A reduced Federal tax break for commuters?

Many would argue that the United States has clearly privileged the suburbs in its fiscal policies including helping to make mortgages more available and providing money for highway funding. At the same time, buried within Washington’s recent debate over tax cuts is a little tax break for commuters:

The amount of income that commuters who use mass transit will be eligible to shelter from taxes to pay their fares drops on Jan. 1 to $125 a month from the current $230 a month, while the tax-free parking benefit for drivers will increase from $230 to $240 a month, officials said today.

The steep reduction in the transit provision is due to Congress’ failure to renew the higher limit in the Commuter Benefits Equity Act, officials said, adding that they are hopeful lawmakers will approve a higher limit sometime in 2012…

The cut in benefits will have a similar effect as a fare increase because riders whose employers participate in the transit benefits program will be able to shield a maximum of $1,500 in income from taxes in 2012, down from $2,760 this year.

It interesting that these changes would boost the break for parking/driving to work while lowering the benefits for mass transit (perhaps temporarily). I bet this law has a fascinating history.

If the public is not particularly interested in tax breaks for large corporations, are they in favor of tax benefits for commuting? Does the approval for this depend on whether someone claims the tax break?

Thinking about the larger topic, it would be interesting to see how much the average driver benefits or pays for driving and mass transit. How much of a typical tax burden goes for transportation? How much does the average driver or mass-transit commuter get in return for the tax money that they pay in? Of course, we could have a much longer discussion about what the government should promote in its policies but I assume this is not at the top of the discussion pile in Washington.

When Chicago’s highways were new

In a flashback, the Chicago Tribune takes a look at the effects of the major highways that first opened in the region in the late 1950s and early 1960s:

Expressway construction changed the cityscape more than anything since the Great Fire of 1871. The fire gave builders a clean canvas. But the expressways had to be threaded through labyrinths of factories and bungalows. Those in the way were sacrificed: While expressways were still on the drawing board, they were expected to cost 9,000 families their homes, probably an underestimate…

Those concrete and asphalt ribbons provided a one-way ticket out of town. Even before the Congress (now Eisenhower) Expressway reached there, a developer was chopping up west suburban farmland for a development named in its honor. The Tribune noted Arthur McIntosh deliberately put Congress Highlands’ southern boundary on “a Du Page County feeder to the expressway.”…

Local movers and shakers had long envisioned freeing traffic from congested city streets. Yet some ordinary residents couldn’t believe it even when the bulldozers began to roll. “One man forced us to get an eviction order from the court because he said he had been reading about superhighways for years and thought the whole thing was a dream,” said Chicago’s housing co-coordinator in 1949…

Only the Southwest Expressway (today’s Stevenson) didn’t displace Chicagoans, being built atop an abandoned waterway, the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The Dan Ryan not only dramatically reduced the population in its route, but by paralleling a line of public housing, it reinforced segregated neighborhoods on the South Side. The Kennedy was rerouted around the backside of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, when Chicago’s Polish community complained the original plan would have placed it at the church’s front door.

This article illustrates the major changes that happened in many major American cities when highways that linked downtown areas to the future suburbs. But, the article hints that this wasn’t necessarily easy to do: people were displaced, neighborhoods were changed, political corruption occurred, and people battled about exactly where the highways should go. Today, they seem natural. In the 1950s, they were a big change.

This piece also seems to support the political economy view of urban growth and development. Highways didn’t just happen because people were clamoring to get to the suburbs for the cheaper land and houses. Rather, the fate of these highways were decided by wealthy businessmen and developers as well as politicians who saw opportunities. If people needed to be displaced, so be it. If highways could be used to separate the Black Belt from Bridgeport, so be it. If the jobs building the highways could be peddled into votes and connections, so be it. The example here of the DuPage developer is classic: now suburban land close to the highway was valuable.

Perhaps stories like these resonate more in Chicago since transportation plays such a big part in the city’s history and current makeup. Between being a railroad hub, having two busy airports, a port that connects the Great Lakes to the Mississippi (still a fairly large port though no longer as important), and a number of major interstates that run through or near the city, the effects of transportation changes matter.

Finding new ways to store your bike in the city

With space at a premium in many cities, some people have developed innovative ways to store bicycles:

Fortunately some cities have responded to the challenge with exceptional ingenuity. Japanese engineers have developed a multi-level “cycle tree” — perhaps more appropriately named a “cycle cave” — that stores bikes in an elaborate underground system. Riders feed their bike into a mechanized rut that sends it down into a designated spot, retrieving the bike later with a simple swipe of a card. One “cycle tree” in Tokyo, considered the world’s largest, holds some 6,500 bikes.

A truer bike tree can be found in Geneva, where riders can watch their bike raised high above the hands of thieves while remaining protected from the elements. In that same anti-theft vein, German designers have created a bike lock with inline wheels and a small motor that enables riders to power their bikes high up a street pole. Seoul, Korea, is working toward a system of bike hangers that cling to the site of residential buildings; riders can park for just $15 a year, though they have to pedal to retrieve their bike. A slightly less advanced version of this concept has been implemented already by some riders in the East Village…

Those who don’t mind cramming their bikes into their apartments have a growing number of options as well. These range from basic wooden wall mounts to simple, cheap wall hooks to stylish, colorful hanging nodes to elegant bike storage furniture that, in the words of Freshome, “unite cycling culture with interior design.” A Times slideshow from a few years back showcases some other space-saving solutions. These include a wall device that lifts bikes off the ground with a hydraulic spring, a freestanding rack made of oak, an incredibly compact and sleek wall hook, and a similar structure that, while bulkier, provides space for helmets and other equipment.

Many city dwellers, conscious of their limited apartment space, are now looking for bike storage devices that serve a double purpose. Knife & Saw recently introduced a hanging bike shelf that also acts as a small bookshelf. Less costly variations are starting to appear as well. Those with a balcony might consider a bike-shelf-birdhouse combination that holds a helmet as easily as it holds a helmetshrike. The most innovative, though perhaps also the least comfortable, design goes to Store Muu Design Studio, which conceived a sort of hybrid bike-desk, wherein the bike seat doubles as the office chair.

Some fascinating pictures to look at. You can even find out a little more about what happened to the foldable bicycle.

The weekend of “Carmageddon” in Los Angeles

Local highway construction doesn’t typically garner national attention. But there has been plenty of news for weeks about a key highway closing in Los Angeles:

Interstate 405, a freeway normally so clogged that locals like to joke that its name is shorthand for “traffic that moves no faster than 4 or 5 miles an hour,” is closing for 53 hours for a major construction project.

As crews worked feverishly to get the freeway open in time for Monday morning’s rush-hour, residents have been making plans for weeks to stay off local roads, lest they trigger what officials dubbed “Carmageddon.”

Such an event could back up vehicles from the 405 to surface streets and other freeways, causing a domino effect that could paralyze much of the city.

With warnings having been broadcast through television, radio, social media and flashing freeway signs as far away as San Francisco, much of the city’s nearly 4 million residents appear ready to stay off the roads.

As I have seen multiple stories about this, several thoughts came to mind:

1. It is a 53 hour closure, not the end of the world. This has been overhyped. People will survive.

2. Shouldn’t planners be lauded more for doing the work over a summer weekend? The preparation for the whole project actually sounds pretty good.

3. People don’t often think about roads until they are a problem. This is a good example of that.

4. Even though it may have been overhyped, this is still a legitimate social problem, particularly for emergency vehicles and other important highway users. This seems to be more common with highway construction: a long, well-publicized campaign to make sure that residents are made aware of what is to come. If people know what is coming, they are usually pretty good at making other plans. Like with many other social issues, public officials need to walk a fine line between overhyping this, like using the term “Carmageddon,” while also making sure that people are aware of the severity of the problem.

5. This would be a good opportunity to think about new transportation options in the Los Angeles region. As the map accompany the AP story shows, there are only a few routes across the Santa Monica mountains. The answer is simply not to construct additional highway lanes and more drivers will then use the highway.

6. This reminds me of some examples of cities that have eliminated highways, like the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, and traffic has adapted. Closing the highway for a short time is a nuisance but if the highway was closed longer, I bet people would adapt.

The state of public transit in the 100 largest American cities

The Brookings Institution just released a new report, Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America, examining the mass transit systems in the 100 largest American cities. Here are some of the findings:

Nearly 70 percent of large metropolitan residents live in neighborhoods with access to transit service of some kind…

The typical metropolitan resident can reach about 30 percent of jobs in their metropolitan area via transit in 90 minutes…

About one-quarter of jobs in low- and middle-skill industries are accessible via transit within 90 minutes for the typical metropolitan commuter, compared to one-third of jobs in high-skill industries…

Fifteen of the 20 metro areas that rank highest on a combined score of transit coverage and job access are in the West…

With the primary focus of the report on jobs, there is a lot of interesting data. Here are a few things I noticed in going through the full report:

-Page 3 highlights three trends for metropolitan areas: “metro growth and expansion” with both city and suburban growth during the 2000s, “employment decentralization” (with a figure that only roughly 20% of metropolitan jobs are within 3 miles of the city center), and the “suburbanization of poverty.”

-Page 4 notes some of the problems of mass transit in today’s metropolitan regions: “old hub and spokes” which don’t work as well since “39 percent of work trips are entirely suburban” (a problem in the Chicago region, hence the need for the Star Line), “serving low-density areas” (a problem in many suburban areas and a recurring problem in the western suburbs of Chicago such as Naperville), and “spatial mismatch and the costs of transportation” (the idea that the people who work in certain jobs/industries don’t necessarily live near these jobs).

-Page 13 has an explanation for why they chose a 90-minute one-way commuting threshold in the study. If you change the threshold, the percent of jobs available changes quite a bit: “[A]cross all metro areas, the typical worker can reach about 30 percent of total metropolitan jobs in 90 minutes. At a 60-minute commute threshold, only 13 percent of jobs are accessible for the typical worker. For a 45-minute commute, the share drops to 7 percent.” This seems to be quite a high threshold but as they note, more than half of metropolitan commutes are longer than 45 minutes (according to 2008 American Community Survey data).

-Page 18 has a graph comparing the availability of high/medium/low skill jobs within 90 minutes by city or suburban setting. Interestingly, a higher percentage of jobs accessible from the city were high-skill while a higher percentage of accessible suburban jobs were low-skill.

-Pages 20-21 look at some of the differences between the West, with the most accessible mass transit and higher percentage of accessible jobs, and the South, the region at the other end of the spectrum. The findings about the South are not too surprising as it is known for sprawl but the finding that the West dominates the list of cities (15 of the top 20) is interesting. Does this suggest that these Western cities have made much more concerted efforts to provide mass transit?

If you look at the more specific data for the Chicago region, it appears to be fairly average compared to the other 100 metro areas.

Early signs: higher gas prices lead to less driving

With gas prices moving upward, there are some signs that this is already changing driving behavior among Americans:

Drivers bought about 2.4 million fewer gallons for the week of April 1, a 3.6 percent drop from last year, according to MasterCard SpendingPulse, which tracks the volume of gas sold at 140,000 service stations nationwide…

Before the decline, demand was increasing for two months. Some analysts had expected the trend to continue because the economic recovery was picking up, adding 216,000 jobs in March…

Instead, about 70 percent of the nation’s major gas-station chains say sales have fallen, according to a March survey by the Oil Price Information Service. More than half reported a drop of 3 percent or more — the sharpest since the summer of 2008, when gas soared past $4 a gallon. Now it’s creeping toward $4 again…

The decline is somewhat puzzling because Americans typically curb their driving only as a last resort, after sacrificing other forms of discretionary spending, like shopping for new clothes, or going to movies, concerts and restaurants.

Economists and others have been talking about this for a while: what exactly is the price point of a gallon of gasoline where Americans might drastically change their transportation patterns? In this earlier post, I briefly discussed the claim that the Obama administration actually wants higher gas prices as this would lead to greener transportation choices such as mass transit or bicycling or car pooling (or other options).

But if gasoline prices stayed relatively high (so they don’t really go down like they have after some of the temporary spikes in recent years – see the weekly average in the US going back to 1990 here or a graph showing prices going back to the mid 1970s here), it might lead to all sorts of changes. This could include everything from buying smaller cars (as the story above suggests is happening) to more Amtrak riders to longer semi trailers to rethinking patterns of sprawl.

Two more thoughts on Daley’s speech on campus: lack of partisanship and regional cooperation

I’ve already written two posts about Mayor Daley’s visit to campus (see here and here). But a few days later, two themes, a lack of partisanship and an emphasis on regional cooperation, continue to stand out for me as I have thought about how this talk fits with my research on suburbs. Here is why these two themes matter:

1. To start, many people might look at Daley’s visit to the suburbs as strange, particularly since he came to Wheaton, a community known both for its political and religious conservatism. Daley is quite well-known for being a Democrat and one who sits atop a broad Democratic machine in Chicago. And yet, Daley stressed that many issues facing cities and municipalities are not partisan issues. Rather, they are issues of serving the people and having a balanced budget.

On one hand, we could view this as Daley simply knowing his audience: with a more conservative crowd, Daley might have been unwilling to sell a Democratic agenda. But on the other hand, this idea of a lack of partisanship is quite common in suburban government. While certain communities are known to be more Democratic or Republican (roughly, further out suburbs are more Republicans, inner-ring suburbs are more Democratic), local mayors and councilman (or alderman) rarely run on party platforms. Rather, their “parties” tend to be called things like “Citizens to Improve Wheaton.”

When a problem arises, such as dealing with police or firefighter unions, Democratic or Republican communities might approach the issue in different ways. But at the same time, it is not as if Republicans can dismiss or ban the unions while Democrats can’t simply give in to every union concession. With a more limited budget in many suburbs, city governments have to maintain good levels of service (indeed, good suburbs tend to be marked by a lack of crime and good fire coverage) while still meeting a budget.

Additionally, Daley mentioned the need for businesses in a community multiple times. Whether Democrat or Republicans, communities need businesses to provide jobs for citizens but also to maintain and grow the tax base. This issue of a tax base is not just an abstract matter: it is directly linked to the size of the municipal budget. Therefore, mayors and leaders on both sides have to be pro-business (though their approach might differ somewhat) in order to provide services.

2. A second theme was the need for regional cooperation. Daley was introduced by former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert who said, “what is good for Chicago is good for northern Illinois, and what is good for northern Illinois is good for Chicago.” Daley said something similar that what is good for the suburbs is good for Chicago and vice versa.

Again, Daley might have been playing for the crowd but I don’t think this is a full explanation. One, regional cooperation is needed on certain issues. Daley mentioned O’Hare expansion several times. Although the land is in the City of Chicago, the slow process has involved several suburban communities who have opposed Daley’s plan. Unlike a situation like Meigs Field where Daley could do what he pleased, he has had to work with others on this project. (Whether he wants to work with others on O’Hare is another matter.) Another transportation issue that drew regional emphasis was the fight over whether Canadian National should be allowed to purchase the Elgin, Joliet, & Eastern railroad line. Similarly to the O’Hare issue, this purchase harmed certain suburbs by increasing train traffic while reducing traffic on other lines in other communities. (See the largest regional group opposed to this purchase.)

Two, Daley mentioned regularly meeting with suburban mayors (as well as with big city mayors in the US and around the world). Outside of particular large issues, regional mayors and city managers get together to discuss “best practices.” While there were county groups that did this (like the DuPage Mayors & Managers Conference), Daley brought together mayors from 272 communities across the region in the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus which began in 1997.

At the same time, we could ask why groups like these don’t push harder for tackling larger regional issues like planning or crime. The Chicago region is notorious for having a large number of independent, taxing bodies. The whole region would benefit from a regional planning approach that could start to tackle issues like affordable housing across the region (and not sticking it only in certain less wealthy communities) and containing sprawl (which impacts issues like traffic congestion and pollution levels).

We know historically that the split between cities and suburbs really became clear in the early 1900s when suburban communities no longer wanted to be annexed into the nearby big city. Communities want to work together: just recently, a number of suburban leaders said they were looking for help from new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (though I also wondered whether these suburban mayors would help Emanuel in kind). Today, these regional groups are better than having no groups but primarily focusing on practical or technical municipal matters leaves a whole range of regional issues left to be tackled. Granted, these regional groups have no binding legislative authority but they could also be leveraged to do big things in a region.

Ultimately, a mayor or city leader has to respond to the needs of one’s citizens. However, many of the issues that mayors face are similar across communities and the challenges are often beyond the scope of just one municipality. All suburban and city leaders need to deal with the tax base, balancing the budget, and thinking about regional issues such as transportation and how to manage growth.

A small town responds with a monument after the highway bypassed them

This is a common tale in American municipal development: the railroad or the road or the highway that once ran through the community has decided on a new path, now bypassing the community and leaving it without the traffic that once supported businesses in town. This recently happened to the small town of Hooper, Nebraska. Hooper residents came together to build a sign/monument along the new highway bypass (U.S. 275):

The foundation made the final pick: a tapered, 24-foot tower that would spell “Hooper” in 18-inch-high letters down two of its three sides. This way, the sign would rise above the fertile flatness.

Fund-raising letters went out in the fall of 2009. Quickly, the foundation surpassed its $18,000 goal, thanks to several thousand dollars from the old Commercial Club and to the many, many checks written out for amounts closer to $25…

Finally, right about harvest season, a brick-and-concrete base was built upon a concrete foundation. Then the three precast concrete sides were raised and secured to form the tapered tower, on top of which was placed a cap adorned with a large concrete ball.

Some finishing touches were still needed. The police chief, Matt Schott, used his excavator to dig a shallow trench for a retaining wall, after which a landscaping firm came in to plant some shrubs and make the ground look like an inviting garden, planted in a cornfield.

The project’s completion prompted no fanfare. The foundation’s members doubted that many people would gather beside a highway to celebrate a concrete tower. Besides, the sign was its own celebration.

Now, as the endless horizon along U.S. 275 surrenders to the wintry dusk, the beams of two spotlights sprout from the ground to illuminate the name of a place you might otherwise miss.

An interesting choice – not just a road sign saying Hooper is down the road if you take a turn but rather more of a monument. While it appears from this article that this was a meaningful exercise for Hooper residents, does it have any impact on the outside world? This project seems important for the community itself, an opportunity to come together, erect a symbol, and essentially suggest to the world that though the highway may not go through town, Hooper is here to stay.

This is not an isolated incident as many communities have tried to deal with this issue. A number of suburbs struggle with this: how do you get people to come into your downtown if all they want to do is drive along highways or major roads to get through your community as quickly as possible? One tactic is to try to erect markers or monuments at key intersections or along major roads that point people toward the downtown.

At the same time, how many communities today would actually want a major road, one with a 40 MPH speed limit, running right through the center of the community? For a small town, it might be the only source of traffic but for many suburbs, this would not be desirable.

h/t The Infrastructurist

Minneapolis and Seattle fight congestion

USA Today reports on successful efforts in Minneapolis and Seattle to cut down on congestion on local highways. Some of the efforts include: building more bus lanes, building more light rail, encouraging employers to have flexible schedules, variable speed limits depending on traffic, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, and more.

Chicagoland residents prefer more spending on mass transit

A new poll from the Chicago Tribune and WGN shows that more suburbanites would prefer to spend money on mass transit than on highways and roads. According to the poll:

Fifty-two percent of suburbanites said they agree with investing more of limited government resources in public transit, versus 32 percent who chose improvements to highways and toll roads. In a 1999 Tribune poll, 34 percent of suburban residents said more money should be spent on mass transit than on roads.

Even in the collar counties, half said public transit deserves a higher priority in spending decisions.

These are some surprising figures as suburbanites typically prefer road spending in their auto-dependent lives. How exactly this increased mass transit spending might happen is less clear with the state of Illinois facing a major budget crisis.

One citizen interviewed for the story mentioned adding “an around-Chicago rail line.” This would help improve rail service to the suburbs as the current Metra system is a hub-and-spoke model where travelers have to go into Chicago before heading back out. A plan for this has been in the works for a long time as the Star Line would use the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern right-of-way (just recently bought by Canadian National) to connect Joliet and O’Hare while crossing a number of Metra spoke lines. Read more about the Star Line here.