Every so often its interesting to go back and reflect on some work from awhile ago. I did that recently with Mark and my 2002 book on nanotechnology and, on the whole, we did pretty well.
In a year without a lot to be cheerful about in our hometown, I was excited to hear that Mayor Emanuel is putting a real push behind the idea of high speed rail service from the Chicago loop to O’Hare. This is a really good idea for a few reasons but primarily because it will increase Chicago’s global competitiveness, take a big ding out of traffic, and bring a lot of economy that has sprawled into the suburbs back downtown.
If you are running a global business today, the fact of the matter is that you’ll have a lot of employees spending a lot of time on airplanes. We simply aren’t at the point where most interactions can be done virtually. And those hours really add up. Embarrassingly, not a single US airport makes the global list of best airports and right now Chicago doesn’t make the list even in North America. One big, often cited reason for one airport to outrank another is ease of transportation to and from it. This is one of things that always holds American airports back – we haven’t got anything like the Heathrow Express. Creature comforts are great, but efficiency and predictability are way more important (which is why I’ve previously argued for a service level agreement at customs, guaranteeing 95% of passengers get through in 15 minutes or fewer.)
This matters not just for businesses headquartered in Chicago (and would certainly be a boost to companies like Amazon or GE when they consider locating here), but it also matters a lot for other key Chicago industries: tourism, hospitality, and conventions. We all know Chicago has some of the greatest restaurants, theatre, and entertainment available anywhere and we get more than 50 million tourists a year spending billions of dollars. And many of the jobs in these industries are low skill or entry level but with career paths, which is a major win in an economy increasingly focused on high tech and services.
One way to see directly what a difference better airport transportation would make is to look at Rosemont. Why does it have its own thriving hotels, conference center, offices, etc.? It doesn’t offer a better climate, better amenities, or even appreciably lower prices that downtown. It’s just way more convenient that taking a car ride that could take anywhere between 45 minutes and two hours, or trying to drag luggage (especially convention kits) on the Blue Line. A side effect of high speed service to the loop would be that a lot of that business could move back downtown.
Less discussed, but probably also top of mind for Kennedy commuters is the fact that this rail service would take some load of the highways and even off the Blue Line. That would lead to fewer delays, longer lasting roads, and less crowded el cars. It would also make it easier for O’Hare freight service, since it would need to compete with a lot fewer cars on the roads.
There has been a tendency to think of the high speed airport link as just a concession to rich businesspeople, but I believe it’s anything but that. It would be a major factor in boosting the economy and increasing the quality of transportation even for people not themselves going to the airport. It’s a worthy project and one we should pursue.
Mayor Emanuel – Let’s rethink the budget and really cure our violence problem
At my company, Public Good, we look for organizations that are effective at solving the world’s most important problems. We sift through one of the biggest databases ever compiled of nonprofit and NGO information and sometimes we make interesting discoveries. For example, we discovered that the most innovative and effective approach to ending violence has been developed right here in the City of Chicago. Like all great innovations, it sounds crazy until it sound obvious. The idea is treating violence like a disease epidemic.
Dr. Gary Slutkin, a widely respected doctor specializing in infectious disease, first noticed the relationship between the spread of violence and the spread of disease when he returned from Africa where he led a historic reversal of infection trends in cholera and HIV. The key is that the biggest predictor of violence isn’t economic hardship, poor policing, or easy access to guns: it’s other violence. If the cycle of violence and retribution can be interrupted the outbreak can be controlled.
Here in Chicago, Slutkin implemented the idea as a program called CeaseFire, and later replicated his results in dozens of cities worldwide under the moniker Cure Violence. His extensively peer-reviewed data shows reductions in violence in serviced areas starting within months of implementation and reaching 40-70% reductions in fewer than 3 years. It’s been hailed by the World Health Organization as a breakthrough.
So what does it look like? The idea is to find “credible messengers”, individuals with friends, family, and experience in a community blighted by violence. These individuals are given extensive training in de-escalation and conflict mediation and then visit homes, communities, hospital trauma centers, and other key locations. Many of the these “interrupters” are former gang members. Some have done time for violence themselves. They work to cool tempers and show that a cycle of violence helps no one. Because they’re part of the community and don’t wear a badge, they’re trusted and listened to in ways even the best police officer isn’t.
Despite the program’s manifest success here in Chicago and the warm adoption of its methodology by cities like New York and Los Angeles who have watched their rate of violence fall while ours rises, Chicago has cut funding to the program. It isn’t because we can’t afford it – CeaseFire estimates that a “fully funded” program for the city would cost approximately $25 million per year and would bring our level of violence down below that of our peer cities.
To put this in perspective, in addition to hiring 1,000 new police and investing heavily in training, Mayor Emanuel’s 2018 budget calls for a $20 million increase in police overtime to a total of $100 million. And, counter-intuitively, there is no good evidence to support the idea that increasing police staffing will reduce violence levels. So why not put a portion of the budget we are putting towards public safety into a proven, effective program that will make a difference? The State of Illinois has recently stepped up to cover around $5 million of the program cost so the overtime increase alone would cover the difference.
I’m certainly not arguing that a strong police force is not in the interests of the city, nor that funds for reform and training should be reduced. But I am arguing that withholding funding from a proven program that would saves hundreds of Chicagoans’ lives and save thousands more from grievous injury for the benefit of an unproven, more expensive alternative is clearly not the right answer. I hope the mayor will reconsider.