Author: Steven Vance

Why I think the juice of Chicagoland transit consolidation is going to be worth the squeeze

I don’t have a doubt in my mind that transit in Chicagoland needs a better network manager. Based on my research and personal experience using their transit, the Verkehrsverbünde (VV) public transport associations in Germany provide the best model for network managers.

VV network managers integrate service in regions of Germany and comprise multiple municipalities and counties and myriad public and private operators. They facilitate a superior passenger experience than anything I’ve used in the United States.

Generally speaking, VVs draw the routes, select the operators for those routes, set and collect fares, distribute fare revenue to the operators, and design most graphics, branding, and wayfinding (online, on the street and at stations, and in transit vehicles). A key aspect is that the associations don’t run the services. Picture this: the existing Regional Transit Authority does all of the service planning work that the CTA, Metra, and Pace, do now; it operates Ventra; it decides the fares and how transfers between operators works; it brings in new operators as needed.

All quotations in this post are from a single source, a new open access article published in a Transportation Research Board (TRB) journal by Kenji Anzai and Eric Eidlin, “Routes to Regional Transit Governance: Researching the Histories of and Cataloguing the Methods Used to Establish German Verkehrsverbünde”.

I propose my own recommendations for transit consolidation at the end.

What are the problems that strong network managers solve?

If you’re in the Chicago metropolitan area and you ride transit here or talk to people who do, tell me if these issues sound familiar (emphasis added):

  • “Like in Hamburg, passengers [in the Rhein-Ruhr conurbation] had to buy two or three different tickets when they transferred from one company’s services to another. This was frequently necessary even on short-distance trips…”
  • “timetables were not coordinated and waiting times for transfer passengers were long”
  • “there was growing consensus in the problem stream [a phrase specific to the paper] that transit needed to be reformed”
  • “Rather than rely on the individual transit agencies to come to reach consensus in the problem stream, advocates focused on affecting policy change in the state government [of North Rhine-Westphalia]”
  • “the cities, counties, and companies of the Rhein-Ruhr region did not at first put aside their own interests in pursuit of the greater good. Parochial thinking was a problem from the start—companies were initially skeptical of the unified tariff system, and it took time for them to realize that by working together they could achieve a system that was more than the sum of its parts” [1]
  • automobilization and “Falling transit ridership led to falling revenues for the transit companies” (referring to a period in the 1960s, not global pandemic-related)

Network managers in Germany have service characteristics and benefits generally unseen in the United States. The world’s first Verkehrsverbund was founded in Hamburg in 1965, nearly sixty years ago, and the benefits were proven within seven years.

Homburger and Vuchic conducted a study 7 years after the creation of the world’s first Verkehrsverbund in Hamburg, finding that travel times had been reduced by 25% to 50%, and people were more willing to make transfers. Except for a few instances, fares also decreased. The rationalization of the bus network resulted in operational savings of up to 20%, savings that—because of economies of scale—persist indefinitely. The ability of the Verkehrsverbund to spend public money more effectively is a great asset from a public finance perspective. Some rail stations saw passenger counts increase by 25% to 110% after the formation of the HVV, and the percentage of passengers carrying monthly passes increased from 42% to 54%, which reduced boarding delays. As a result, perceptions of public transit improved dramatically at this time. Therefore, Homburger and Vuchic concluded the Verkehrsverbund was a success and recommended it as a model for other metropolitan areas to follow.

If the proposed consolidation authority in Chicagoland can eke out those benefits…that is what I mean when I say the “juice is going to be worth the squeeze”.

How German network managers deliver those benefits

VVs are able to deliver these benefits by starting with these common governance characteristics:

  • they are an association or union of transit operators (public and private)
  • they decide the routes, schedules, and fare policies of existing and future services
  • they commission public or private operators to bid on and run routes for contracted durations (managing route concessions is not common to all VVs [2])
  • their shareholders comprise the transit operators, and municipalities, counties, and states, served by the routes

The paper highlights that the formation of a couple of the VVs there was a need for negotiations to “convinc[e] leaders in the largest transit agency in the region [i.e. the CTA] to form a network manager with the other agencies [Metra, Pace] under the premise that joining such an alliance would be more beneficial than staying out”. The City-State of Hamburg was the first to develop a VV, and Max Mross, the CEO of the city-owned transit operator, which provided 70 percent of the rides, “had the unique ability to spearhead such ideas, and he used his power to push through the formation of the HVV”.

An aspirational corollary I’m imagining is that if Dorval Carter wants a better legacy he could lead rather than resist the inevitable consolidation.

There are a few contrasting elements between the situation in Chicagoland (where CTA, Metra, and Pace operate) and the situations in Hamburg and North Rhine-Westphalia prior to the implementation of their VVs. For example, public transport companies were most likely to be owned by municipalities and routes terminated at city boundaries, the other side of which constituted a new fare for the passenger.

Another contrast is that the shareholders (municipalities and some operators) across the six German regions studied had consensus on the problem definition. I don’t think that has occurred in Chicagoland yet and may be the first, largest barrier to consolidation conversations. Mayor Brandon Johnson, after one year in office, has not acknowledged the issues of the CTA that he controls; the three transit agencies and one oversight agency have all agreed that more funding is necessary but have not conceded that organizational and service reforms are necessary to ensure that additional funding improves passenger services.

A proposed bill in Springfield would craft a new agency called the Metropolitan Mobility Authority. The bill’s adoption – and later implementation of the MMA – would probably go smoothly if there is a political coalition of Mayor Johnson, Governor Pritzker, and the county executives who select the current and future authority board members. Part of forming the coalition is identifying and agreeing to some of the problems of the current formation and service delivery of the transit operators today. In other words, offer something that the transit agencies want in exchange for their affirmative participation in a new network manager.

(The proposed bill implements CMAP’s PART Option 1 while the model I describe represents much of PART Option 2.)

Practical example: Bonn, Germany

I have visited Bonn, Germany, six times. Bonn is in the Verkehrsverbund Rhein-Sieg (VRS) public transport association that includes Cologne and an area of nearly 2,000 square miles. VRS’s member operators provide about 200 million more trips annually in that area than in Chicagoland where it also has one-third of our population.

There are 10 operators in the VRS network, including Deutsche Bahn and SWB, a transit operator owned by the City of Bonn, plus a bike share system operated by Nextbike and included in some VRS passes.

To travel between Bonn and Cologne there are multiple options [3]. One could take the U-bahn light rail line, operated by the SWB (owned by the City of Bonn), but it would be faster to take regional train routes 5 or 26; each departs hourly 30 minutes apart. The two routes have shared stops only between Bonn and Cologne and go in other directions beyond the two cities.

Here’s where the two routes become interesting:

  • Route 5 is operated by National Express, a British company
  • Route 26 is operated by MittelrheinBahn (a brand of Trans Regio which is a subsidiary of Transdev formed by a merger with Veolia)

To the passenger, this distinction is not meaningful. Their VRS ticket – sold through the VRS and DB apps, or made available via an employer program – works identically well on either train. What happened, without being too specific, is that the VRS identified the need for these two routes and tendered their operation to qualified transportation companies. Those companies offered their bids to operate the route knowing that the fare price was fixed by the VRS and the amount of subsidy was also fixed by the VRS and its public entity shareholders. These companies are also aware that they are competing against DB’s high-speed and medium-speed train services as well as the slower, aforementioned light rail line (which costs the same).

I bring this up so that readers can imagine…transit abundance. If suddenly the current RTA or the future MMA opened up routes to additional operators it’s quite likely that no operators would bid on the routes because there are so few riders and little ability to make money. But if the subsidies for the current operators are also made available to new operators who could deliver sufficient service for a lower cost then it could create a market of operators who want to provide abundant transit services. Abundant transit services are a key change the region needs to grow transit ridership; I predict that with Metra adding a bunch of new runs on the BNSF line from Chicago to Aurora that Sunday ridership will increase drastically. Given more or better options, people will take trips they wouldn’t have otherwise taken.

Network managers closer to Chicago

Toronto. You may have heard of Chicago’s twin Great Lakes city to the north, which is even shaped like Chicago if it were rotated 75° clockwise. In the Greater Toronto & Hamilton Area (GTHA) Metrolinx is a municipal corporation (“Crown corporation”) of the Ontario province founded in 2006. Metrolinx operates the contactless card (Presto), the GO commuter rail service that is transitioning to a regional rail system, the Pearson airport express rail link, and several new rail lines and extensions. Metrolinx is also renovating and expansion Toronto Union Station and building bus rapid transit lines.

However, Metrolinx is not involved in local bus and streetcar route planning and service delivery operated by the Toronto Transit Commission. This is a major difference between Metrolinx and VVs as the German network managers are the first and last stop when it comes to deciding where routes exist and when they run.

Recommendations for consolidation in Chicago

  1. If Chicagoland transit consolidation was to more closely align with the VV model, it would need to incorporate the South Shore Line (running between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana) and intercity coach buses (like DASH, which runs between Chicago and Valparaiso, Indiana) into service and schedule planning and fare payment and transfer integration. Example: The Rhein-Main VV is the transit association that covers Frankfurt in the state of Hesse, and spills over into the state of Rhineland-Palatinate where Mainz is.
  2. The state legislators who support the bill should be prepared to use their power over the state’s transit authorities and the public purse to create an “influx of resources” to induce members’ entry (the operators and the counties that choose board members) to the consolidated organization. What does that mean? In Hamburg, prior to the establishment of the VV, Deutsche Bahn (DB), the federal railway operator that operates all long-distance trains and most suburban trains (now under contract to the VVs, see note [2]) demanded that the new VV pay for a new central trunk line, subsidize the suburban rail network, and give it veto power. There are plenty of potential and proposed transit expansion projects that the state legislature can choose from to fund to ensure broad support for the consolidation: regional rail that runs more trains all day between suburbs and Chicago; a new tunnel under the Loop that would create Metra lines through downtown so people don’t have to change trains as they commute between suburbs; increased bus service across the board (responding to operator unions being against the consolidation idea because they believe it will mean fewer jobs). From the article: “Both the [Hamburg] city-state and DB agreed on the problem, but disagreed on the terms of the policy package that would be the solution.” In Chicagoland, I think we need to continue working on identifying and agreeing to a consensus problem stream.
  3. The four transit agencies (the three operators plus the Regional Transportation Authority) have also stressed that more funding is needed but the state legislature should “make large infrastructure investments conditional on establishing a network manager”.

Notes

  1. This part continues: “It may have taken several years, but the stakeholders did eventually build enough mutual trust that they began reaching agreements that laid the groundwork for further cooperation.” I said in my WTTW interview that the benefits may not be seen for several years, implicitly referring to the hard work of integration. The Rhein-Ruhr VV started nine years later, and I hope that Chicagoland can consolidate faster. At the moment, CTA president Dorval Carter seems obstinate in the face of demands for reform and specifically is skeptical of consolidation. (The Hamburg VV formed in five years and the Hannover VV formed in one year.)
  2. In this post I am using a simplified view of verkerhsverbünde. Universally across Germany they are fare and branding integrators but not all of them are engaged in route and service planning or contracting services to operators. That is taken care of by ÖPNV-Aufgabenträger (Wikipedia article in German). For example, Verkehrsverbund Mittelsachsen in Chemnitz has the dual role that I’ve been using in this post; refer to this article about how VMS has contracted operators for some of the regional rail routes. The Berlin-Brandenburg also has the dual role while the VRS in Cologne/Bonn, used in my “practical example”, does not do the service planning and contracting.
  3. A shortcoming with VVs is when there are two in adjacent regions, like the Cologne/Bonn part of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the Rurhgebeit part of the same state (Duisburg, Essen, and Dortmund). Each has a separate VV – VRS in Cologne/Bonn and VRR in the Rurhgebeit – and there are many people who regularly travel between the two and the ticketing for passes is more complicated. I don’t think this is a potential problem in Chicagoland as long as some Indiana services are included in the future network manager because there is not a similarly large and adjacent region with an overlapping service area.

What the proposed MMA Act is offering land use policy

State legislators introduced HB5823, or the Metropolitan Mobility Authority Act, to consolidate the Regional Transportation Authority and the three “service boards” it oversees (CTA, Metra, and Pace).

Read more about the proposed legislation on WTTW (in which I make an appearance to describe that benefits may take years to materialized, but that I think the juice is going to be worth the squeeze).

I’ve summarized the five sections of the proposed act that could change land use policies in Chicagoland.

Section 4.01. Powers

Of the 12 powers granted to the MMA, number 11 states that the authority “may…develop or participate in residential and commercial development on and in the vicinity of public transportation stations and routes to facilitate transit-supportive land uses, increase public transportation ridership, generate revenue, and improve access to jobs and other opportunities in the metropolitan region by public transportation”.

This will be important as the other sections described below are dependent on the authority having that power.

Section 4.27. Transit-Supportive Development Incentive Program

The goal here would be to promote and fund mixed-use development that increases transit ridership. An account would be created into which the state could deposit funds as appropriated. The MMA could:

  • invest in “transit-supportive development” – residential and commercial as defined in 4.27(1) – on transit agency property, or in the vicinity of transit agency property
  • “providing resources for increased public transportation service in and around transit-supportive residential and commercial developments, especially newly created transit-supportive developments” – this would be a new feature and could mitigate concerns that the transit service levels around a proposed TSD aren’t sufficient to make the development material “transit-supportive” (example below).
  • “grants to local governments to help cover the cost of drafting and implementing land use, parking, and other laws that are intended to encourage and will reasonably have the effect of allowing or supporting transit-supportive residential and commercial development;” – this is something that the current Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) and Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) already do.

Example of providing resources for increased transit around TSDs

Say that you’re a developer proposing a multi-family apartment building next to the Lemont, Illinois, Metra station. Part of the proposal is provide transit passes in lieu of any car parking (because of the massive cost associated with building parking according to Lemont’s mandates), and because Lemont’s walkable downtown offers most services for people, especially those commuting to Chicago or might have groceries delivered.

Part of downtown Lemont, Illinois

The village board is weary, though, and says that there’s not enough transit service for them to support your proposal (this is a real thing that city council members and even zoning review staff in Chicago say). They could be right; there is no Metra service on weekends and the only Pace bus route is 755, to downtown Chicago. This could limit tenants’ ability to travel to reach services and friends in other towns.

The MMA staff, however, recognize the transit-generating aspects of this proposed development and proffer funds from the TSD account to add Metra weekend service and a bus route over the Illinois and Michigan Canal to the big shopping centers in Bolingbrook.

Section 5.07. Strategic Plan

The MMA Act stipulates that the authority has to create and update a strategic plan every five years. The current RTA already does this, but the Chicago Transit Authority does not and is not required to; the RTA’s strategic plan does not direct CTA’s actions.

In this future strategic plan, the MMA must consider land use policies, specifically:

land use policies, practices, and incentives that will make more effective use of public transportation services and facilities as community assets and encourage the siting of businesses, homes, and public facilities near public transportation services and facilities to provide convenient and affordable travel for residents, customers, and employees in the metropolitan region;

Section 7.03. Establishment of the Office of Transit-Oriented Development and Transit-Supportive Development Fund

The MMA Act would create an Office of Transit-Oriented Development within the Metropolitan Mobility Authority to administer the TSD Fund, including issuing loans in support of transit-supportive developments and offering technical assistance.

Section 7.04. Transit support overlay districts

This section says that CMAP, the “metropolitan planning organization” for Northeastern Illinois, “shall develop standards for a transit support overlay district for that urban area, which may include, but are not limited to, transit-supportive allowable uses and densities, restriction of auto-oriented uses, removal of parking requirements, site planning standards that support walkability, sidewalk network connectivity and local funding commitments for sidewalks in compliance with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended, and streetscape features that encourage transit use.”

The purpose of this section is to direct Transit Supportive Development funding is going only to developments within an adopted local “transit support overlay district”.

Such a district also gives a municipality standing to request an increase in the transit service standards delivered in their area; see section 5.11(f). (The authority would study the request and if the municipality or other source can provide funding then the service would have to be provided.)

It appears that the goal with this is to ensure that CMAP, the region’s state and federally-designated office to develop a regional plan, is assisting the MMA, different departments of transportation, the Illinois Tollway, and municipalities in the execution of the regional plan’s strategies (currently called “ON TO 2050”).

Not present: preemption authority

To jumpstart a housing construction agenda, the Illinois General Assembly could give the Metropolitan Mobility Authority its own municipal power to allow it to develop multifamily housing and other transit-supportive development without being subject to local zoning limitations.

Combined with such land use authority the MMA – through a modified version of this bill – could also be funded in part by having it collect property tax revenue through “value capture”, where the MMA receives the property tax increment between pre-development and post-development property values.

If you’re familiar with the MTR in Hong Kong or Japanese railway companies, train transit in those two countries is funded by the mixed-use developments (or leases) that occurs on land around or above the stations that are owned by those companies.

Ald. Lawson re-introduces ordinance to jumpstart sagging ADU program

I wrote this summary of the ADU changes this proposed ordinance (O2023-2075) would implement (with my commentary in parentheses).

Before you read on, though, please sign the Urban Environmentalists Illinois petition to show your support for allowing ADUs citywide.

  • It allows ADUs citywide (this is the most important change to speed up adoption)
  • Expands to B and C1, C2 zoning districts (this is important because there are thousands of residential-only properties that are incorrectly zoned in B and C districts which don’t allow ADUs)
  • It also allows ground floor commercial conversions but only if 40% of more of the property length is commercial space.
  • It allows a property owner to have both an interior ADU and a backyard house ADU (currently you can have one or more interior ADUs or a backyard house)
  • It removes the 700 s.f. cap on floor area in backyard houses.
  • It allows property owners who want to build a coach house to ask the zoning administrator to waive parking requirements for the principal building. 
  • It would require a special use from the ZBA to establish an ADU in RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts. These are much less common than the other R zoning districts and 0 ADUs have been permitted in those districts since May 1, 2021. 
  • It allows the property owner OR the city to notify the alder of a proposed ADU permit application. 
  • It eliminates the need for the property owner to notify their two adjacent neighbors. 
  • It doesn’t change the affordability requirements when proposing to build 2 or more interior ADUs. 
  • It eliminates the restrictions in the 3 southern limit areas that limited the number of ADU permits per block per year (this restriction ended up having no effect due to little demand in those areas). 
  • It eliminates the requirement that to build a coach house at a 1-3 unit house it had to be owner occupied (only in the 3 southern pilot areas, again this restriction ended up having no effect due to little demand in those areas). 

The changes would take effect 120 days after passage. It’s no guarantee that all of these will remain in the final version!

The ADU program in Chicago needs this. As I pointed out in my comment to the Chicago City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards, the number of ADU permits has been declining since December 2022.

Comment to zoning committee about why a full ZBA is important

Oral public comment given on April 9, 2024

Hello members of the Chicago city council committee on zoning, landmarks, and building standards. My name is Steven Vance. I am a resident of the city of Chicago and an urban planner. I regularly consult on projects that require zoning approvals from this committee, as well as the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the Zoning Administrator. I am here to urge the City Council to amend the zoning ordinance to ensure that the Zoning Board of Appeals can function when there are not enough board members.

The City’s Municipal Code requires that the ZBA has five members and two alternates. Alternates fill in for members when they are unable to attend meetings, due to illness or personal matters. Currently, however, the Zoning Board of Appeals has only three members. This status puts the timely approval of dozens of applications for special use, variation, or other forms of relief at risk. 

This shortfall at the ZBA materially jeopardizes new development, especially matters involving new housing. At the ZBA meeting in February a proposal for shelter housing in Uptown failed to receive three votes required to be approved. The project received two affirmative and two negative votes. The project could have passed if the board had all five members. 

The ZBA’s current state is bound to affect more projects. At least two other shelter housing applications that have support from the Chicago Department of Housing are intending to be heard this year at ZBA. However, these proposals may be forced to wait until the ZBA has a full membership or else suffer the same fate as the shelter that failed at the ZBA in February. This could push back construction and operations of the shelter, and further exacerbate the housing and homelessness crisis in Chicago.

The Mayor and City Council should take meaningful steps to address housing and homelessness in the City. Rather than wait for the mayor to appoint additional members to the ZBA, the City Council should amend the code to allow alternates to sit in when there are fewer than five regular appointed ZBA members. The current code only allows alternates to sit in for regular members who are missing that day. 

I urge the committee to consider an amendment to the Code to allow ZBA to operate during a time like this when the board has too few members. Additionally, the mayor’s Cut The Tape initiative includes strategies to change zoning codes to ensure shelters are allowed to be built in more places and circumstances. I would urge the committee to support adopting the ordinance needed to effect that strategy.

The progression of development and housing for vulnerable Chicagoans depends on your actions.

Comment to Chicago’s committee on zoning about expanding ADUs

This doesn’t fully match with what I spoke at the Chicago City Council committee on zoning, landmarks, and building standards on April 16, 2024 (meeting agenda), because it was written for about two and a half minutes but due to the high number of public commenters Vice Chair Lawson (44th Ward) reduced everyone’s maximum speaking time from 3 minutes to 2 minutes so I made some on-the-fly cuts. Ordinance O2023-2075.

My name is Steven Vance. I am a Chicago resident and a land use consultant. In two weeks the city will reach the three-year anniversary of when Chicagoans could start applying for building permits to build accessory dwelling units, otherwise known as ADUs. Locally we call them garden apartments and coach houses.

In that time, the city has permitted approximately 237 projects comprising 275 new ADU homes. 75% of these are or will be in basements, and a little less than 20% are or will be in backyard or “coach” houses. 

11% of these homes are required to be rented at affordable rates set by the Department of Housing each year.

That’s 271 new homes that are or will be providing housing for family members, providing new income for property owners, and picking away at the city’s housing shortage of 120,000 homes. But the opportunity is not available to everyone, and the number of ADU permits issued each quarter has been declining since December 2022. 

The number of ADU permits has been declining. I include the graph here to illustrate my point but I did not present the graph during my comment.

City Council adopted five pilot areas, a limitation that doesn’t need to stick around. Hundreds of currently interested property owners are prohibited from building an ADU. Their current alternative is to undertake a costly zoning change process to gain the privilege of building one or two more units on their properties. (However, shoutout to the few alderpersons who facilitate this process on behalf of their constituents.)

I operate Chicago Cityscape, a real estate information website that also has advice on building ADUs and a tool to look up if a property is in an ADU pilot area. 

As of last week, people have looked up 815 addresses in 48 wards…but…70% of those addresses were not in a pilot area and those people will not be able to build an ADU at this time.

I believe those permitting and address lookup statistics show that ADUs, while representing less than 3% of new construction homes, are popular. They allow for Chicagoans to modify their properties to age in place, fund renovations and property taxes, or move a family member to be closer. Now is the time to expand this benefit to all of Chicago and I urge the City Council to drop the geographic ban as soon as possible.

Finally, Mayor Johnson’s Cut The Tape initiative includes citywide ADUs as a phase 2 strategy, so ADUs are something City Council should support. [This part was added last second.]