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The Public Transit Paradox

In contemporary American urban life, commuting to work has become one of the most insufferable activities. Considering that the cost of operating a car is well over 50 cents per mile for most cars, for anyone going to work beyond 2.5 miles from their homes, public transit becomes a cheaper option if available. Despite this economic rationale, 80.7% of commuters drive to work (including 0.2% or close to 11,000 who identify taxicab as their primary mode). Many scholars and policy makers attribute this heavy reliance to Americans' obsession and fascination with cars, sense of independence, and convenience. But what is not often discussed is that it is also because public transit is built for those who might need it the least.

According to the American Community Survey conducted by the Census Bureau between 2006 and 2008, American workers on the average spend 25.3 minutes to commuting to work. For those who work in the Chicago metropolitan area, their commute takes longer at about 31.1 minutes. An overwhelming majority of the workers in the area drive to work (80.6%). Perhaps there is a good reason for that: those workers who identified subway as their primary mode of transportation took much longer at 55.2 minutes to commute, while train took 45.6 minutes, and bus took 44.5 minutes. On the other hand, those who are able to walk took only 12.2 minutes.

Despite the long ride, the subway appears to be reserved for mostly those who are affluent and highly educated. This difference is even starker when compared to bus commuters. First, 63.8% of the commuters who use subway have at least a college education. Considering Chicago metropolitan area's population is composed of 32.4% of individuals with college education or more, the subway ridership during rush hour is highly skewed toward those who are highly educated.

Similarly, their median income per worker is more than twice that of the region ($32,884) at $67,497. They reside in households whose median income is $110,700, which is close to double the regional median ($61,300) and the median housing value for these commuters is $350,000, which again, is higher than the regional median housing value ($262,000). Even for those who rent, these subway commuters pay substantially more (median of $1,014 per month) compared to the area's median monthly rent ($882).

Bus commuters, on the other hand, are far worse off. Their median income per worker ($22,845) is only about a third of that of subway commuters and only 26.1% are college graduates. Their household income is also about a half ($51,921) of that of subway commuters and their median housing value is also far less ($225,000).

Lastly, if commuting pattern is a simple reflection of societal inequality, then it is no surprise that close to three quarters of subway commuters (73.4%) are white versus 40.8% of bus commuters who are black.

Such characterization makes sense given that CTA train routes are designed to merge into the downtown area where professionals can take advantage of such convenience without traffic congestion. Large parts of the Red, Brown, and Blue Lines in the city are gentrifying if they haven't already. Purple, Yellow, Green and Blue Lines connect to affluent suburbs like Evanston, Skokie, Oak Park, and Forest Park. Consequently, those who can afford to live along this affordable convenient system are those who are more likely to be affluent (and own cars).

What is not often shown is historical neglect of the poor who are denied access by the CTA and those who design public transit. This is evident in the Brown Line, which skips 1.2 miles between Armitage and Sedgwick stations and then another 1.4 miles from Sedgwick to Chicago Avenue Stations to avoid what used to one of the most impoverished areas in the country - Cabrini Green.

The same avoidance is found along the Green Line between Roosevelt Road and 35 Street (2.5 miles), where much of the land remained vacant for years before the South Loop was developed. The newly constructed Pink Line between the Damen Avenue and Ashland Avenue stations (1.4 miles) pass through the West Side near the United Center.

Ironically, it would not be a surprise to see additional stations being built in each of these areas now that the concentration of the poor have been dispersed.

In addition, there are also financial programs that fueled this composition of elite subway commuters in affluent areas. While programs like the Location Efficient Mortgage may provide opportunities for individuals to purchase homes near public transit, there are two major drawbacks: first, such a program encourages people to buy homes near public transit through borrowing more money, not a reduction in prices, which means those who utilize programs like this are in even greater debt.

The underlying assumption for such programs is that housing values will always increase in the long run so taking on more debt in this case is justified. If there is a lesson in the recent housing market crash, it is that assuming more debt than necessary is never a good idea, even if a lender is willing to give you the money.

Second, giving more buying power to those who are interested in these areas near public transit artificially drives up the prices of these homes to a point where most good housing stocks became unaffordable to those who are below middle class. This means those people who can afford cars are the ones also taking advantage these programs and buying up housing stocks near public transit.

All this becomes significant because the commuting mode of transportation is another measure of our society that separates people by credentials, race, and class. We increasingly encounter fewer places to interact with people who are different from one another. It makes one wonder why we live in a city pretending we are constantly experiencing diversity.

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Kiljoong Kim is a research consultant and doctoral student in sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He welcomes your comments. Read more in the the Who We Are archives.

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1. From Michael O'Connor:

I agree but I think Kim is looking only at the most recent efforts of the CTA and not the historical context. We need public transit to be affordable for those who need it the most, but we also need it to be sufficiently attractive to the middle classes who will help make it affordable through fare revenue. So yes, extend the Dan Ryan line to 130th St., but think bigger and extend the subway to Howard St. and use the old L embankment as a greenway to the loop for bicycles. Put a stop on the Paulina Connector at Madison serving the stadium. Hell, reclaim the rest of the Paulina connector past Lake St. so the line can connect with the Kennedy segment of the Blue Line.

We cannot remake the transit system entirely to serve the reverse commute for jobs that exists today. For example, I live in Glenview. How do I get to the high-tech corridor in Naperville without going downtown first? I can't.

But we need to make mass transit user-friendly when and where we can - so people will use it! That means adding real 3rd-track express service to O'Hare, and that means linking all mass transit in the Loop so it can serve the widest customer base. If you've ever taken the subway in Munich, there is a section where all the trains from every line come into a 3-stop section, so anyone can transfer to any line along that section. Now we probably built that system with the Marshall Plan, but it was the German approach to public transit that designed something so simple. The truth is that public transit, especially rapid transit, relies upon density to make it practical. It's why cities like Milwaukee don't have a subway. And it galls me to see federal transit money wasted in bringing light-rail to cities like LA, Houston or Denver, where the car culture is too ingrained and the urban sprawl so wide that it makes no sense for people to switch to public transit without a huge disincentive to driving.

2. From Jon Davis:

The notions that Chicago's subways are built for "elite commuters" who "might need it least"; are "reserved for mostly those who are affluent and highly educated"; and indicate "another measure of our society that separates people by credentials, race, and class" are undone by the daily experience of, say, riding the "L".

Anyone who rides the "L" more than once knows it is actually one of the few places in Chicago where people of all races, creeds, colors, and economic backgrounds encounter each other on a regular basis.

Although most of the system was built in the 1890s and early 1900s, the "L" serves communities rich and poor, offering myriad urban neighborhoods access to economic opportunities downtown or across town.

Of the newest "L" lines, the Orange Line (opened on Oct. 31, 1993) serves six stations between Roosevelt Road and Midway Airport in working class and/or industrial neighborhoods. The Pink Line was originally a branch of the Blue Line, and completely rebuilt from 2001 to 2005, and re-routed in 2006 via the "Paulina Connector" into the Loop, improving service to and from 11 other working class neighborhoods.

How elitist! Damn the bourgeois CTA for its focus on on the affluent and highly educated!

The lack of "L" stations near Cabrini Green and on the South Side from Roosevelt to 35th-Bronzeville-IIT is presented as a deliberate attempt to stiff the poor. A quick glance at the history of the "L" system at Chicago-L.org belies this premise.

There were "L" stations between Armitage and Sedgwick, and between Sedgwick and Chicago, and they were all shut down in the late 1940s due to lack of adequate ridership patronage - long before Cabrini Green became the stuff of notoriety.

When the North Side Main Line began revenue service in 1900, there were - moving north from Merchandise Mart - stations at Kinzie, Division, Schiller, Larrabee, and Halsted. Other stations were opened at Willow in 1905, and Oak in 1906.

The Kinzie station was replaced by one at Grand in 1921 (10 years after the Chicago & NorthWestern Railway moved its Chicago terminal to the current Ogilvie Transportation Center from the site that is now the Merchandise Mart). Merchandise Mart station opened at the end of 1930 to serve the new commercial behemoth.

Willow station closed in May 1942 to make way for the State Street subway.

In 1947, when CTA took over operations from Chicago Rapid Transit, the new agency reviewed operations (beginning the A/B/all stop principle that lasted through the 1990s). Halsted, Larrabee, Schiller and Division stations were closed in August 1949. Grand station survived until September 1970.

Shockingly, those stations were closed because too few riders were using them.

On the Green Line's South Side branch - which was the very first "L" line in the city, dating from 1892 -- there were stations at 18th, Cermak, 26th, 29th, 31st and 33rd. All but Cermak were closed on July 31, 1949, because too few riders were using them. Cermak, which was closed on Sept. 9, 1977, is the only station where CTA actively discouraged people from using it. And while nothing has happened since, CTA is actually on record acknowledging the need for an infill station between Roosevelt and 35th-Bronzeville-IIT.

Mr. Kim's treatise reminds me of the UW-Madison students who wrote for the opinion pages of The Daily Cardinal, when I was a reporter and editor there. Their great, grand missives on political and/or sociological theory bore no relevance to students' daily lives, but surely impressed someone's professor or TA. You want to see what diversity exists on the "L"? Go out and ride the "L". Ride different lines, and ride at different times throughout the day. Then compare your economic and census data with actual observations.

If Mr. Kim's point is that transit service generally winds up skewing toward more affluent neighborhoods, that's the result of a paradox: Neighborhoods with good transit service are more desirable places to live, and thus more valuable, than ones without. Attacking transit systems as promoting elitism for this is lazy thinking.

The solutions to affordability lie in helping people gain access to housing in those neighborhoods, which means supporting programs like Location-Efficient Mortgages, encouraging preservation and development of rental units, and ensuring Chicago's zoning code encourages and enforces a strong urban character: allow mixed-use developments so apartments can once again be built over stores, and prevent suburban sprawl-style separations of residential housing types, and residential from commercial uses.

The goal should be improving transit service citywide so more neighborhoods gain that value. As for diversity, I leave Mr. Kim to his world. I prefer my mixed Rogers Park neighborhood and the mix of people I see every day on the "L."

Kiljoong Kim Responds

To Michael O'Connor:

I agree with much of what was said by Mr. O'Connor. In many ways, I think he and I are talking about the same issues. What he calls a CTA scam is what I would call strategic preference toward certain clientele.

Many of the stations that were eliminated were quite strategic. As he mentioned, the Green Line is the one that was cut most severely. In fact, they even took out the elevated tracks along 63rd Street, which pretty much ensured that the service would never come back to that area. On the flip side, in the days of A and B trains on the Red Line it made sense to have stations bunched up together in Uptown and Edgewater from Wilson to Loyola. With the elimination of the A and B system, they could have easily closed a couple of them to make the line flow better but they decided to keep them all. So, yes, I agree with Mr. O'Connor that different areas receive difference services and, inevitably, the North Side gets preferential treatment over the South and East Sides.

Mr. Connor's examples of the Howard Station on the Red Line and the Ashland Station on the Green Line are precisely my examples of neighborhoods changing along the train lines. I live near the Ashland Station on the Green Line and that area is not Englewood (the location's official designation is Near West Side).

The expansion of West Loop development is slowly reaching the area near that station and it is quite obvious when you look at the people who go in and out of that station.

I didn't specifically mention those who take the bus lines from the Southwest Side because, as I mentioned in my piece, those who rely on buses pretty much suffer the same inconveniences whether it'd be the Southwest, Far South, or East Side of the city. In fact, many people, let alone city agencies, don't even know that Chicago has an East Side!

I didn't touch up policy implications because that would've lengthened the piece by another 1,000 words. But I do share the skepticism of Mr. O'Connor when it comes to renovations and modifications of public transit through tax revenues.

I also did not chronicle historically what has happened over the past century because that would be a book on its own and there are number of books that already do a very good job. Chicago's pattern of inequality has been well studied from late 1800s and produced number of classics like The City (1925), Black Metropolis (1945), Nature's Metropolis (1991) and Block by Block (2005), to name a few. We even have the Encyclopedia of Chicago, which is a great source for anyone who wants to learn about Chicago. History certainly tells us a lot of what has happened but, more importantly, it is a good indicator of where we are headed.

The point of my article was simply that this city (and many cities around the country) has reinforced inequality through various ways whether it'd be by race, class, or even gender. And when government agencies make decisions, knowingly and unknowingly, they often make them to accommodate those who are privileged. Something as mundane as going to work can show a pattern that reflects this inequality.

* * *

To Jon Davis:


Thanks for your thoughtful response. I really enjoyed reading your chronicle of "L" history. But I strongly urge you to go back and reread my piece if you care to do so. I think you and I agree on many elements on this issue. I'm not quite sure if I'm attacking the CTA as promoting elitism, but it is difficult to ignore the disparities shown in the census data, don't you think?

A couple of items I'd like to point out: the area by Cabrini-Green was a poor ghetto even before there was Cabrini-Green. In fact, there is no record that proves that there was low level of ridership in those stations but they have census records that show that many blacks from southern states moved into those ghetto areas well before 1940s. In fact, all the stations you've mentioned had greater ridership than they do today because, if anything, Chicago's population was much greater in 1940s and 1950s than it is today (could you believe there were nearly 650,000 more people back then?). What we commonly think of historical facts are sometimes not fact. That is why we revisit and reevaluate some of them to see what really happened.

I also wanted to tell you that I chuckled at your comment about the Daily Cardinal. I was not good enough of a writer to contribute to the paper when I was a student so I suppose it became a pretty darn good motivation for me though I didn't think much of it after I left. After editing and writing couple of books, being cited in the Harvard Law Review for this little column I write, I'd like to think that I'm doing okay. I'm still working on impressing my professors, but I do get to create policies and try them out for my work so I guess you can say that I came a long way from being a Cardinal-reject.

I strongly agree with you that preservation and affordability through development of rental units and ensuring Chicago's zoning code is the key to urban development. In fact, I've been a big fan of Brian White's organization Lakeside Community Development Corporation in Rogers Park for many years for their work on this issue. After all, Rogers Park is I where grew up and it will always be a home for me. Perhaps we can grab a drink or two at the Lighthouse one day. I'd love to have a debate with you about LEM.

3. From Garry Jaffe:

Mr. Kim's claim that service along 63rd St will never return is correct, because The Woodlawn Organization & the merchants on 63rd St wanted it gone! In fact, the merchants & TWO want the L removed from the rest of 63rd St.

First, the CTA cut service at Dorchester Ave because the CTA's bridge over the IC Mainline was in such poor condition, that it needed replacement, but the number of riders at the 63rd/Stony Island station were so low, they just cut the service at Dorchester.

Then, when the line was rebuilt, they cut it at Cottage Grove, again because of low ridership east of there.

In fact, in one of the poorest areas of Chicago, there is a station approximately every half-mile on the Green Line from 35th/State to 63rd/Cottage Grove.

As I ride it at least once a month, I can assure you that there are few riders south of 35th, where the IIT students get off/on!




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Posted on October 18, 2010


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