From Rails to Trails: The Economic Impact of Chicago’s Repurposed Railways

606 trail
Bikers and runners speckle The 606, the railway-turned-"greenway" on Chicago's North Side. Sean Kennedy / WBEZ
606 trail
Bikers and runners speckle The 606, the railway-turned-"greenway" on Chicago's North Side. Sean Kennedy / WBEZ

From Rails to Trails: The Economic Impact of Chicago’s Repurposed Railways

Logan Square resident Patrick Singler loves the view of Chicago you can get 18 feet above city streets.

Where he does that is significant, and you’ve probably heard about it. It’s the Bloomingdale Trail, though most people probably know it as The 606. The two-and-a-half-mile elevated trail passes near his house as it stretches across the North Side, from Bucktown to Humboldt Park.

Patrick says he finds every opportunity to enjoy The 606 with his wife and his daughter, Caroline. “Even before Caroline was born, my wife and I would walk out here,” he says.

He’s not the only one to notice the view. Since it fully opened in mid-2015, The 606 quickly became one of Chicago’s highest-profile parks.

But its roots are much deeper than that. The trail itself was once a railroad, with its rail bed set down shortly after the Chicago Fire. It was designed to haul supplies needed to rebuild the city.

By the mid-1990s, trains had slowed, then stopped. The land sat vacant for a decade before advocates got traction for their plan to convert it to a public trail.

Calling it a bike path doesn’t really do The 606 justice; it’s a linear park, with heavily landscaped gardens, swooping on-and-off ramps, and public art. It was immediately controversial, and opponents of the trail said it would cause rampant gentrification.

Which explains why Patrick’s wants Curious City to take on the question half the city is asking: “I’m curious about what impacts this rails-to-trails has.” Specifically, can rails-to-trails conversions create economic booms large enough that longtime residents will be priced out?

As much talk as we’ve heard about The 606, these types of urban rail-trails haven’t been studied much. So, for answers we'll start with what we can learn from the suburban experience with rails-trails. Then — don't worry! — we'll return to break ground on some new, but less-settled data specific to The 606.

The skinny: It turns out that urban rail-trails have a pretty surprising relationship with gentrification and urban renewal.

It’s the economy, stupid

Illinois happens to be a great place to study rails-to-trails conversions. It’s home to the very first rails-to-trails conversion — the granddaddy of ‘em all — the Illinois Prairie Path. Since the Prairie Path started in 1963, 850 miles of railroad tracks across Illinois have started a new life as bike paths and running trails.

Katherine Nagasawa/WBEZ

A few years ago, the organization Trails for Illinois studied six trails in the state, most of them rail conversions. The group found two big economic benefits of such projects, the first being new visitors’ effect on local retail.

Executive director Steve Buchtel says the impact can be significant. On trails like Prairie Path, for example, that can add up to nearly $1.5 million in annual revenue. The study suggests that 35 percent of trail users reported making some kind of retail purchase during their visit, and the path receives more than 122,000 visitors per year. Translation: When a visitor spends any money at all, they’re dropping something like $35.

“It’s for beer, it’s for candy bars, and energy bars, and Gatorade and stuff,” Buchtel says. “Beneficiaries are bars, restaurants, and convenience stores and stuff. That’s most of the purchasing but, still, it’s substantial.”

In the past few years, towns have realized the economic potential of rail-trails and now cater to them.

“The reports have helped people to consider the trail user, not just as the jogger or the cyclist, but somebody who has a credit card, you know?” Buchtel says.

For example — the south suburban town of Frankfort, which sits on the Old Plank Trail, started rebuilding strip malls so the entrances would face the trail.

It’s part of a recent trail boom in the suburbs.

“The suburban area in Chicago is ridiculously competitive. Everybody’s hard-up against the town that wants to eat their lunch,” Buchtel explains. “Since trails are hot, suburban communities are hot for trails because, ‘Oh my god, they’re getting a trail? We better get a trail, right?’”

More bang for your real estate buck

Rails-to-trails conversions’ economic impact extends beyond retail to property values.

In the early days, neighbors feared that rails-trails would bring strangers and criminals into their backyards and property values would plummet.

But the numbers told a different story. A study of Wisconsin rail-trails  performed by researchers at the University of Delaware showed the prices of homes on a trail jumped by 9 percent. A Salem University study of the Minuteman Bikeway in suburban Boston found that homes within a quarter mile of a bike path commanded higher prices and sold almost twice as fast as those further from the trail.

One study after another shows the same thing: statistically significant bumps in property values for homes within a quarter mile of a bike path.

Remember, Patrick’s question is about urban rail-trails. Rising home values are almost always a boon to a suburb; in cities, though, increasing property values lead to fears about displacing people. The 606 has spurred some of those fears.

DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies has been studying effects on the adjacent housing market since The 606 opened a year ago. Specifically, the department’s been looking at home sales and valuations within about a half mile of the trail.

The 606 strings together a diverse range of neighborhoods. The condo-dense, higher-income Bucktown neighborhood on the east end of the trail gives way to low-to moderate-income households farther west.

“We definitely saw values go up, especially on the western end of the trail,” says executive director Geoff Smith. And that’s had some complicated results.

“Property values are going up, and you’d think that’s a great thing,” he says. “For most people it is. But it’s a double edged sword, because - ‘Hey great, my property is worth 20, 30 percent more than it was 2 or 3 years ago, but now I have to pay taxes on that higher value.’ And for seniors and other people on fixed incomes, that can be a challenge.”

Sean Kennedy/WBEZ
A chalk sign near one of The 606's access ramps draws trail users to a nearby business.

Still, Smith doesn’t think The 606 is exclusively to blame.

“Gentrification was probably going to happen in that area at some point,” he says. “You can see that the neighborhood in that area was already in the process of changing. But what The 606 did was it created an amenity in that area that attracted demand for housing and accelerated that process.”

Smith says the trail’s biggest impact has been within a block of the trail.

“You see people wanting to build multi-family properties right near the trail,” he says. “That might not have happened, because why would you locate your multiunit property right next to an abandoned rail line?”

Location, location, location

So there’s a risk that building a new trail will displace or strain the very people it was meant to serve. But even in an urban setting, that doesn’t always happen.

Take the Major Taylor Trail, which stretches through the South Side neighborhoods of Auburn-Gresham, Beverly, and Roseland. It’s been around since 2007. While city planners don’t call The 606 a bike path — it’s considered a “linear park,” with lush greenery and public art — the Major Taylor is very much a normal bike path with few amenities. The 606 has 24-hour lighting, snow removal, and roving security. The Major Taylor is lucky to get its potholes filled and broken glass swept.

Sean Kennedy/WBEZ
The Major Taylor Trail is named after legendary African-American cyclist Marshall “Major” Taylor, one of the most acclaimed bike racers of the late 19th century.

Anne Alt, treasurer of the group Friends of the Major Taylor, says predicting the economic impact of a rails-trails conversion can be complicated.

“Most of the neighborhoods where the Major Taylor Trail is are low-to-moderate income, low density, and not the kind of neighborhoods where you get a big, splashy project like [The 606],” she says.

The Major Taylor hasn’t been studied the way The 606 has, so Alt can only guess as to the economic impact. She thinks it’s modest, at best. For starters, it’s tougher for residents and potential riders to spot the Major Taylor; its tree-lined path is surprisingly secluded for an urban bike path. The elevated 606, on the other hand, is highly visible. Plus, the Major Taylor doesn’t connect to the city the same way The 606 does.

“If it feels isolated and you don’t have a visual connection to nearby business districts, it doesn’t matter if it’s only a block away,” Alt says. “People don’t see it.”

She says the neighborhood might even welcome a little gentrification.

“I was talking to someone recently on a ride on the trail,” Alt says, “and we stop, and we look, and there’s a boarded-up house, a vacant lot, an empty business. Talking with people I know here in the neighborhood, I think a lot of people would welcome any kind of economic development.”

Looking down the trail

So in the end, the answer to Patrick’s question is not so simple. The evidence suggests rails-trails spur local retail and generally increase property values in rural and suburban areas. But in the urban environment, the degree of that increase very much depends on how fancy the project is, and where it happens.

Yes, in an already gentrifying neighborhood like Wicker Park, The 606 might be putting a strain on some residents. But in the area near the Major Taylor, it seems to have barely made an impression at all — at least not one that’s easily measured.

Jamie Simone, interim director of the Trust for Public Land, has an ambitious solution.

“If all neighborhoods and all communities had equal access to parks, then there wouldn’t be this difference in quality of neighborhoods, at least as far as parks go,” she says.

Simone’s organization spearheaded construction of The 606, and she thinks every neighborhood should have safe and beautiful parks and trails. Outspoken residents who agree with her are making progress. For example, a new linear park called “El Paseo” is underway in Pilsen, with a similar project in Englewood in the planning stages. There’s talk of building out the Weber Spur, an abandoned rail bed on the Northwest Side.

Jesse Dukes/WBEZ
The planned El Paseo line will span Pilsen and Little Village and include community spaces, gardens and public art celebrating Latino culture.

Those are the only rails-trails projects under consideration in Chicago right now, but our questioner, Patrick Singler, is glad to smell the hint of a trend.

“I just want to see more of these in Chicago, because I know how wonderful it has been for the residents of Bucktown, Logan Square,” he says. “Everybody deserves something like this. You know, not just people who can afford a nice house.”

More about our questioner

Patrick Singler lives in Wicker Park with his wife and their baby daughter. He’s an avid cyclist, and would love to see The 606 be connected with a network of other trails to cover the whole city.

“We could have a ring of bike paths around the whole city. We could call it the Bike Loop - you got the Loop, then you got the Bike Loop,” he says.

He works in development for St. Ignatius College Prep, where he went to high school.

Sean Kennedy is a Chicago radio reporter and cyclist. He tweets at @stkennedy and would love to ride with you sometime. Drop him a line.