How a Chicago suburb became car-lite and lessons for other communities

By Robbie Webber

In a provocatively titled article—The Suburb That Tried to Kill the Car—Politico digs into how the Chicago suburb of Evanston reinvented itself through transit-oriented development. With side trips to Curitiba, Brazil and Chicago, as well as examples from other U.S. cities, it is a tale with lessons for many other communities about the interplay and delicate balance of land use, transportation options, parking, zoning, tax revenues, affordable housing, and attracting new development.

Abutting Chicago to the north along Lake Michigan, Evanston was once a desirable escape for the wealthy fleeing the perceived ills of the city in the early 20th century. Built along both the commuter-rail Metra and CTA Red Line, with many buses connecting it to both Chicago and other suburbs, Evanston was ripe for a car-lite lifestyle. But as with many suburbs, its downtown declined in the 1960s and 1970s as residents and shoppers moved to car-oriented new developments for more space and wide open roads and parking.

With a struggling shopping district and the loss of several corporate headquarters, the future didn’t look too bright. The city responded by increasing taxes to continue services, rising from $5 per $100 assessed valuation in 1965 to $12 by 1985.

Bucking trends in other ways, instead of tearing down buildings for more parking and widening its streets to compete with its neighbors, Evanston chose to focus on making the downtown a destination and embracing its transit roots. The city invested in even better mass transit, including a new downtown transportation center, and relaxed zoning rules along designated corridors to allow increased residential density. Starting with a vacant insurance company headquarters, Evanston began to attract new stores, residential developments, and the mixed-use buildings that made it easy to move around without a car. A crucial decision was made to relax the city’s strict parking requirements. This made building in the denser downtown more attractive because valuable urban space was not required for car storage.

Evanston’s planners also realized that transit stops could function as more than places where people got on and off the train, but could be destinations themselves. As a result of the decisions of city leaders in the 1980s, the good transit bones the city already had, changing transportation preferences, and technological innovation such as real time transit information and ridesharing apps, Evanston’s car ownership is very low for a suburb. Within half a mile of the “L” and commuter rail stations, 80 percent of households own one or no car compared to 47 percent for the entire city.

This transformation into a car-lite suburb took decades and was not without pain and controversy. As Politico points out, many of the decisions the city made went against long-held practice and culturally-accepted norms at the time. Yet today the city has cut its tax rate back to $8 per $100 assessed value, and the city is such a highly desirable place to live that housing affordability has become the new concern.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.