There’s some incredibly smart suggestions offered by April Rinne at Quartz about what cities can do to make themselves more attractive choices by a workforce that’s increasingly freelance instead of bending over backward to lure big companies like Amazon. The former represents an ever-growing percentage of the workforce, she points out. At the same time, the number of new jobs promised by big companies when moving or expanding into new cities almost never winds up reflecting reality.

The shift from full-time employment at a single company to an economy more reliant on freelance and contract work, I believe, go beyond even what Rinne suggests and offers.

The Commute is a Hassle

I’ve been in the career world for 20 years now and have commuted into the city for a little over half of that, taking the Metra into either Ogilvie Transportation Center or Union Station. The commute itself isn’t bad. In the early days I read the Tribune or a book and, as the ad slogan goes, “watched the miles go by.” More recently I do some writing or get work done. One way or the other, for work or entertainment, that time is mostly productive.

When I get off the train at Union Station it’s a different story. I walk onto a platform that’s covered in water that leaks from the ceiling even three days after it last rained, a mystery I don’t actually want solved. It’s crowded, you choke on the train exhaust half the time, the concrete is crumbling and the escalators in the station don’t work a quarter of the time. And that’s the experience that’s vastly preferable to sitting in my car on one of the expressways leading into the city, where I can’t get anything done even if I wanted to. From where I live it takes 45-60 minutes to get into the city on the train. If I were driving on I-55 during rush hour it would take upwards of two hours.

In other words, it is a poor experience. We all undertake this march to get to a communal location because that’s where the work is. In a broadly-connected world, though, that’s increasingly not the case.

City Priorities Are Misaligned

While I’ve never lived in the city itself, I’ve followed the goings-on for 40 years and have seen one mayor after another prioritize projects that would offer fast-rail service from O’Hare to the Loop and others that seem geared toward the wealthy corporate executive or tourist.

Earlier this year there was a proposal to turn the north branch of the Chicago River into a mixed-use retail/walking space and while that sounds like a great idea, it’s another case where the needs of downtown residents or tourists are being placed above both those who live in the entire rest of the city as well as those who commute in regularly.

The City of Chicago is also actively wooing Amazon, which has solicited proposals for a second headquarters located outside of Seattle. The pitch from Amazon is standard in that they promise X number of jobs will be created, the city gets a lot of prestige and will see additional travel to and from as corporate executives from both Amazon and the companies it does business with come in and out of O’Hare.

But part of the proposal Chicago and other contending cities have made includes massive tax breaks. The net number of jobs created are likely to be negligible. A warning for the city should come in the form of how Amazon is also so stridently objectivist in its pursuit of profits it won’t tolerate even a modest increase to its Seattle tax bill to help the city pay for more homeless shelters and programs. A report by job listing site also showed that the increased demand for homes that could result in whatever city Amazon chooses could price existing residents out of the market.

So, to restate that in a bulleted, conversational format:

  • Chicago to Company: Please come here.
  • Company to Chicago: OK, but we’re not paying any taxes while still depending on your electrical, water and other utilities.
  • Chicago to Company: That’s cool because you’ll create jobs, which theoretically increases our tax revenue anyway because more people will be buying stuff here.
  • City Residents to Chicago: We’d like some of those jobs.
  • Chicago to City Residents: Nah, because the infrastructure isn’t designed to get you anywhere but The Loop. We’ll just fill those jobs with out of towners. Also, your property taxes are going up because that Company isn’t paying any taxes and their presence has increased real estate prices so you owe more there, too.
  • City Residents to Chicago: …. jfc

If it’s not paying for the infrastructure it’s using and isn’t creating enough new jobs to fuel an increase in other tax revenue…what’s the benefit?

Accessibility = Success

While there are certainly a number of other factors that go into determining the economic health of an area, poor commutes demonstrably make that economy worse. If people can’t get to where the jobs are and feel trapped within their neighborhood, they are not realizing their full potential. Not only that but they’re not traveling – again largely because of a lack of transportation options – they’re not buying lunch out, picking up a Slurpee on the way home and so on. Because mass transit isn’t available or viable given its fixed location, single occupant cars are the biggest means of commuting while also being the least efficient on all counts.

The trendlines are clear in that they show commute times in the Chicago area are going up as more people move to the outer edges of what have traditionally been considered the city’s suburban region. 40 years ago that area didn’t extend far past Wheaton to the west but now practically includes DeKalb. According to 2010 US Census data the average commute time in the Chicagoland area was 34.4 minutes but that number is heavily influenced by where someone lives and subsequently how accessible mass transportation is. Similar numbers were reported in the 2016 American Community Survey as well as the “On to 2050” report (PDF) from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

A 2016 report that showed single-occupant car commuting had decreased in the Chicagoland area might seem like good news until you consider Metra ridership has been trending downward (PDF) as well, as has CTA usage (PDF). And Chicago’s overall population is dropping, all of which means tax revenue is falling due to fewer residents and fewer commuters who are coming into the city and contributing in some way to its economy.

Every few years the debate around a “commuter tax” resurfaces that would make those coming in from the suburbs more financially responsible for the city infrastructure they use. That’s an interesting shifting of the burden because the job growth in the city that is attracting the out-of-town workers is coming from companies lured there by incentives often including substantial tax breaks.

In other words, in the drive to attract businesses to move their headquarters to the city, the tax burden is being shifted to area residents, disincentivizing living in the city and, if the commuter tax is eventually passed, doing likewise to coming into the city to work.

Attracting a Changed Workforce

While I’ve spent years commuting downtown for work, the other half of my career has been spent working from home because as long as the internet works, I’m good. I can get everything I need to done, communicate easily and efficiently with other team members and everything else necessary to do the work.

I truly believe at some point city and state governments will view accessibility, transportation and other features the same way employers view the kinds of perks and benefits offered to employees, as ways to retain and attract a workforce. A Glassdoor study revealed the cities online job applicants are moving to and from as well as why they’re making those moves, specifically when they’re changing metro regions, not just moving from the suburbs to the city or within a region. While moving for a job is something people have, are and will continue to do, what would also be interesting to see is what the region as a whole, not just each individual company, is doing to attract new people and keep the ones they already have.

If big cities want to be part of the future and not abandoned relics of the past they need to

  1. Offer the kind of environments and amenities that will attract the average worker and employee, and
  2. Make getting there in the first place a pleasant and stress-free experience. People have to not only want to be in the city but not see the journey there as more trouble than it’s worth.

Millennials and other workers have shown time and time again that they want to work for and do business with companies that reflect their values, so why shouldn’t the same apply to choosing where they live? The Glassdoor study shows Seattle is a top destination because that’s where Amazon is and Chicago and other cities are hoping the same holds true if the company picks them for their HQ2.

Infrastructure Matters

Reprioritizing infrastructure to be more centered around the idea that people come in not because they have to but because they want to means travel in may be less frequent but more meaningful. So instead of trying to rebuild the Eisenhower for the 10th time in the last 40 years, pour those resources into truly upgrading the rail experience, both the El that transports people within the city and the Metra that brings them in from the suburbs. People will still need to move around for their jobs, particularly in the manufacturing and service industry, but “knowledge economy” workers will do so by choice, not a necessity.

That sort of shifted focus is a good idea for a number of reasons. It’s better able to serve a working-class population within the city (for example moving people from the west side of Chicago to the south side, something mass transit is currently ill-suited to do and which even Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel says is hurting the economy, though he’s done little to fix that issue), it’s better environmentally and it can serve more people at scale.

Some sort of new thinking is going to be necessary, not optional, soon. A recent story in the Tribune called out how the Chicago suburb of Naperville saw revenue from a gas tax drop significantly because higher gas prices meant less gas being bought and so on. That results in less money available for traditional road-centric infrastructure projects. If that were to spread, either because of high gas prices or because of a seismic shift in public sentiment, the country’s already crumbling infrastructure will only get worse and necessitate a drastic rethinking of how people can and should move from one place to the next.

While big cities like Chicago and Seattle have been used as examples above, the kind of freelancer-friendly advocated for can be adopted by any size town, village or city. Through a mix of municipal, standardized Wi-fi (something that’s being fought by various powerful parties but which is in the public’s best interest), the repurposing of the plethora of vacant office and retail space and the reconsideration of mass transit as a way to move people around within a city and not just out of it, towns of all shapes and sizes can benefit by being future-ready.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

One thought on “Freelancers as the Future of the City

  1. I’m so glad that I have never bought a car in my life. The only time I became a car owner is when I married one, when I was 39 years old. I’ve always lived around rail, and I love it! Whether it was on the south side in Beverly with the Metra. Or Wrigleyville with the red line. And then 13 years in Lincoln Square with the brown line. Through all those years I managed to date people that lived within walking distance of a train. Even my car-owning wife lived in Oak Park three blocks from the Green line.

    I absolutely love the train. Chicago could use more rail and better rail.

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