Reuters

Yet it's being hailed as a victory for transit-oriented development.

Google is relocating its Chicago headquarters across town to the West Loop. Since the neighborhood is home to the dazzling new Morgan Street Station, many have concluded that transit played a key role in the company's decision. Mayor Rahm Emanuel mentioned Google while praising transit-oriented development around the new station. Sterling Bay (developer of Google's new site) opens its marketing video with a station shot. And the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council called transit the main reason for Google's move:

Google could have relocated anywhere, but they chose Chicago's West Loop because of transit amenities, an investment that revitalized a neighborhood. It’s simple Chicago: Let’s grow our economy by investing in transit.

But the notion that Google moved to the West Loop primarily for transit access felt questionable to Lauren Ames Fischer, who lived in Chicago before coming to Columbia University as an urban planning doctoral student. Fischer had seen the West Loop start to take off even before the new station existed. She also noticed, making trips to a favorite restaurant in the area, that it could be tough to reach by train.

"I wanted to see if I could do some quick measurements to figure out if these claims were actually warranted," Fischer says. "I do think their new location is worse served."

Fischer ran an admittedly rudimentary transit analysis using Mapnificent and found her hunch on point. Google new location, at 1000 W. Fulton Street, does have strong transit access. But so did its old location, at 20 W. Kinzie Street, in the central business district. In fact, the maps Fischer created suggest that Google's new home probably loses a transit access contest with the old one — or at best earns a tie.

Here's Fischer's map of 15-minute transit access during morning rush:

And the 30-minute map:

And the 45-minute map, typically considered the upper threshold for a healthy commute:

Not quite satisfied, Fischer ran walk, bike, and transit scores for the addresses, too, and found further confirmation that the new office didn't quite live up to the old:

There is one transport mode better served at Google's new location: automobiles. The old office was tough to reach for suburban car commuters, who had to enter via congested Lake Shore Drive. The new office is much more accessible to Interstates 90 and 94, which a quick look at none other than Google Maps makes clear:

Fischer doesn't mean to be a downer, and she has nothing against the Morgan Street Station itself. She just thinks cities do themselves a disservice by claiming transit-oriented development has occurred without any evidence. Transit can indeed attract economic activity when complemented by strong land use and other civic planning programs. But drawing the flawed conclusion that a company has moved somewhere simply for transit access could encourage investments that aren't in a city's best interest.

"These type of claims about transit spurring economic development lead us down a wrong policy path," she says. "Transit's important to move people around and as a function of an urban society, but we shouldn't think it has some magic pixie dust that encourages economic activity."

Besides, says Fischer, there's nothing wrong with Google choosing a new urban home with balanced transportation options. (Overlooked by those claiming that Google chose the West Loop for transit access is the fact that a company spokesman also touted highway access in announcing the move.) After all, it's not like Google relocated to a suburban greenfield site accessible only by car.

"I think there's enough to celebrate in just saying that firms are choosing to stay in urban locations — and particularly with the West Loop, urban locations that are up-and-coming and not necessarily fully established as employment centers," says Fischer. "We don't have to take the next step and say that transit causes this."

Images courtesy of Lauren Ames Fischer.

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