Data-Smart City Solutions


By Sean Thornton

As demand grows for more sustainable and equitable urban planning, Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) initiatives have been gaining steam worldwide.  From Washington to Hong Kong to Chicago, many cities have developed TOD policies that aim to increase public transit use, enhance resident access to jobs, and reduce carbon emissions that arise from automobile dependency.

Yet in many places, the path to enacting effective TOD policies comes with obstacles.  These can range from restrictive zoning laws to wary residents and hesitant elected officials.  If TOD advocates wish to sway local policy or opinion, then sharing information and guiding public discourse becomes critical.  Given the complexity of many TOD proposals out there, this isn’t always an easy task. 

Enter open data, which when used creatively and paired with rigorous research, can have a substantive effect.  This was the case in Chicago: using public data, the city’s Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) developed an interactive data visualization tool that has played a major role in helping shape local TOD rules and regulations. 

The nonpartisan and nonprofit MPC, founded in 1934, is one of the Chicago area’s principal research and advocacy centers for smart urban planning, land usage, and regional growth strategies.  The organization launched its tool, called the TOD Calculator, in July 2015; today, it has become a go-to resource for many local aldermen, developers, and residents.  

While the calculator was only a part of MPC’s multi-faceted TOD advocacy campaign, it nonetheless shows the power that effectively-used public data can have on policymaking and civic discourse. 

The Road to Equitable TOD in Chicago

In 2013, Chicago’s city council passed its first-ever TOD ordinance, which allowed for higher-density residential, commercial and retail construction near transit stations.  Specifically, it allowed for a 2:1 ratio of residential units to parking spaces, reducing parking requirements by half.  This reduction would apply to developments built within 600 feet of a transit station, or 1200 feet of a transit station along   designated pedestrian streets. 

While the ordinance was a big victory for sustainable development policy, MPC and other transit experts acknowledged that more could be done.  With a TOD-applicable distance of only 600 feet in many areas, the 2013 ordinance gave TOD room for less than one block.  And instead of letting any commercial development that meets these conditions proceed, the ordinance also called for such projects to go through an additional “administrative adjustment process,” which included a set of zoning administrator reviews.

“There are a lot of complexities for why getting TOD passed in Chicago can be difficult compared to other regions,” noted Yonah Freemark, MPC project manager and transportation expert.  “From MPC’s point of view, getting an equitable TOD policy passed in 2013 is already a great accomplishment. Yet given that momentum, our goal was to go further—that is, to seize upon that opportunity and push for more equitable TOD that can enhance the well-being of the Chicago area and its residents.”

Freemark and other TOD advocates knew that a wider TOD-zoned area and an easier approval process would bring more development proposals, and the community benefits associated with them, than the 2013 ordinance allowed.  Yet in order to make the case to policymakers and the public, MPC would need more than a vague promise of “community benefits.” Quantifiable, yet understandable, estimates of these benefits were in order.

In order for open data to reach its full potential, those who consume it must be willing to take on complex tasks—like MPC and its partners did—to create tools and products that effectively educate and benefit the public. 

This push for enhanced TOD also aligned with MPC’s agency-wide goals for the Chicago region by 2020, which, among other objectives, calls for attracting 100,000 new residents to live near public transit.

In 2014, MPC partnered with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) to engage in a comprehensive study on TOD in Chicago.  The goal was to understand more specifically what barriers to TOD existed, and what benefits an enhanced TOD program would bring to the region and its residents.  With ITDP’s support, Freemark, MPC’s lead on the effort, conducted a wide range of interviews, primary and secondary surveys, and statistical analyses, essentially providing MPC and ITDP with a barometer for a host of TOD-related issues, including financing, regulations, and community perceptions.  The final report, Grow Chicago, was released in July 2015.  

Yet it was also during this year that the idea for offering something a bit more interactive than a report came on.  “We wanted to deliver something that people could not just read, but use digitally,” Freemark noted. “Something that was not just part of a report, but a tool—a tool which would help people understand more precisely what benefits TOD can bring on a very local level.”

This tool – the TOD Calculator – was released along with Grow Chicago as a key part of MPC’s equitable TOD campaign.  

Using the TOD Calculator  

MPC’s final product allows users to pinpoint an address or land parcel in the City of Chicago and learn its basic development information—such as zoning code, number of square feet allowed to be built on the site, and distance from nearest transit station.  Given that pinpointed address or parcel, users can then see forecasted annual retail sales, tax revenue, as well as projections for new on-site jobs, residents, and transit ridership levels, among other information. 

For example: let’s say I’m a prospective local developer looking up the currently underdeveloped plot at 300 East 51st Street on the city’s South Side.  The site, situated just west of the 51st Street Green Line CTA station, is one of several nearby addresses that qualify for increased density and reduced parking:

Let’s say I’m interested at what the potential impacts of a new development at that site would be.  What would the impact of, say, a multi-use building with 4,000 square feet of retail, 4,000 square feet of office space, and 10 residential units have on the neighborhood and city?

The outcomes of potential development at this site would be significant: 19 new residents, 23 new onsite jobs, $173k in annual local retail sales, and over $350k in additional tax revenue over the next 10 years.  And, for comparison, my modest proposal is a fraction of what the community impact may be if someone developed that parcel to its maximum level.  Doing so would generate over half a million a year in retail revenue, over a million in tax revenue, and a whopping 27,000 additional transit riders per year. 

Granted, these are estimates, not guarantees—MPC makes sure to note this at the bottom of the calculator.  But what these numbers do provide is a host of useful information for a wide range of people.  Freemark, who led the effort to develop the tool, also took part in introducing the calculator—and MPC’s Grow Chicago report—to City Hall, local alderman, and the general public.  More than six months past the calculator’s launch, he has seen it used in various ways, including:

  • Developers using the tool as a gauge for potential projects 
  • Residents better informing developers and their local aldermen about what they would like to see in any prospective development during community meetings
  • Small business owners better understanding how a new development impacts their businesses and strategizing accordingly
  • Aldermen assessing the potential neighborhood and city impacts of a development             

Behind the Numbers: Building the Calculator  

The foundation of MPC’s TOD Calculator is essentially a formula that takes users’ given geographic inputs, and processes them to produce a series of outputs.  To determine those inputs and outputs—and the design of the calculator overall—Freemark engaged with multiple partners and utilized a wide range of data sources. 

These partners included the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development, which advised MPC on city zoning issues, and local tech firm Webitects, who handled the project’s web design.  Perhaps Freemark’s most vital partner, however, was Steven Vance.  Vance is the Founder and CEO of Chicago Cityscape, a local startup that makes neighborhood, property and construction development data more easily accessible. 

Through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that his startup has developed, Vance collects and integrates information on Chicago building licenses, permits, violations, demolitions, and teardowns so that they are easy for clients to understand and use.  Among other sources, Vance’s information comes in from data portals at the City of Chicago, Cook County, and the US Census.  

In partnering with Freemark and MPC, Vance offered to share his company’s APIs to be used for the TOD Calculator. Freemark, armed with those APIs, then gathered property tax information from across the city to generate a formula that would show projections for searchable address and parcels. 

While open data helped make the calculator possible, Freemark’s analysis was a sometimes arduous process.  From changes in local tax rates during the project’s construction, to delays and complications in verifying taxing and neighborhood boundaries, the work was an exercise in patience and persistence.

Grow Chicago and TOD Policy Change 

Fortunately, one of MPC’s historical strengths is ensuring that its issues and recommendations remain a priority for local governments.  Throughout the development of Grow Chicago and the TOD Calculator, Freemark and other MPC staff regularly engaged with the City.  MPC held steering group meetings and fostered dialogues between communities and City Hall, ensuring both were included members of the initiative. “We didn’t want to put out a report that didn’t engage the City, or the public,” notes Freemark.  “The more support we can have for equitable TOD, the better.”

In 2015, when the Grow Chicago report was officially launched, MPC’s TOD advocacy campaign was in full swing—with the Calculator often front and center.  Freemark took part in more than 15 meetings with neighborhood groups and aldermen across the city.  His goal: to make sure that people were as aware and educated as possible about equitable TOD, and how it can potentially impact their community.  The Calculator proved to be an excellent vehicle to help do this.

Adding credibility, the Calculator’s estimates are backed by some tangible evidence: since the passage of the 2013 ordinance, TOD projects have risen sharply in neighborhoods around the city.

The City took notice as well: In the fall of 2015, Chicago approved a huge expansion of its TOD ordinance.  As the ordinance stands today, TOD development in Chicago is applicable within 1,320 feet—or a quarter-mile—of all transit stations; for pedestrian streets, zones have been extended to a half-mile.  Both standard and pedestrian streets are also freed from any parking minimums altogether.    Furthermore, if a developer provides on-side affordable housing, then building density can be additionally expanded.

MPC estimates that the 2015 ordinance provides a tenfold increase in the amount of city land area where the usual parking minimum is exempt.  Not only is this a huge gain for sustainability and transit ridership, it provides property owners, developers, community groups, residents, and others with more options for how to make the most of certain lots and parcels in the city.  

The Calculator Today  

“When a new development gets proposed in a community, aldermen often consult the TOD calculator as a way to better understand the project’s ramifications,” said Freemark.  “At community meetings in which I’ve discussed TOD policy and present the Calculator itself, people have found it to be really helpful.”  

With the Calculator earning positive reviews and gaining regular users, MPC also sees room for the application to grow.  Future iterations could possibly include examining estimates for multiple parcels at a time, or seeing what impacts equitable TOD may have on other cities in the Chicago area.

It’s true that without open data, the Calculator would not have been possible to build.  Yet MPC’s creative work shows that the effectiveness of data portals themselves also has a ceiling.  In order for open data to reach its full potential, those who consume it must be willing to take on complex tasks—like MPC and its partners did—to create tools and products that effectively educate and benefit the public.  The TOD Calculator is one of a growing number of examples where we’re seeing this happen.   

Open data-based efforts may even have a role in shaping public policy.  As the Calculator shows, taking a relatively wonky strategy like TOD and localizing its concept to a street corner is a wonderfully effective way to not just educate, but to get people’s attention.  With the TOD Calculator, community members, developers, and local government now have a tool that enhances their abilities to communicate, strategize, and ultimately come to agreements and proposals that benefit everyone.    

As such, the Calculator offers not only a victory for transit policy, but for the process of civic discourse, and the hope that such achievements will continue to grow—in Chicago and beyond.         

About the Author

Sean Thornton

Sean Thornton is a Program Advisor for the Ash Center's Civic Analytics Network and writer for Data-Smart City Solutions.  Based in Chicago, Sean holds joint Masters’ degrees from the University of Chicago, in Public Policy and Social Service Administration. His work has spanned the city's public, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors. 


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