Photo of La Grange Metra station by Tristan Garrett.
Ed. note: Ted Rosenbaum is originally from Evanston and has a master’s in transportation engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. He currently works on public transportation in the San Francisco Bay area, and is on Twitter @RedTosenbaum. His opinions are his own, independent of his employer. -Steven
On Wednesday, July 25, DePaul’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development published their report on The 20 “Top Transit Suburbs” of Metropolitan Chicago—An Index Approach. It’s a good thing they put “Top Transit Suburbs” in quotes, because this report has a tenuous link to that phrase at best. Although the abstract says the study aims to evaluate “the region’s suburbs on the basis of their attractiveness to those with lifestyles oriented toward the use of public transportation,” they focus exclusively on Metra access & amenities. Metra is an important part of Chicagoland’s transportation network, and the region’s greatest hope for reducing the car dependence of downtown workers who don’t live all that close to the city. But drawing a straight line from Metra station aesthetics and auto-accessibility to public transportation-oriented lifestyles? That’s a stretch.
Download the full report (.pdf).
The authors, led by Professor Joseph Schwieterman, give away the game early on when they create a new classification of suburb whole cloth – the “city suburb” – a distinction whose only purpose seems to be to exclude cities like Evanston, Oak Park, and Skokie because they have CTA bus and ‘L’ service. And perhaps that’s ok; the study says that
Rather than being a scientifically-based tool, the index should be regarded primarily as a mechanism to raise public awareness of the factors that can support transit-oriented lifestyles and to guide planners, designers, and developers…
That’s a perfectly admirable goal. But it’s a very different goal than the report’s title would lead you to believe. To make matters worse, the study confuses and even ignores some major factors that support transit-oriented lifestyles. Specifically, someone who truly wants to live a transit-oriented lifestyle may choose to reach the station via public transportation. To capture this, the study scores each station based on the number of Pace suburban bus routes that serve it. It doesn’t matter how many people actually ride the bus to get to the station (easily determined with the RTAMS database), or the quality of that service – perhaps measured by whether or not the buses arrive at the station reliably just before a Metra train departs in a well-designed pulse service. Instead, a station’s score relies exclusively on the blunt metric of total number of routes.
The study also judges stations based on parking. That’s a fair thing to do – the study is built around transit-oriented lifestyles, not necessarily car-free living. But the study doesn’t base a station’s parking score on something like availability of parking (not to build a straw-man, but I don’t think this would be the best metric, since an abundance of available spots would indicate over-built parking lots) or average walk length from a parking spot to the station. Instead, it gives more points to the stations with the cheapest parking lots. This is exactly backward! For the stations (and local planners and designers) to truly promote public transportation-oriented lifestyles, you would expect commercial and residential development close to the station. That development would raise the price of the undeveloped land (i.e. parking lots) near the station, but perversely that makes the station score lower in this study. The study is at odds with itself in this instance: it awards greater points to the stations which are closer to their suburb’s vibrant downtowns (using Walk Score as a proxy), but then penalizes them in this category for having expensive land near the station.
Now, it was pointed out to me on twitter (by the editors of this fine blog) that perhaps this study was meant to be more provocative than instructive. If so? Well played, Professor Schwieterman. You’ve trolled me, the Chicago Tribune, and I’m sure more than a few of your peers. But in reality, this study is more heat than light. It is a list of the “Top 20 Chicago Suburbs That Have Nice Metra Stations for People Who are Otherwise Auto-Oriented”. Perhaps that’s a useful list (even if I think the methodology is flawed) that can and should spur discussion, but it is certainly not a list of Chicago’s “Top Transit Suburbs”.
The top 20 transit suburbs, according to the report, are the following (with links to their detail webpages).