Chicago has made a name for itself as one of America’s most segregated cities: The lines between neighborhoods inhabited by whites, blacks, or latinos are stark, often even denoted physically by elevated highways or railroad rights-of-way. Integration in housing is rare. People tend to have a lack of familiarity about the neighborhoods in which people of different races live.
Yet on board the subways and buses of the Chicago Transit Authority, which provides 1.7 million rides every weekday, is a different sort of experience. Riding the system many times last week, I was struck by the degree to which integration on transit doesn’t seem to bother many people, even as many continue to choose housing in areas that are monoracial. Rather, like in many big cities, Chicago’s transit system is a model of diversity, featuring people of all types sitting and standing next to one another day-in, day-out.
This points to one of the peculiarities of modern American life: Even as the nation becomes more diverse thanks to immigration and changing birthrates, people largely continue to live in places where their neighbors look like them.
Highlighting the integration of transit services may seem like a prosaic point. After all, riding a bus or a train isn’t much of a magical experience: It’s merely an essential part of the day for people who need to get to and from work. Indeed, the composition of CTA ridership is roughly similar to that of the city as a whole, so the integration on transit isn’t so much chosen as much as mandated by the fact that public facilities in this country are thankfully not segregated by race.
But there’s more to this story. Why are transit vehicles integrated in segregated Chicago when those in many other cities (often with far more integrated housing) are frequently completely void of white people? The answer likely lies in the unique qualities of the dense urban environment that foster the use of public transportation among people who in most cities would likely drive private automobiles.
For obvious reasons, public transport use is skewed towards people at the lower end of the income scale. In most places it is more convenient and often more socially acceptable to drive than it is to take the bus, so only those who have to take transit. Moreover, wealth is highly correlated to race: Not only do black and hispanic households have far lower incomes than their white counterparts, but they are more than twice as likely to be living in poverty. It is unsurprising, then, that just 41% of transit riders describe themselves as white even as the nation as a whole is 65% non-hispanic white.
In Chicago, transit ridership is 40% white — even as the city’s population as a whole is only 32% non-hispanic white. What gives?
One clear explanation may be the fact that the high density in center-city Chicago ensures that driving is a nuisance, even for people who can afford it. People who would in suburban areas live auto-oriented lifestyles live well in neighborhoods where they do not need cars to fulfill their daily chores because so much is easy to get to on foot. Moreover, the fact that a huge number of jobs have remained in the downtown Chicago (the “Loop”) despite a suburban exodus of employment in many other parts of the country means that there is a strong market for the transit system among people of all incomes and ethnicities. As a result, public transportation is integrated.
It’s hard to imagine a similarly mixed commuting environment in places where driving is easy and people live in sprawling neighborhoods.
But it’s worth asking ourselves whether any of this matters. Does the fact that people of different races and classes stand inches from one another on the crowded train in the morning matter to them? Do their attitudes about society and their interest in aiding the poor change as a result? If we conclude that integration does provide meaningful benefits to individuals — as I believe it does — then there is a strong case to be made for the importance of active policies that promote dense downtowns and strong transit use. Even in the context of the city’s housing segregation, its transit system is a model for integration.
Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he is the research director of the Land Use Lab at Urban. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation, and governance.