Chicago is one of the only cities you can visit in the US that still has wooden platforms for its transit system. After a century of use, the “L” is certainly old, but shows no signs of slowing down. Despite the rush to the suburbs that gutted cities across the country during the twentieth century, the Chicago Transit Authority has continued to operate throughout the city since it was created by the City of Chicago and State of Illinois in the 1940s. Not only that, but as America takes a renewed interest in building sustainable cities, many local governments are wising up to the idea of maintaining a long term plan to guide development far into the future. Here, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) fulfills that need.
On a sunny day in Chicago, I had the chance to meet with Elizabeth Irvin, senior planner of policy & programming at CMAP, on the 33rd floor of Willis Tower, where workers in the building can stop by a cafe for a light lunch and a chat. The views are predictably stunning, with the John Hancock building and Lake Michigan visible in the distance. CMAP is currently developing a new plan, called On To 2050, and its scope extends even farther than than the views from the cafe.
“We got a lot of compliments from our stakeholders about the intensive process we’ve gone through to get to this point,” Irvin told me, “but our board really asked us to increase specificity in 2050 and look at what’s as good and what’s made progress and build on that to get further on the goals that we have.”
Originally formed in 2005, the agency has quickly established a sterling reputation as both a conduit for public input and a shepherd for federal, state and local grants destined to improve the Chicagoland area. Their original plan, called Go To 2040, incorporated a lot of important ideas for expanding transit, including adding more traditional bus routes and arterial Bus Rapid Transit.
One of the goals set forth from the beginning was doubling public outreach from the 2040 plan. By the end of last summer, CMAP had already done so. They hosted a series of public “Alternative Futures Forums,” in which participants brainstormed potential solutions to five chosen areas of public policy that the 2050 plan was going to focus on: walkable communities, changed climate, constrained resources, transformed economy and innovative transportation..
“A lot of it is not getting caught up in the exciting projects of today,” said “In the 90s and early 2000s, the technology that was going to solve our problems was the Segway.”
Obviously, our collective Segway dreams didn’t pan out.
What’s most impressive about CMAP’s plan is the emphasis on integration that’s baked in to the agency’s culture. Planning is done with input from other suburbs, and the five focuses of the 2050 plan aren’t siloed – rather, the agency views these goals as interconnected. One example they cite is the the 75th Street Corridor Project, which encompassed the communities of Ashburn, Englewood, Auburn Gresham and West Chatham and incorporated funding from federal all the way down to municipal contributions. On June 5, the project received funding from the US Department of Transportation to begin improvements, which will untangle freight and passenger rail lines in one of the most congested rail points in the country. The project is part of the broader CREATE program which, according to its mission statement, “will invest billions in critically needed improvements to increase the efficiency of the region’s passenger and freight rail infrastructure.”
“It’s certainly been a group effort to get that project done,” said Irvin.
More group efforts are certainly forecasted for the future. One of the most pressing projects for Chicago will be the expansion of its red line into the southside of Chicago, in order to better connect commuters to jobs. Of course, to people at CMAP, it’s clear that that project will need to involve stakeholders not just from individual transit agencies, but other parts of the community as well.
“If we want our investments to go as far as we can,” said Irvin, “we need to look to systems outside of the transit agencies and see how we can improve the region as a whole.”