The maps on my previous post showed that Google’s future Chicago location (1000 W. Fulton St) does not offer better transit access than its current location (20 W Kinzie St), a fact that brings into question claims about the firm relocating to be near a newly opened transit station in the West Loop. Perhaps, though, the new location has neighborhood amenities or pedestrian assets that make it more transit-friendly. If so, my analysis based on how far you could travel using transit would be less relevant for debunking claims that Google relocated to take advantage of transit. It’s been over two years since I lived in Chicago, but in my time the West Loop area of Google’s future home was anything but a pedestrian, transit-oriented enclave, although it was a neighborhood in transition. Seeking alternative data sources to investigate the neighborhood from afar, I found WalkScore.com.
WalkScore is a real estate promotion website that (according to its Wikipedia page), uses a “large-scale, public access walkability index that assigns a numerical walkability score to any address in the United States, Canada, and Australia.” For my quick and dirty analysis needs, it is a perfect resource. Putting Google’s two locations into the online calculator produced the following scores for each location:
This metric confirms the conclusion supported by the Mapnificent analysis: Google is not relocating their office to a more transit friendly area in Chicago. Indeed, its new West Loop location fares less well than its current location on walkability, transit access and bike amenities. I’d love to believe that building transit will solve our urban development needs but the data (in this brief study and elsewhere) just doesn’t support such simplistic solutions.
Chicago recently opened a new transit station in its West Loop neighborhood; the claims being made about its impact on economic activity are indicative of politicians and policy advocates perspectives on transport infrastructure and economic development. The Metropolitan Planning Council’s blog reports that “Google recently chose to relocate its Chicago office in the Fulton Market area of the West Loop because of public transit amenities, as in the new Morgan Street CTA station on the green and pink lines” and draws the straightforward conclusion: “It’s simple Chicago: Let’s grow our economy by investing in transit.” Okay….but is Google’s new west loop location more transit accessible than its former location in River North? If not, then Google probably did not relocate “because of public transit amenities”.
Using Mapnificent ( a wonderful mapping program for public transit trips), I calculated the distance one could travel in 15, 30 and 45 minute increments using public transit from Google’s current location (20 W. Kinzie St) and their future home (1000 W Fulton St); transit availability was based on a 6 am weekday transit schedule. From the maps below it seems clear that, at best, Google’s future West Loop location has equal amounts of accessibility (as measured by how far you can travel on public transit in a specified time period: not an ideal measure of accessibility) as its current location. Furthermore, the future West Loop location has much better automobile accessibility than its current River North location, supporting the plausible conclusion that Google chose its new location not based on transit amenities, but based on improved highway access. This seems just as plausible as the interpretations offered by MPC, the Mayor’s office and others – i.e. that Google relocated to the West Loop for the area’s transit amenities. What is clear is that a large, successful firm chose to expand inside the city, instead of opting for suburban locations that might only offer automobile access and more favorable tax concessions. They also chose to locate in a not-yet-established neighborhood outside of the Loop that is accessible by transit. This is definitely something to celebrate….but simplifying the process to a “simple” casual link between transit investment and economic activity is misleading and can only result in ineffective policy prescriptions (at best) and a misuse of scarce public funds (at worst).
See an additional summary in this Atlantic Cities post.
Critical Transport is apparently on the rise, based on sessions at AAG this month in Los Angeles, articles by transport geographers in the UK and organizing among students in New York City (an unapologetic self promotion). But what does Critical mean in relation to transport scholarship? Here are several thoughts:
Critical Moment for Transport: Critical, as used in the medical terminology, refers to patients approaching a state of crisis. With almost all transit agencies in the U.S. operating under a state of permanent funding deficits it seems that our urban transit systems are not just approaching, but have reached (some time ago) a state of perpetual crisis. Although perhaps more acute in mass transit, the funding crisis extends to highways and other transport infrastructure as well. With dwindling revenues from the national gas tax resulting in less funds for maintenance, automobile infrastructure is also in a state of crisis as evident in ASCE’s 2013 report.
Critical Orientation toward Transport: In the philosophical lingua, Critical refers to criticism or questioning the assumptions that underlie current understandings and looking for the proverbial wizard behind the curtain. In a less extreme manner, it involves using judicious evaluation, variant readings and scholarly emendations to assess reality. Some scholars have recently begun approaching transport from a position that challenges the dominance of econometric and engineering based analytic frames. The move mirrors trends that took place in urban planning during the 1970’s, as the rational comprehensive model was battered by a post-positive science movement that questioned technical neutrality, emphasized the influence of power and expanded notions of expertise. Has post-positivism finally come to transport?
Critical Mass for Transport change: The two aspects of Critical outlined above have assisted in the emergence of a growing mass of scholars, practitioners and citizens dissatisfied with transport planning and implementation; perhaps a large and diverse enough group to sustain a chain reaction. Realizing that the transport infrastructure we have is not serving the needs of society, a movement seems afoot to produce an alternative vision and approach for the future. Dissatisfaction emanates from along the political and social spectrum, indicating a type of census in favor of change – albeit what type of change remains hotly contested.
Critical Transport Scholarship is not new. Indeed, over the past 40 years scholars in many fields have taken shots at transport planning, policies and implementation, albeit in a fractured, haphazard manner. Without a community to turn to for support, these scholars have made relatively minor dents in the veneer of the transportation-industrial complex. Is the time right to take the movement to the next level? Follow the Center for Critical Transport Studies as we advance a new agenda in transport scholarship…or at least have fun trying!