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Investing Wisely in Transportation

As we enter a new round of City budgeting with tightened belts, it’s more critical than ever to get the most benefit from each project. How? Greater transparency, and a focus on equity, economic opportunity, and public health.

Image courtesy Grant (CC)

COVID-19 has changed the face of transportation. Transit ridership is down 69%. Bike sales are off the chain.  And despite things grinding to a halt during the lockdown, now auto traffic is already up to 90 percent of pre-COVID levels.

In the face of a rapidly changing context and tightening budgets, how can we be sure that every transportation dollar does the most good? Like all cities, Chicago develops an annual Capital Improvement Program that lists the infrastructure investments it will make in coming years, including transportation, water, and social service projects. To build public support for how the budget is used, the City should increase transparency of its selection process for the Capital Improvement Program. Transparency means setting clear goals and developing a method for prioritizing investments to align with those goals. It is critical to clearly describe how projects in the Capital Improvement Program were chosen, what plans they align with, and their anticipated benefits to residents.

The benefits of transparency are that residents understand the vision for the city and how decisions are made to advance that vision. During periods of crisis—now more than ever— it’s important to build transparency and trust.

What does it look like to develop a Capital Improvement Program that lays information out clearly?  The Government Finance Officers Association provides guidance.  And we can also look at best practices, such as those of Oakland, California, which uses a project scoring process that clearly describes how different priorities are weighted and how candidate projects are scored. In its latest update or the process, Oakland added social factors including equity, economic opportunity, and public health.

City of Oakland Proposed Capital Improvement Program FY 2019-2021

In Chicago, the Capital Improvement Program should define which projects have been proposed by departments versus external partners; the role of the city council committee that provides oversight (Economic, Capital and Technology Development Committee); and when the public can provide feedback. 

As we enter a new cycle of City budgeting with reduced revenues, it’s more critical than ever to get the most benefits from each project. It is important that we prioritize investments that are relatively low in cost and can have major positive impacts on community quality of life.  

What should we focus on?

The environment

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

As Chicago makes future transportation investments, we also must strongly consider impact on the environment; transportation is now the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.  While car traffic went down during the COVID-19 lockdown, now it is already up to nearly pre-COVID levels, despite many people still working from home. As the COVID-19 crisis recedes and people return to being more mobile, we must make sustainable transportation choices the most attractive ones.  If we seek to develop projects that are environmentally sustainable, that move the most people along public roadways and that improve quality of life, investments should prioritize biking, walking, and transit.


A major focus of transportation investments in Chicago should be related to improving the safety of our current system.  We cannot tolerate Chicagoans risking death or injury as the cost of mobility. Over the past ten years an average of 40 pedestrians and five cyclists have died each year on Chicago roadways, with many more suffering severe injuries. And safety has not gotten better during COVID -19.  As shown in the city’s High Crash Corridors Framework Plan, a large share of these preventable deaths are occurring in communities of color. The City has completed a Vision Zero traffic safety West Side Action Plan and is developing other neighborhood Vision Zero traffic safety plans. To date, there has been no dedicated project funding for implementation of safety plans. CDOT needs dedicated funding to build these projects that will save lives on our roadways, especially in communities that urgently need improvements.

Active transportation

The City should accelerate investment in bicycle infrastructure.  Only 280 miles of separated, striped, or shared bike lanes have been developed despite a goal of 645 miles in the 2020 Streets for Cycling Plan.  A number of cities like  Botoga, Barcelona, Paris, Milan and Sydney    have doubled down on bike infrastructure as a COVID-19 response.  Chicago’s own survey data collected this summer showed that residents of many neighborhoods want bike lanes or shared streets where through-traffic is eliminated and biking is more comfortable. Providing dedicated bike lanes is especially critical in areas where Divvy bikeshare expansion was just rolled out such as the South and West sides. While the city is adding 16.5 miles of bike lanes on the South Side this season, many areas still lack any designated lanes. People—especially new riders—will not ride bikes if they don’t feel there is a safe place to do so. Therefore, lanes protected from auto traffic are particularly important.

Transit speed and reliability

The COVID-19 crisis has shown us that transit is a lifeline that has kept our city moving and enabled our essential workers to get to work in grocery stores, hospitals, pharmacies, and making deliveries. Transit needs to be part of Chicago’s long-term future. But bus speeds have been declining for years, making riding the bus a less attractive option. Many communities without train service depend on buses. We need to make buses move more quickly by investing in a comprehensive network of dedicated bus lanes on City streets, so these vehicles carrying dozens of people can move throughout the city quickly and reliably and not be delayed by cars carrying only one or two passengers. Other large U.S. cities like New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Miami, Orlando, Houston, and Los Angeles have been implementing bus rapid transit (BRT) strategies and are proving how beneficial fast, reliable buses are. 


The City’s transportation footprint includes a lot of public space, including the roadway, sidewalks, medians, and plazas.  How do we leverage these assets to create community, build places people want to walk, and improve neighborhoods?  MPC encourages City funding of the Make Way for People placemaking program at CDOT, which upgrades pedestrian plazas and spaces. This program has incredible potential to improve street safety, promote walkable communities, and support economic development for local businesses and neighborhoods. However, to date it has been unfunded and has required private revenue to develop projects.   This has resulted in few projects being advanced.  Make Way for People should be funded given its incredible potential to cultivate community and culture in Chicago’s neighborhoods through placemaking, at a relatively low cost. 

By improving the transparency of Chicago’s Capital Improvement Program, and focusing where we can get most the bang for the buck, we can build trust with residents, and ensure that we’re spending our money wisely.