Innovation a mindset, not a buzz word - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Innovation a mindset, not a buzz word

“Innovation” is a word that gets bandied about a lot these days, but it’s a buzz word that means very little to the average person. To me, innovation is a mindset that truly can transform cities and regions, and, ultimately, our national economy.

At MPC, we’re doing more to identify and encourage innovative policies and practices that contribute to sustainable, strong economies. At our roundtable luncheon last Thursday, 104 transportation decision-makers, community planners, and elected and appointed officials learned more about congestion pricing, which gives people the option of paying a fee to drive in a less congested lane, to take an alternative route, or to take transit. It has been proven elsewhere to reduce congestion, clean the environment, and expand transportation choices – benefits we could use in metro Chicago, where a 2008 MPC report showed we lose $7.3 billion a year due to excess traffic congestion on our roads.

Roundtable attendees heard about initiatives to battle bottlenecks from Jeffrey Lindley of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). I was especially inspired by a report from Nick Thompson of the Minnesota Dept. of Transportation, who deconstructed the Twin Cities’ success with congestion pricing techniques along two major highways. Illinois Tollway Executive Director Kristi Lafleur brought it home by discussing how the Tollway is driving innovation. Attendees got the first look at a draft study by MPC and Wilbur Smith Associates, commissioned by the Tollway, that explores options for implementing congestion pricing on three segments – the I-90 Jane Addams Tollway, I-90-94 Kennedy Reversibles, and I-55 Stevenson Expressway.

Congestion pricing is a perfect example of innovation: It’s a cost-effective way to make better use our existing transportation system, saving us all money and time. When we begin to put policies like this into practice, we drive demand for innovative products, such as smart meters and intelligent transportation systems – bringing the conversation back to jobs: Who will manufacture these systems? Install them? Monitor them? Innovation creates jobs, provided there’s a workforce ready to fill them.

Chicagoland has no shortage of innovators. I was reminded of that when I received a well-timed e-mail last week from a colleague about the ninth annual Chicago Innovation Awards. By recognizing the most innovative new products and services brought to market each year in the Chicago region, the awards position Chicago as a "hot" market. Scholarships are provided by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School for award nominees to participate in an executive education program.

This year, the Chicago Innovation Awards is launching its third phase, direct action. Rather than simply identify products and services that have already demonstrated market impact, the Chicago Innovation Awards is making connections to manufacturers in the Chicago region – which will create jobs for the local economy. 

So please nominate a product or service for this year’s awards by July 31. Details are available at

In the coming weeks, I’ll write more about true innovation. As a regional partner of the Brookings Institution, I’ve been learning more about the need for regional economies nurture key growth sectors, including exports and green products and services. Stay tuned for more the week of July 26.


  1. 1. Michael McMahon from Chicago Native on July 24, 2010

    Innovation is indeed a buzzword. As far as innovation is concerned with public transit, non-existent, in today's political climate. Since the days of the late 1800's into the 1950's Chicago's need for four wheeled personal transportation was more of a convenience than necessity. We are aware that Chicago had the largest street car system, cable car system, and elevated rapid transit system in the world. But as time went on, the generations that followed never knew about the interurban electric rail system, that were virtually the seeds that had taken root that developed the 6 county area and beyond. Just as an example...The Chicago Aurora and Elgin RR, was a third rail electric system that had a stub end terminal at Quincy and Wells St, with a catwalk to the Elevated Union Loop in Chicago, to Wheaton, and beyond. Look at the historical growth of the metro area and you'll find that the majority of development outside the Chicago city limits, is along this route. In the late 1950's this privately held line went out of business. The subsequent development adjusted to the routing of the Interstate Highway system, that forced folks into their cars on order to access the Chicago and Northwestern stations as well as other destinations that were accessible via the now CTA Rapid Transit that was adjacent to Quincy and Wells.
    I think that any innovative planning that is to be useful in the future needs to connect to currently available services. For example. The O'Hare CTA Blue Line is the end of the clean energy efficient line that with today's construction technology, could be extended northwest to colleges shopping at Woodfield, and relieve stress on the Jane Addams, I-90 corridor.The Forest Park CTA, extended west through the I-88 corridor, etc. Redundant? Possibly, however, explore the possibilities of being able to have access to transportation from Rockford Airport to O'Hare and downtown, with adjacent CTA and Pace Bus services already in place....all along the route. (and relieve the need for a third Chicagoland airport) Who would win in an investment such as this? The general public enjoys the relief from the pollution of fossil fueled vehicles, also the convenience of regular running dependable transit. The increased ridership on existing lines, could perhaps reduce the contributions of public subsidies. But let's keep in mind, that ample parking at suburban locations in needed, as history has also shown.
    We started weening off public transportation around 1958, and now, as we have seen in recent years, the need to realign to today's needs could regain the confidence of the average commuter. Keep in mind, there was a day when you could board a train in Milwaukee, WI, South Bend, IN, Aurora, IL or Elgin, IL and ride to Chicago's Loop, change trains, and ride to any other end, efficiently, economically, and environmentally safe.
    Extending CTA electric rail is not only sensible, but could be a financial boon to struggling agencies looking for increased ridership to manage expenses.
    Innovation. Is it a tool to catch votes, or could it be a concept that returns us to the days where sense makes sense?
    But indeed the bottom line is this. Is there any politicians capable of having the courage to relinquish the strangle hold of some of their clout in being cooperative with other agencies to bring clean electric Intrastate and Interstate commuter transportation back where it belongs? Time will tell.

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