Transportation Costs Are A Burden For Low-Income Chicago-Area Residents, Report Finds

CTA Green Line train travelling west from downtown
In this 2017 file photo, a CTA Green Line train travels West away from downtown Chicago. A new report from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning shows that the region's low-income residents spend 16% of their income for transportation costs compared with just 6% for their higher-income counterparts. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press
CTA Green Line train travelling west from downtown
In this 2017 file photo, a CTA Green Line train travels West away from downtown Chicago. A new report from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning shows that the region's low-income residents spend 16% of their income for transportation costs compared with just 6% for their higher-income counterparts. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

Transportation Costs Are A Burden For Low-Income Chicago-Area Residents, Report Finds

Transportation costs burden the Chicago region’s low-income residents more than their higher-income counterparts, according to a new report from a planning agency.

A report, released this week by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), shows that low-income residents spend 16% of their money on transportation, compared to 6% for high-income households.

“Access to transportation systems is inherently unequal and burdensome on different portions of our communities,” said CMAP Executive Director Erin Aleman.

The report also showed that many lower-income residents lack access to a bank account or credit card, which makes it harder to access electronic methods of paying for fares and fees. For example, these residents are unable to save money on tolls by using an I-PASS transponder or acquiring transit cards like Ventra, which link to a bank account or a credit card.

“There are a lot of people in this region who aren’t able to do that, and so they’re paying day by day, trip by trip,” Aleman said. “Effectively, if you add those up, they’re paying more than the monthly [rates], and that just isn’t fair.”

CMAP senior policy analyst Lindsay Hollander, who worked on the report, also said systemic racism impacts transportation safety and enforcement — which results in additional transportation costs for some drivers.

“In our analysis of the Illinois Department of Transportation data, there were differences in traffic stops, and also in citations per capita, across different racial groups,” Hollander said. For example, motorists identified as Black made up 31% of those stopped in the data, but they only make up 17% of the region’s population. Also, Black motorists received citations at a higher rate than the region’s overall population, Hollander said.

Aleman added that unpaid fines from such stops can be financially devastating to those living paycheck to paycheck. “The [fine for] failure to obey a stop sign requires 16 hours of minimum wage work — that’s a lot,” she said.

The report includes policy recommendations like extending reduced fare eligibility to all low-income residents, and increasing access to electronic systems of paying fees and fares, like I-PASS and Ventra, for people without bank accounts.

An equitable transportation system benefits everyone, Aleman said. “It does make our region more economically competitive, so it makes us an attractive place for people to live, work and do business,” she said.

She added that the region has seen slow growth in recent years, and increasing access to transportation systems could bring low-income residents closer to higher paying jobs, resulting in “more money generated for our overall economy.”

To fund the cost of making the transportation system more equitable for low-income residents, Aleman said CMAP is “talking to transportation stakeholders across the region … realizing that there’s some pretty big trade-offs here.”

She said Illinois has already taken some key steps. For example, the criminal justice reform bill signed into law in February rescinds driver’s license suspensions resulting from unpaid traffic violation fines. Last year, the state also substantially reduced fees for missed tolls.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.