Can Chicago rely less on cars? ‘Transit-oriented’ plans tried

In the illustration, a sunlit block of flats is surrounded by thin trees as tall as the buildings, a bike lane teeming with riders, people crossing the street on foot or in wheelchairs — and no driver. “Make the streets safer for Chicagoans who walk, bike, roll and drive,” reads the photo’s caption.

The image was part of the city’s recent presentation to city councilors on a comprehensive transit-focused development ordinance called Connected Communities, which was passed in July as part of Mayor Laurie Lightfoot’s attempt to combat segregation and gentrification.

Included in the ordinance are a series of provisions that advocates hope will help persuade more people to turn to walking, biking and public transportation instead of private cars. Among the regulations: restrictions on residential parking near public transportation.

“Essentially, we want a city that’s built for people,” Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara said in an interview. “Where some cities have gone wrong is in emphasizing driving above all else… the human connection is what we lose when we prioritize cars over people.”

Sentiments that cities are focusing too much on vehicles at the expense of other modes of transportation have long been a rallying cry of cyclists, public transit and environmentalists. Recent calls for less car-centric urban planning have coincided with a rash of traffic deaths in Chicago that have included young children, leaving some City Council members outraged by the respect they say is given to cars.

In its more extreme form, antipathy to driving is fueling the car-free movement. But that’s not realistic in the eyes of most city leaders. When he launched a plan for a free prepaid gas card in the spring, Lightfoot dismissed criticism that the measure encouraged the use of fossil fuels, saying “get back to the reality of the planet,” many residents live in transit deserts and need a car to move around.

Novara said her ideal vision is one where every Chicagoan has a choice between walking, public transit, biking and driving. She added that there is “abundant” public transport on the south, south-west and west sides, although some areas may be richer in bus routes than trains.

“I don’t think we’re in a position to say there’s anything wrong with owning or driving a car,” Novara said. “We’re just saying it has its place and people should have plenty of options for how to get around this city.”

The idea behind connected communities centers on what’s known as “transit-oriented development,” originally designed to boost homes and businesses along train stations and, more recently, along bus routes. The concept gained momentum in Chicago with a 2013 ordinance under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but from then until 2019, nearly all the development it led to was concentrated on the North and Northwest Sides, downtown and the West Loop, according to Department of Housing statistics construction.

In addition to measures designed to speed development near public transit, the Connected Communities Ordinance introduces a new cap on the number of parking spaces for new residential buildings near train stations — one space per two units. Developers need city approval to build at a higher one-to-one ratio.

The ordinance also expands existing restrictions on parking requirements near transit stops to four blocks and near designated bus corridors to two blocks, and eliminates on-site parking mandates for affordable housing citywide. In addition, the legislation prohibits new curb and sidewalk cuts within a half-mile of train stations without city approval and requires pedestrian-friendly design within the same perimeter.

The parking provisions in the new ordinance could play a role in getting Chicagoans to go car-free and likely signal that the city is moving toward encouraging ways other than vehicles to get around, said Audrey Wennink, director of transportation for the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Traffic is restored near the 95th Street CTA Red Line station in Chicago on August 30, 2022.

It will take other measures to make those efforts work, she said, but she believes less car use is a realistic goal for Chicago. The city has the bones of an extensive public transit system and even the challenges of the CTA, which gives Chicago a leg up, she said.

“I don’t think people realize that when we build housing, there’s a significant portion of the cost of that housing historically that goes to parking,” Wennink said. “You have to make driving less attractive and make these other options more attractive so that people make that choice.”

Stephen Cain, a Chicago landlord who is part of the Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance, said the ordinance is “certainly more good than bad” because it expands incentives for transit-oriented development, rather than forcing it. For example, eliminating on-site parking requirements in affordable housing serves as a “financial incentive,” Kane said.

“The less parking you have to provide, the less money you have to spend building parking lots or the more land you have available for housing compared to somebody’s car,” Cain said. “So there are kind of financial incentives to make it more attractive to include affordable housing. … It seems like a worthy goal.”

But work may be needed to make other options more attractive than driving. Just ask Seth Blumenthal.

Blumenthal, 47, spent several years without a car in Chicago. He sold his vehicle around 2015, feeling he had paid too much to keep a car he didn’t use much, and instead preferred public transport and walking.

Blumenthal became an almost daily rider on the CTA. He continued to ride after the pandemic hit, although he visited fewer places.

But by 2021, he found that train tracking devices were becoming less accurate and that the quality of journeys was declining. When he got off his shift as a bartender late at night, his wait for the Blue Line train was sometimes longer than the ride home. Increasingly unwilling to wait, he reached out for a carpool.

“I was getting more and more annoyed with the CTA dependency,” he said. “The value of my time was not well served.”

He relaxed, bought a car and reserved a parking space near his home.

“I’m part of the problem,” he said. “I’m in a traffic jam and I’m complaining about the traffic.”

Seth Blumenthal checks out a rental building in Chicago on August 8, 2022. Blumenthal was once carless in Chicago and loved to use public transportation, but gave up and bought a car during the pandemic when CTA service declined.

Getting Blumenthal to sell his car again will come down to better bus and train service, he said, which includes express buses or priority bus lanes. Faster connections between downtown, where he lives, and the Milwaukee Avenue corridor, where he spends much of his time, would also convince him. And, of course, there are constant safety and cleanliness concerns, he said.

“I feel helpless; there is so little I can do, he said. “I no longer personally contribute to public transport by riding it, so I kind of feel bad as an active citizen and public transport enthusiast, but I have to live my life.”

The CTA has faced widespread complaints about the reliability and safety of the service. Both violent and non-violent crimes in the CTA are up from last year, leading to a 42 percent increase in overall crime through mid-August, according to Chicago Police.

The CTA has said many of its service challenges are due to understaffing, and it recently unveiled a plan to address those and other issues through hiring, schedule adjustments, upgraded train and bus trackers and other measures. The CTA also highlighted recent work with the Chicago Police Department to add more officers to handle safety, among other security measures.

“CTA ridership will continue to grow and serve as a catalyst for opportunity and investment throughout the city,” agency officials said in a statement.

Research shows that the availability of free parking is one of the main incentives for car use and ownership, said Jonah Freimark, a researcher at the Urban Institute who focuses on land use and transportation. To that end, the new city ordinance is strong in curbing such habits.

While the share of households without cars in Chicago is much higher than the rest of the country — 26.8 percent, according to a 2020 census estimate, compared to 8.5 percent statewide — it’s also down from 34 .3% in 1990. Reversing that trend would mean investing in the CTA, protected bike lanes and more, he said.

“I think there’s no doubt that it’s hard to get people to give up their cars when they feel like they can’t rely on the transit system, when they feel unsafe to bike in their communities, when they feel that crime is increased,” Freemark said. “There’s no question that people are looking for their cars because it’s kind of like a security blanket.”

People wait for buses at the 95th Street CTA Red Line Station on August 30, 2022.

Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th, said he voted against the connected communities ordinance because, among other things, he believes the parking restrictions will lead to a “firestorm” of criticism from residents with cars in his district Far Northwest Side. He would know since he is one of them.

As someone who uses a wheelchair, Sposato said he takes the train much less often and finds it simply unrealistic that Chicagoans are adopting policies that he says “force” people to give up their cars.

“This is America,” Sposato said. “I don’t think there are enough people in the city who are that keen to go car-free. … If they feel that way, great. Do your part.”

But Chicago Deputy Transportation Commissioner Vig Krishnamurthy said there are signs the city is relying less on cars, including census data showing that in 2019, the share of residents driving alone to work was lowest in more than a decade, around 48%.

“To me, that’s a signal that there’s a hidden demand or a latent interest in getting around in different ways,” Krishnamurthy said. “Increasingly, we’re seeing people use different modes, kind of like a tasty salad, if you will.” And I think that’s actually great, because then we’re not bound to see a transportation system or a city in terms of just one modality, but rather it’s that combination.