Cities that have transit fare capping have fairer fares

Fare capping is a fare policy that any transit agency can implement to save their riders money, make fares fairer, and potentially increase ridership.

Fare capping ensures that riders who pay through a trackable medium (like a transit smart card) will never pay more than the cost of one or more daily and multi-day passes that the transit agency includes in its fare capping policy.

Example 1: Consider a tourist or infrequent visitor to the city. The tourist will use transit to get around and when they arrive at a ticket vending machine, they’re given the option to get a smart card and load with “e-purse” (cash to pay as they ride) or get a smart card and load it with a pass for one or more days. In Chicago, there are 1-day, 3-day, 7-day, and 30-day options, for $10, $20, $28, and $105.

Just like anyone else, the tourist doesn’t want to pay more than they have to so they try to estimate the number of trips they’ll take today to see if the number of rides will cost more than $10 (the price of a 1-day pass). That sounds like a complicated thought exercise and one with a high likelihood of being wrong at the end of the day!

In a fare capping system, the tourist won’t have to choose! They obtain the transit smart card, load it with $5 cash, and perhaps connect it to an app or connect it to an auto-load functionality. The tourist rides buses and the ‘L’ and as soon as they ride $10 worth in the service day, their transit smart card automatically starts granting them free rides – their transit card has just been granted a 1-day pass!

By eliminating the need to choose between fare products, the tourist is more comfortable riding transit as much as they need to today because they know that they’ll never be charged more than $10.

Example 2: Consider someone who doesn’t earn very much and uses transit to get to work two times a day, five days a week, 20 days a month. At $2.50 per ride, that works out to $100, which is less than the cost of a 30-day pass in Chicago (which is $105, and an oddity, but I won’t address that). This person also sometimes takes additional rides after work and on the weekend to run errands, so their monthly rides will end up costing more than $105, the price of a 30-day pass.

It would make the most financial sense for this worker to get a 30-day pass. But when you don’t earn much, it’s hard to come up with or part with $105 at one time.

In a fare capping system, the person doesn’t have to worry about putting up $105 at this very moment. They would be able to ride transit as much as they want to in a 30-day period knowing that they will pay $2.50 per ride each day, but never more than $105 in a 30-day period. They don’t need to have $105 right now to be able to save money in the long run.

A Miami-Dade Transit Agency poster indicate fare capping (without calling it fare capping, because that’s a wonky phrase).

Cities with fare capping

11 cities, last updated September 12, 2019

  1. London is first in the list because they were first with fare capping – It was pretty cool back in 2014 when my Anglophile friend told me to borrow his Oyster card and just tap away and ride transit all day, because I would never pay more than the cost of a 1-day pass.
    • London also has weekly capping, but this doesn’t include the Underground or Overground (buses and trams only). The week also starts on Monday and ends on Sunday.
  2. Miami is the most recent place to have fare capping, which @erik_griswold spotted on a poster. Daily capping only.
  3. St. Louis now has a transit smart card, and has daily capping.
  4. Sydney’s Opal card offers daily capping, weekly capping, and Sunday capping. That means people can ride on metro, train, bus, ferry and light rail services all day Sunday for no more than $2.80 AUD (about $1.89 as of August 22, 2019).
  5. Indianapolis’s IndyGo transit agency has daily capping, and weekly capping.
  6. San Jose-based transit agency Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has daily capping which they call “Day Pass Accumulator”.
  7. Oakland-East Bay’s AC Transit has daily capping, but they don’t use those words. The website says that a day pass is applied to the Clipper transit smart card when a third trip is taken in a day.
  8. Portland, Oregon: TriMet, C-TRAN, and Portland Streetcar seem to have the most flexible payment options for their fare capping policy: Riders with a Hop transit smart card get daily capping and monthly capping. People who pay with Google Pay and Apple Pay can also get daily and weekly capping; people who pay with Samsung Pay or a contactless credit card can get daily capping.
  9. Victoria (Australian state) has daily capping on metropolitan Melbourne routes and regional routes when using the myki card.
  10. Houston, Texas: METRO has daily capping that kicks in after “Q” fare card holder takes three trips.
  11. The Ride in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has daily, weekly, and monthly capping – this is the policy to beat.
St. Louis’s MyGatewayCard has daily capping.

My idea for the Chicago prize: Build 1,000 ADUs collectively

I probably won’t actually submit my idea to the Chicago Prize, a $10 million grant competition to revitalize neighborhoods, so I’m posting it here for everyone to read.

Basically, I want to use the $10 million as seed money to start a small organization that does design, construction administration, and property management to help homeowners build 1,000 accessory dwelling units in the form of new construction detached rear houses, attached rear houses, and renovated basement and attic units. $10 million won’t build that many, so there will be a small finance team to assemble additional grants as well as collect money through a crowdfunding initiative so anyone with $50 or more (up to $1,000) can invest in the program.

Read my full idea to crowdfund 1,000 ADUs (it’s about 5 pages long).

The Plús Hús, a backyard cottage, designed and made in Los Angeles.

Pick the lowest and highest numbers in an array of numbers in PostgreSQL

I thought solving this problem took longer than it should have. I thought there would have been an integrated function in PostgreSQL to pick the lowest (smallest) and highest (largest) numbers in an ARRAY of numbers.

LEAST and GREATEST didn’t work, since those work on expressions, not arrays.

MIN and MAX don’t work because they are aggregating functions, and I didn’t want that.

Of course I found the solution on StackOverflow, but not after a lot of searching and trying other potential solutions.

Here it is!

Given an array of numbers, pick the lowest and highest ones using two custom functions.

CREATE OR REPLACE FUNCTION small(anyarray, int)

 RETURNS anyelement AS $$

  SELECT (ARRAY(SELECT unnest($1) ORDER BY 1 asc))[$2]

 $$ LANGUAGE sql;

The second argument in this function is to extract the Nth smallest number. In my case I want the smallest number so I set “1” for the second argument.

Example array in PostgreSQL:

{45.04,124.90,45.04,124.90}

Example query:

SELECT small(‘{45.04,124.90,45.04,124.90}’::numeric[], 1)

Output: 45.04

You can rewrite the query to select the Nth largest number by changing the “ORDER BY 1 asc” to “ORDER BY 1 desc” (reversing the order of the array’s unnesting.)

CREATE OR REPLACE FUNCTION small(anyarray, int)

RETURNS anyelement AS $$

SELECT (ARRAY(SELECT unnest($1) ORDER BY 1 asc))[$2]

$$ LANGUAGE sql;

Example array in PostgreSQL:

{45.04,124.90,45.04,124.90}

Example query:

SELECT large(‘{45.04,124.90,45.04,124.90}’::numeric[], 1)

Output: 124.9

Lock off apartments: Does zoning allow them?

These are also known as Junior Accessory Dwelling Units (JADU) in the California ADU laws.

At the YIMBYtown conference in Boston, Massachusetts, last week, I heard from a panel comprising a developer, an architect, and a manager of special housing projects at the City of Boston. I forget who described this novel (sort of) multi-family housing configuration, but I noted it because it has benefits similar to Chicago’s coach & rear houses.

Here’s how it works.

There would be a residential building full of condos. Each condo would have a few bedrooms. One of the bedrooms would have its own kitchen or kitchenette, bathroom, and direct entry to the building’s corridor. The bedroom would be “locked off” from the rest of the condo. 

The condo owner would rent the bedroom to a tenant, providing them housing that would most likely be less costly than an equivalent (new construction) apartment.

As the condo owner’s household changes – perhaps the family has another child – the tenant can move out and the owner can remove the kitchen to create another bedroom or closet. 

Lock offs are heavily also present in time shares. 

The zoning question is whether this condo is treated as one unit or two.

If you’re trying to increase affordable housing in your municipality, it’s necessary to classify this condo configuration as a single unit. Anything more and it wouldn’t be possible to build any of these, as the building developer would run into minimum lot area per unit and FAR limitations. 

My friend Jacob Peters quickly drew a floor plan for what a lockoff condo would look like.  

According to the speaker, the project didn’t get off the ground because the developer couldn’t get lending because of lenders who don’t understand the model. Said the speaker, “We need spaces that can evolve as our lives change. And we don’t have that flexibility in our housing stock.”

Benefits of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) like coach & rear houses

  1. Increase the supply of affordable housing
  2. Increase income for homeowners
  3. Support aging in place – ADUs give families flexibility to share property and living spaces with extended family members
  4. Increase work for small and local architects and contractors
  5. Boost local business support by restoring a neighborhood’s historical density

Update: I’m happy to see that Lennar, one of the most prolific home builders in the United States, has included the lock-off apartment in their “Next Gen” house design. A sample floor plan is below. 

Sample floor plans of Lennar’s Next Gen suburban single-family house with lock-off apartment.

Chicago’s massive parking footprint – as measured on September 16, 2018

Using the footprints of parking lots and garages drawn into OpenStreetMap as a data source, the area of land in Chicago occupied by parking lots and garages is 247,539,968 square feet. (The data was exported using HOT Export Tool; you can replicate my export.)

That converts to:

  • 5682.712991749054 acres
  • 8.879274566670646 mi^2 (square miles)
  • 22.99721555608581 km^2 (square kilometers)
  • ≈ 0.26 × area of Manhattan (≈ 87 km^2 )

Why Jefferson Park residents should allow more housing

Short answer: To provide more shoppers for the local businesses. Read on for the longer answer. 

Over on Chicago Cityscape I added a new feature called “market analysis” which measures the number of people who live within specific walking areas (measured by time) and driving areas (measured by distance). 

I am in favor of removing apartment & condo bans in Chicago, especially in areas where they were previously allowed and near train stations.

Jefferson Park is centered around two co-located train stations, serviced by CTA and Metra respectively. There have been multiple proposals for multi-family housing near the stations (collectively called the Jefferson Park Transit Center) and some have been approved. 

Always, however, there are residents who resist these proposals and the number of originally proposed apartments or condos gets reduced in the final version (classic NIMBYism). 

There’re four reasons – at least – why more housing should be allowed near the Jefferson Park Transit Center:

  • Locally owned businesses require a significant amount of shoppers who live nearby and walk up traffic
  • More people should have the opportunity to live near low-cost transportation
  • It will include more affordable housing, through Chicago’s inclusionary zoning rules (the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, ARO)
  • There will be less driving, and therefore lower household transportation costs and less neighborhood pollution

To support the first reason, I used the “market analysis” tool to see just how many people live in a walkable area centered around Veterans Square, a mixed-use office and retail development adjacent to the train stations. 

Only 9,368 people live within a 10 minute walk to Veterans Square (get the Address Snapshot). 

Comparatively, 19,707 people live within a 10 minute walk to The Crotch, or the center of Wicker Park, at the intersection of Milwaukee/North/Damen (get the Address Snapshot). The Blue Line station is about 75 feet south of the center point.

I would grant the low Veterans Square number a small discount based on the proximity to the Kennedy Expressway, which severely truncates walking areas up and down the northwest side. Still, even with that discount, ending up with less than half the amount as the one in Wicker Park, is disturbing. Wicker Park is hardly characterized by high-density housing. In fact, all of the new high-rises are just outside the 10 minute walk shed!

In sci-fi, even parks get turned into parking lots

In one of Philip K. Dick’s short stories, titled “Precious Artifact”, Dick appears to recognize what tends to happen in American cities. 

Earth, “Terra”, has been attacked by “Proxmen” and the “Terrans” have lost. However, one of the Terrans, who has been reconstructing Mars for future Prox inhabitation has come back to Earth. A guide meets him at the spaceport and asks the Terran where he wants to go…

“I’m Mary Ableseth, your Tourplan companion. I’ll show you around the planet during your brief stay here.” She smiled brightly and very professionally. He was taken aback. “I’ll be with you constantly, night and day.”

“Night, too?” he managed to say.

“Yes, Mr. Biskle. That’s my job. We expect you to be disoriented due to your years of labor on Mars…labor we of Terra applaud and honor, as is right.” She fell in beside him, steering him toward a parked ‘copter. “Where would you like to go first? New York City? Broadway? To the night clubs and theaters and restaurants…”

“No, to Central Park. To sit on a bench.”

“But there is no more Central Park, Mr. Biskle. It was turned into a parking lot for government employees while you were on Mars.”

“I see,” Milt Biskle said. “Well, then Portsmouth Square in San Francisco will do.” He opened the door of the ‘copter.

“That, too, has become a parking lot,” Miss Ableseth said, with a sad shake of her long luminous hair. “We’re so darn over-populated. Try again, Mr. Biskle; there are few parks left, one in Kansas, I believe, and two in Utah in the south part near St. George.”

“This is bad news,” Milt said. “May I stop at that amphetamine dispenser and put in my dime? I need a stimulant to cheer me up.”

Don’t ban apartments on this vacant lot if you want more affordable housing – a case study

A vacant lot is for sale near the 606’s Bloomingdale Trail, a popular amenity that’s now known to have an effect in increasing home values. It’s zoned RS-3, which means it bans apartments. If the zoning stays the same, then the vacant lot will only allow a rich family to move in here. If the lot’s zoning is changed to allow apartments or condos, then the vacant lot could welcome families that earn median incomes.

You can build multi-family housing on the lot if you can get a zoning change, but you’ll have to pay the city a fee, convince your future neighbors that they shouldn’t oppose it, convince the alder that he should support it, and you’ll have to hire a lawyer.

Let’s say that zoning changes in Chicago were free and frictionless*. What should be built on this lot?

If the lot would allow multi-family housing, we can build several units for less money per unit than if we built a single-family house. That means that three families (let’s stick with three, which requires a zoning change to RM-4.5) could be housed for less money per family than the cost of one family.

How’s that? The sticker price for this lot is $425,000 right now, and if one family is paying for that plus the cost of building a house, then your minimum investment is pretty massive. (I suspect the lot will sell for something closer to $400,000.)

I looked at new construction costs on Chicago Cityscape, as indicated on building permits issued within 1 mile of the vacant lot, took the average, and added it to the cost of land per unit.

Construction costs

The average new construction single-family house, from the 10 most recent permits, is $304,052.78.

The average new construction multi-family housing, from the 10 most recent permits, is $230,192.13 per unit.

Total cost per unit (land + construction)

Add in the land cost per unit ($425,000 for the single-family house and $141,666.67 per unit for the 3-flat) and you end up with the total costs of:

  • $729,052.78 for the single-family house
  • $371,858.80 per unit in the 3-flat

Add in the profit or “cap rate” that a builder wants to make and the price is even higher, but the people who would buy in the multi-family house would be paying much less for their homes.

Takeaways

The city can generate more affordable housing if it “upzones” vacant land and stops banning multi-family housing. (Much of the city’s parcels have been “downzoned” to ban multi-family housing in a process that creates “exclusionary zoning” and allows only – expensive – single-family housing.)

The city and the Chicago Transit Authority will earn more real estate transfer taxes (RPTT) from the sales of the units as condos than from a single-family house.

Three families instead of one would enjoy living to the wonderful amenity that the Bloomingdale Trail and the parks that the 606 offers.

Want this kind of analysis for a property in Chicago? You can order a zoning report from me.

* The City of Chicago charges a zoning change fee of $1,025, and you will most likely have to hire a lawyer, and it will take about 3-6 months, depending on the complexity of the proposal that requires the zoning change. You can use Chicago Cityscape to see actual approval times (excluding the time meeting the alder for the ward of the proposed project).

Elevated above the ‘L’

Blue Line going down into the subway towards the Logan Square station.

This shot was slightly difficult because there are two controls on the remote control that I have to handle with the same hand: The first was the camera tilt and the second was the rotation. I think I can move the camera tilt function to the other dial. I only tried this shot twice, and this was the second one. It’s not perfect; there’s a hiccup after the rotation has finished and I didn’t tilt the camera up as soon as I would have liked.

The hot air balloon I used to get this shot is the DJI Mavic Pro.

Logan Square - the square from above

Is it possible for us to “greenline” neighborhoods?

(I don’t mean extending the Green Line to its original terminal, to provide more transportation options in Woodlawn.)

Maps have been used to devalue neighborhoods and to excuse disinvestment. There should be maps, and narratives, to “greenline” – raise up – Chicago neighborhoods.

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation “residential lending security” maps marked areas based on prejudicial characteristics and some objective traits of neighborhoods to assess the home mortgage lending risk. (View the Cook County maps.) The red and yellow areas have suffered almost continuously since the 1930s, and it could be based on the marking of these neighborhoods as red or yellow (there is some debate about the maps’ real effects).

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and its local consultants (brokers and appraisers, mostly) outlined areas and labeled them according to objective and subjective & prejudicial criteria in the 1930s. Each area is accompanied by a data sheet and narrative description. The image is a screenshot of the maps as hosted and presented on Chicago Cityscape.

The idea of “greenlining”

I might be thinking myopically, but what would happen if we marked *every* neighborhood in green, and talked about their strengths, and any historical and current disinvestment – actions that contribute to people’s distressed conditions today?

One aspect of this is a form of affirmative marketing – advertising yourself, telling your own story, in a more positive way than others have heard about you in the past.

In 1940, one area on the Far West Side of Chicago, in the Austin community area, was described as “Definitely Declining”, a “C” grade, like this:

This area is bounded on the north by Lake St., on the south by Columbus Park, and on the west by the neighboring village of Oak Park. The terrain is flat and the area is about 100% built up. There is heavy traffic along Lake St., Washington Blvd. Madison St., Austin Ave. (the western boundary) and Central Ave. (the eastern boundary).

High schools, grammar schools, and churches are convenient. Residents shop at fine shopping center in Oak Park. There are also numerouss small stores along Lake St., and along Madison St. There are many large apartment buildings along the boulevards above mentioned, and these are largely occupied by Hebrew tenants. As a whole the area would probably be 20-25% Jewish.

Some of this migration is coming from Lawndale and from the southwest side of Chicago. Land values are quite high due to the fact that the area is zoned for apartment buildings. This penalizes single family occupancy because of high taxes based on exclusive land values, which are from $60-80 a front foot, altho one authority estimates them at $100 a front foot. An example of this is shown where HOLC had a house on Mason St. exposed for sale over a (over) period of two years at prices beginning at $6,000 and going down to $4,500. it was finally sold for $3,800. The land alone is taxed based on a valuation exceeding that amount. This area is favored by good transportation and by proximity to a good Catholic Church and parochial school.

There are a few scattered two flats in which units rent for about $55. Columbus Park on the south affords exceptional recreational advantages. The Hawthorne Building & Loan, Bell Savings Building & Loan, and Prairie State Bank have loaned in this area, without the FHA insurance provision. The amounts are stated to be up to 50% and in some cases 60%, of current appraisals.

Age, slow infiltration, and rather indifferent maintenance have been considered in grading this area “C”.

Infiltration is a coded reference to people of color, and Jews.

My questions about how to “greenline” a neighborhood

  1. How would you describe this part of Austin today to stand up for the neighborhood and its residents, the actions taken against them over decades, and work to repair these?
  2. How do you change the mindset of investors (both small and large, local and far) to see the advantages in every neighborhood rather than rely on money metrics?
  3. What other kinds of data can investors use in their pro formas to find the positive outlook?
  4. What would these areas look like today if they received the same level of investment (per square mile, per student, per resident, per road mile) as green and blue areas? How great was the level of disinvestment from 1940-2018?

In the midst of writing this, Paola Aguirre pointed me to another kind of greenlining that’s been proposed in St. Louis. A new anti-segregation report from For the Sake of All recommended a “Greenlining Fund” that would pay to cover the gap between what the bank is appraising a house for and what the sales price is for a house, so that more renters and Black families can buy a house in their neighborhoods.

That “greenlining” is a more direct response to the outcome of redlining: It was harder to get a mortgage in a red area. My idea of greenlining is to come up with ways to say to convince people who have a hard time believing there are qualities worth investing in that there they are people and places worth investing in.


The Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond digitized the HOLC maps and published them on their Mapping Inequality website as well as provided the GIS data under a Creative Commons license.

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