residents who don’t want to make a commitment to buying a place today.”

In wealthier suburbs, apartments often prompt images of transient residents who don’t care much about the community, lower-income residents, traffic, and large properties in communities proud of nice single-family homes. But, luxury apartments help reduce the perceived issues of social class and can bring money into the city (perhaps they can even help boost property values, residents spend money at nearby businesses, etc.). In other words, luxury apartments don’t create the same kind of issues, particularly if seen as part of reviving an area like a downtown. These communities may not go crazy approving such developments all over the place but I suspect many mature Chicago suburbs will continue to approve apartments that do contribute to higher densities but project a higher-end image.

Four transportation options in the new, denser suburbs

Leigh Gallagher, author of The End of the Suburbs, discusses some of the transportation options available for denser suburbs:

Many new experiments are in the works involving ride-sharing, and while none are likely to scale anytime soon, it’s a fix that draws heavily from the influence of Silicon Valley. As my colleague Michal Lev-Ram reports in the lead story in Fortune‘s New Metropolis issue about the end of driving, Google is partnering with GM on a pilot car-sharing service at its Mountain View headquarters that gives employees access to a fleet of 50 all-electric Chevrolet Spark EVs that are linked up to a mobile app that matches drivers and cars for morning and evening commutes. (This isn’t too dissimilar from Streetsblogger Mark Gorton’s idea for what he calls Smart Para-Transit, based on a fleet of vehicles with a central dispatch that matches riders and destinations.) In Palo Alto, Mercedes-Benz is testing a “Boost by Benz” program that shuttles kids around to piano lessons and soccer practice in brightly colored vans. Lev-Ram also notes that GM and Toyota recently said they would start giving discounts on new car purchases to Uber drivers…

Kannan of Washington Metro believes cities need to seriously rethink buses, which are much cheaper than rail, carry lots of people, and can go anywhere. “Today’s buses aren’t your father’s buses,” he says: they’re high tech, clean, energy efficient, sleek, and in some cases, highly amenitized. (As a longtime customer of New York’s Hampton Jitney, I can vouch for the quality of an “amenitized” bus ride.) There’s still a stigma against buses in this country, but it’s conceivable that this mindset could change. Consider the huge popularity of the controversial commuting buses in San Francisco operated not just by Google but by Facebook, eBay, Genentech, and others. And witness the rise of intercity carriers Bolt Bus and Megabus in recent years — especially among those transit-happy, texting Millennials as a dirt-cheap alternative to Amtrak travel up and down the Northeast seaboard (I’m no Jitney snob; I’ve taken these a lot, too). Something bigger may be going on…

There’s another solution here, too — the idea that the best way to build New Suburbia is off the back of Old Suburbia. Many developers are seizing opportunity to build updated, urbanized housing stock where transit already exists. In Libertyville, Illinois, a prewar suburb 35 miles north of Chicago, John McLinden has developed School Street, a row of 26 porch-adorned single-family homes with barely a few feet between them on narrow, Chicago-sized lots. The development runs right into Libertyville’s 178-year-old main street, Milwaukee Avenue, a vision in tightly packed boutiques, mom and pop retailers, restaurants and “2 a.m. bars,” as McLinden touts. Right behind it is where residents catch the North Line into Chicago. McLinden is now taking his model to nearby Skokie with a new development called Floral Avenue. Skokie sits on the Chicago Transit Authority’s yellow line, also known as the “Skokie Swift” — so named in 1964 as a two-year experimental service funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, CTA, and the Village of Skokie to show that mass transit could be adapted to service the new suburban market.

Gallagher suggests two options that are already popular – cars, which won’t be completely eliminated in suburbs or even in many American cities, and transit-oriented development – and two that may be harder sells. It could be particularly difficult to get suburbanites to buy into ride-sharing and buses. Ride-sharing requires coordinating schedules, potentially traveling with strangers in relatively tight quarters, and a loss of independence. Buses take advantage of existing road structures but have a reputation and again limit independence.

I wonder if ride-sharing and buses can only really attract suburbanites if density reaches certain levels. What is the critical point where the suburbanite decides it is easier to take the bus as opposed to driving? Is it the cost of gas, more route options, nicer accommodations and more middle- or upper-class appearances, the price of parking (some still argue parking is way too cheap and plentiful in the United States), or something else? All together, there could be delicate dance of putting together mass transit alongside denser suburban development.