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I was skimming a Brookings report on “job sprawl,” the decentralization of job distribution in several metro areas.  The study period was 1998-2006, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the pattern continues today.  According to the report, Chicago was one of the most rapidly decentralizing, with 68.7% of jobs more than 10 miles outside the city center.

In my limited experience with and knowledge of employment in the Chicago area, that sounds about right.  Certainly there are a number of jobs in the city:  financial firms, consulting firms, law firms, city and federal offices, design and architecture firms, etc.  Not to mention the usual laundry list of retail and service jobs.  And while there still are industrial operations in the city, many have either gone out of business or are now centered out in places like Maywood or near O’Hare.

As a result, there is a great deal of reverse commuting from city to suburbs – most of my co-workers chose to live in the city, even if it meant a 15 to 25 mile one-way commute.  There is also a great deal of commuting between suburbs, such as from Evanston to Elmhurst or from Arlington Heights to Libertyville.  And unfortunately, most of the El lines don’t go beyond city limits; the Metra is set up in a hub-and-spoke system which is only useful for those commuting to downtown or along the same train line; and the buses take forever if you’re going 20 miles (assuming, like the El or Metra, they run along the route you need to go).

I’m not sure what the solution to all this is – better transit networks, more incentives for businesses to stay in the city center, or better housing options to convince people to move closer to work.  If the trend continues, it will certainly have an impact not only on things like cities’ commercial tax bases and economic health, but it will also make driving commutes worse and worse.

Read the full report

Elizabeth Kneebone, “Job Sprawl Revisited:  The Changing Geography of Metropolitan Employment”

Returned from a whirlwind weekend in New York City… made many mental observations, and I need to translate those to type here.

In the meantime, this little gem from the CTA Tattler:

CTA proposes raising fares in early 2010

If this change goes through – $3.00 for a single train ride and $2.50 for bus – it will officially make Chicago more expensive to travel in (passes aside) than New York, for which I paid $2.25 per ride (Chicago’s current fare for both bus and train).  But, I look on the bright side:  when I was in London, the one-way ticket was 2 pounds; now it’s L4, which at the current exchange rate ($1.58) is $6.32.  Go USA!

Seriously though, it will be rough if this change goes through.  Not only for all the people who, working low-pay jobs and/or supporting families, can barely afford their monthly pass in order to get to work; but also for any hope of convincing people to stop driving in the city.  As it is, many people I know find driving (even with the added irritation of parking) more convenient and economical than taking one or more trains and/or buses to get to where they want to go.  Making it significantly more expensive is a major disincentive for a behavior many don’t consider in the first place.

The costs of public transit, of course, are not easy to meet – and the CTA, like many similar organizations, are legally mandated to balance their budget at the end of each year.  As far as I have heard, however, no transit system can meet its costs “from the farebox,” so I’m not sure a fare hike is the answer here, and might in fact only break even if fewer people choose to ride.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s complicated.  But taking the subway in NYC made me appreciate two things about Chicago:

1) As much as I’ve complained about the bad design of the El(evated) system, it is pretty damn cool to be able to see the streets you’re traveling en route.  The short trip across the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn was the best view I had all weekend.

2) The NYC system is definitely more comprehensive, in that you can get to more places via subway (and presumably bus).  It still has annoying construction reroutes, which were pretty confusing to figure out, and several times I ended up waiting a while for a train (longer than I ever remember waiting in London or Paris).  Judging from the impatience of those around me, it was either atypical, or both delay and reaction are typical.

Long story short:  Chicago’s CTA isn’t great, but NYC’s MTA isn’t actually much better!  Except in that people actually use it.