Can we Retrofit the Suburbs for Walkability and Transit? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Can we Retrofit the Suburbs for Walkability and Transit?

On an average day in Chicago I walk .4 miles to and from the CTA “L” station for my commute. In in the summer months I ride my bicycle 4.5 miles each way to work. I walk to all my work appointments in the Loop and to all destinations in my neighborhood (grocery, library, gym, restaurants, retail). On an average day my activity tracker reads 2.5 to 4 miles covered on foot, just going about my daily business. In warmer months I usually walk a lot more than that. This is exercise integrated into daily life. It doesn’t take any more time or require me to go to a gym, and it’s free. I can live this pedestrian-oriented lifestyle because of the neighborhood where I choose to live—densely developed southeast Lakeview in Chicago—and where I work—at Adams and Dearborn in the Loop. At both home and work, sidewalks line every street and many places I want to go are within a short distance. 

But for many people in the region, it’s not so easy to fit in walking throughout the day. Often there are no sidewalks. In many cases there are no stores, restaurants or other destinations within walking distance of home or work.  According to Foot Traffic Ahead, published by Smart Growth America, while the Chicago region is highly ranked (#4) for its current walkable urban development, nearly all of this development is located City of Chicago. Confining walkable urban development to the central city limits the market for walkable urbanism in the region, because many households and businesses prefer suburban options.  

Transportation planners know that transportation options depends on how land is developed. For transit to be possible, certain levels of density and pedestrian access are required. To walk to transit, a sidewalk and a reasonable distance between home and the bus or train stop is required. The availability of good pedestrian routes and places to go depends on development patterns, as well as the existence of sidewalks.  The best scenario for regular transit use is for people to walk to a transit stop. Active transportation helps people integrate exercise into daily life and lead healthier lifestyles. 

CMAP recently convened a panel as part of its long-range plan update (ON TO 2050) to discuss the future of housing and development in the region. What will the next decade or two bring for greater Chicago? Aging millennials and baby boomers will influence housing demand. Millennials have shown that they like urban-style amenities such as walkability and town centers. Seventy percent of young people aspire to be homeowners but are forced to the suburbs because of housing affordability and schools. But the suburban model where residents must drive everywhere is less appealing to younger generations.   

Boomers are largely aging in place and will eventually want or need to stop driving. Walking is one of the best and easiest forms of exercise for older people to stay healthy. We need a new model including density that will support walkable areas and make transit possible, as well as diverse housing stock that will accommodate future desire for intergenerational and shared housing.   

To attract talent, suburban communities are learning they must adapt to compete. Suburbs such as Arlington Heights and Downers Grove have developed walkable areas, particularly around Metra train stations, though for most suburbs the walkable areas range from very small to nonexistent. The Chicago region must get serious about urbanizing areas of its suburbs.

Elected officials need to understand and proactively address these trends.  Suburbs were originally developed as an alternative to urbanism, and many still view their identities that way. However, the desire for less dependence on autos is expected to increase. We need to help reduce communities’ fear that by developing areas with increasingly urban form they will change their identity. Incoming community members are demanding this type of development, and to stay competitive, communities need to be proactive.  Some communities that have never had a walkable downtown, such as Wheeling, see the future and are seeking to build one from scratch.  The differentiation between cities and suburbs is fading.  The promise of having walkable areas in suburbs is:

  • Ability for residents to integrate exercise into daily life—regular exercise results in improved health outcomes.
  • Access to low cost transportation—walking is free; every person who gives up car ownership because of plentiful other transportation options including transit saves more than $11,000 per year.
  • Improved social equitywalkable urban metros are also the most socially equitable. Low cost transportation costs and better access to employment offset the higher costs of housing.
  • Reduced vehicle miles traveled—less traffic, air pollution, and fewer injuries and deaths from crashes.
  • Improved sense of community and social cohesion—there’s more chance you’ll talk to your neighbors if you walk by on the sidewalk versus cruising into the garage and closing the door.
  • Greater ability for areas to be served by transit—the requirements for transit success are sidewalks and direct pedestrian access, as well as higher levels of development density.
  • Increased property values—according to The New York Walk Up Wake Up Call published recently, walkable urban land area has 2.5 times the value of drivable suburban areas.

There is a risk to not making Chicago area suburban communities more walkable. If the desired type of walkable development is not available, this may cause people to move to other metro areas, hindering growth and leaving a significant portion of market demand unsatisfied.  The greater Chicago region cannot afford to lose more population.


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