Neighborhoods Influence Chicagoans’ Transportation Decisions

Neighborhoods Influence Chicagoans’ Transportation Decisions

Divvy BikesWith the L, Divvy bikes, buses, Uber and Lyft, Chicago has no shortage of transportation options. But whether or not people actually explore all these options might be determined by the neighborhoods in which they live.

A new study from Northwestern University compared Evanston and Humboldt Park residents’ attitudes toward various modes of transportation. The researchers found that Evanston residents more readily accepted new active mobility modes, such as bikeshare programs. But Humboldt Park residents exercised skepticism toward such programs, viewing them as signs of privilege and gentrification.

The study’s results could inform policymakers on how to best understand the embedded norms and values of different neighborhoods in order to address their transportation needs.

“Mobility is a critical component of transforming cities into more competitive, livable and sustainable urban landscapes, and active mobility is consistently at the core of this agenda,” said Amanda Stathopoulos, who led the study. “To be successful, however, the design and implementation of smart mobility solutions need to engage various community perspectives.”

The study was recently published in the journal Transportation Research Part A. Stathopoulos is the William Patterson Junior Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering.

To design the study, an interdisciplinary research team of engineers and cognitive psychologists organized several small focus groups in Evanston and Humboldt Park, which met in summer and fall of 2016. The researchers then used machine learning to scour transcripts of the focus groups’ conversations. The machine-learning algorithms first identified prevalent clusters of words that connect together to form important themes within the dialogue. A second algorithm, called sentiment analysis, was used to tease apart the participants’ feelings toward various modes of transportation.

“This work was incredibly interdisciplinary,” said coauthor David Uttal,  professor in the School of Education and Social Policy and professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

“Amanda and Alec brought the perspective of transportation engineers. I brought perspectives on spatial and environmental cognition. And Karla Sanabria-Véaz, who was a Summer Research Opportunity Program scholar, brought her perspective on Puerto Rican culture. This kind of synergy is a distinguishing characteristic of research at Northwestern.”

After analyzing the conversations, the researchers noted that residents in Evanston and Humboldt Park agreed that society should move away from car-centrism and toward active mobility. But they disagreed on how to meet that objective. Whereas Evanstonians feel comfortable with bikeshare systems moving into their neighborhoods, Humboldt Park’s residents largely viewed these systems through a lens of distrust.

“Humboldt Park is a tour-de-force of fighting against gentrification in Chicago in order to preserve its Puerto Rican heritage,” said Alec Biehl, a Ph.D. student in Stathopoulos’s group and the paper’s first author. “A bikeshare system might seem like a threat toward community identity if residents associate it with an influx of residents with higher socioeconomic status, followed by rising real estate prices. Bikeshare stations take up space on the sidewalk that should be community space, and some local residents want to reclaim that space.”

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By Amanda Morris
Last Modified: 12/3/18