Joseph C. Szabo: Inclusive Growth for Regions with Economically Disconnected Areas

February 20, 2018

(Note: This essay was adapted from a series of three Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning Policy Updates and two ON TO 2050 strategy papers about Reinvestment and Infill and Inclusive Growth.)

Metropolitan regions need the largest possible pool of skilled workers to compete in the global marketplace. All workers, including minorities and low-income residents, need pathways to connect with current and future job opportunities. This essay describes how project selection can be adjusted to reflect regional economic goals.

An urban region’s transportation system connects residents and businesses with opportunities that promote economic growth. Long commute times decrease workers’ productivity and hinder their ability to reach available and attainable employment opportunities (Kneebone and Holmes 2015). Transportation infrastructure, access to employment, and socioeconomic factors affect daily commute patterns.

To better address these dynamics, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) has defined the Chicago region’s Economically Disconnected Areas (EDAs), or census tracts with concentrations of low-income households and greater-than-regional-average minority or limited English proficiency populations. Assisting these areas requires comprehensive strategies treating land use, economic and workforce development, and governance, but their infrastructure needs are often acute. For residents of some EDAs, daily commutes can be particularly long.

Long daily commutes are more than just inconvenient—they affect job retention and success and overall work quality. To reduce commute disparities, local land-use decisions should emphasize development patterns that maximize the effectiveness of local transit and transportation. Further, integrated land-use and transportation decisionmaking allows local governments to maximize benefits of investments and better meet community and resident needs. Finally, transit systems require sustainable funding to improve and modernize systems and provide strong commute access to economic centers.

Reducing inequality results in longer and stronger periods of regional economic growth (Ostry, Berg, and Tsangarides 2014). Regions are more apt to succeed when they engage all residents and provide opportunities to participate in and contribute to the regional economy. Local and regional policies and planning decisions influence whether and how residents are connected to the economy.

Why Emphasize Inclusion?

The Chicago region has been lagging its peers economically, with lower growth in gross regional product, jobs, and population. As globalization and increased technology will make things more difficult for low-skilled workers, we must focus on initiatives to increase skills and enable workers and communities to fully participate in the economy.

To facilitate greater economic connections for Chicago-area residents, CMAP is studying how residents of EDAs commute and connect to opportunity. EDAs are often clustered, but proximity does not equal homogeneity; EDA clusters differ by average commute time and by transportation mode usage, each of which often relates to differences in job types and locations, race or ethnicity, and income. Long distances or lack of transit connectivity between employment centers and housing create burdensome commutes. This is particularly true, for example, with the northeastern Illinois region’s predominantly black EDAs in the south and west neighborhoods of Chicago as well as some parts of the south suburbs, where many residents lack access to transit routes that can efficiently take them to many of the region’s employment centers located outside downtown Chicago.

economically disconnected areas and major employment centers

Black commuters in the seven counties of metropolitan Chicago use public transit at nearly double the rates of other racial and ethnic groups. The region’s black residents are also more likely than other racial and ethnic commuters to commute by bus rather than rail. In fact, many of the region’s black workers live in census tracts with high access to bus stops but with weaker access to commuter rail. Black EDA workers spend the most time commuting, consistent with regional commute time trends. This disparity can be explained in part by these residents’ greater use of public transit, especially buses. But differences in mode do not fully explain differences in commute times. Bus and Chicago Transit Authority train commuters who are black have longer commutes than bus and train commuters of other races.

Promoting inclusive economic growth requires linking residents and workers in EDAs to employment, education, and other opportunities. Local and regional planning should emphasize high-quality transportation options that are cost efficient and increase residential access to attainable and fruitful employment opportunities. In addition to investing in ways the transportation system can connect EDA workers to opportunities, the region also needs strategies to reinvest in historically disinvested areas while promoting housing affordability and density in transit-rich areas (CMAP 2017a; CMAP, n.d.).

ON TO 2050: Prioritizing Inclusion across a Region

In developing the ON TO 2050 comprehensive regional plan slated for adoption in October 2018, CMAP has identified inclusive growth as one of three guiding principles, along with prioritized investment and resilience. Together, they will provide a durable framework for how our region tackles ongoing challenges, including the need to prioritize infrastructure investments for maximum public benefit.

These priorities will be embodied in ON TO 2050’s recommendations through strategies such as the following:

  • Studying commute patterns and determining how transportation and land-use investments can help disconnected workers access the economic opportunities good jobs can provide1
  • Updating the programming criteria for transportation funds such as the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program to include benefits to EDAs, especially with respect to job access (CMAP 2017c)
  • Finding new ways to balance trade-offs between transit service efficiency and the needs of low-income, transit-dependent residents (CMAP 2017d)
  • Exploring how technology could help connect EDA residents to desired destinations (CMAP 2017d)
  • Helping municipalities containing EDAs compete for infrastructure funds by proposing new sources for matching fund and engineering requirements (CMAP 2017c)
  • Creating new initiatives to boost local capacity in communities containing EDAs so they can plan for, fund, and implement critical services and investments (CMAP 2017e)
  • Coordinating partners to reinvest in disinvested areas by aligning investment in transit, stormwater, sewer, sidewalk, road, utility, and telecommunication systems (CMAP 2017f)

ON TO 2050 will make the case for prioritizing investments, including infrastructure and capacity-building technical assistance, that can enhance inclusive growth, with benefits both to the affected areas and to metropolitan Chicago as a whole. Only by taking deliberate steps to reduce inequality can our region and others achieve their full potential.


  1. “Travel Patterns in Economically Disconnected Area Clusters,” Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, January 25, 2018, See also CMAP (2017b). 


CMAP (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning). 2017a. Expanding Housing Choice. Chicago: CMAP.

———. 2017b. Transit Trends: Exploring Transit Use and Investment. Chicago: CMAP.

———. 2017c. Inclusive Growth. Chicago: CMAP.

———. 2017d. Transit Modernization. Chicago: CMAP.

———. 2017e. Municipal Capacity. Chicago: CMAP.

———. 2017f. Reinvestment and Infill. Chicago: CMAP.

———. n.d. Infill and TOD: Exploring Regional Development. Chicago: CMAP.

Kneebone, Elizabeth, and Natalie Holmes. 2015. “The Growing Distance between People and Jobs in Metropolitan America.” Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Ostry, Jonathan D., Andrew Berg, and Charalambos G. Tsangarides. 2014. Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth. Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund.

Joseph C. Szabo, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), has varied experience in transportation, civic affairs, and local, state, and federal governments. CMAP and its partners are developing ON TO 2050, a comprehensive regional plan to help the 7 counties and 284 communities of northeastern Illinois implement strategies that address transportation, housing, economic development, open space, the environment, and other quality-of-life issues. Before joining CMAP, Szabo was appointed by President Obama as the 12th administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) within the US Department of Transportation. From 2009 to 2015, Szabo led a staff of more than 900 professionals in Washington, DC, and at field offices across the nation as the first FRA head to come from the ranks of rail workers. Szabo began his public service as a zoning commission member in Riverdale, Illinois, where he later was a park district commissioner, village trustee, and mayor. He also was a member of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association executive board and transportation committee and the regional Council of Mayors executive committee. He has served on the executive council of Chicago Metropolis 2020, the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, and the legislative committee of the Chicagoland Metropolitan Planning Council. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Governors State University and received an honorary doctorate from Lewis University for his lifetime commitment to public service.