Freight Intro

Nov 27, 2017


As the nation's freight hub, metropolitan Chicago has significant economic opportunities and responsibilities. Simply put, our region is the preeminent freight hub in North America. A quarter of all freight in the nation originates, terminates, or passes through metropolitan Chicago, which is home to six of the seven Class I railroads, seven interstate highways, one of the world's busiest airports, and the only connection between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River systems.

Regional Freight Leadership Task Force. CMAP is convening a regional task force to explore institutional and funding barriers affecting the freight system in northeastern Illinois. The Regional Freight Leadership Task Force will meet from October 2013 through May 2014 before producing a final report to the CMAP Board in June 2014. 

Freight Cluster Reports.  This infrastructure and volume of goods movement supports many jobs in the region, not only in transportation-related industries, but also in other industries such as manufacturing that directly rely on goods movement. Together, the larger freight cluster accounts for one in four jobs in the region.  Released in July 2012, CMAP's Freight Cluster Drill-Down report identifies key infrastructure, workforce, and innovation challenges and opportunities influencing future cluster growth and concludes with a set of regional strategies to better align resources and investments with the needs of the freight cluster.  In August 2013, CMAP published a follow-up report on the Freight-Manufacturing Nexus that examines how, due to the size and strength of metropolitan Chicago's freight cluster, the region is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the recent resurgence in U.S. manufacturing.

Freight Data and Resources.   CMAP maintains a collection of multimodal freight data and analysis for northeastern Illinois, including metrics of performance, volume, facility inventory, and more.

Freight Resources

GO TO 2040. The comprehensive plan's Regional Mobility chapter recommends that the region should create a more efficient freight system.  

Community Railroad Resources. CMAP has collected useful information about the rail system in our communities, including issues of local safety and maintenance.

Visualizations Explore the Metropolitan Chicago Transportation Network. Interactive mobility visualizations allow users to explore data on metropolitan Chicago's transportation system, including road, transit, and freight networks, which drive our regional economy. 

More about Freight

Freight has long been central to the development of metropolitan Chicago. Businesses have long utilized the region's transportation infrastructure as an economic advantage, first capitalizing on the region's geographic position at the nexus of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River systems, then its unmatched connections between eastern and western railroads, and more recently its extensive highway network and global air connections.

Today the region is the preeminent transportation and logistics hub in North America. A quarter of all freight in the nation originates, terminates, or passes through metropolitan Chicago. The region's concentration in intermodal moves—i.e., freight shipped in a standardized container easily transferred between modes—is even more striking. About half of all intermodal movements in the country touch the Chicago metropolitan area. Indeed, metropolitan Chicago's intermodal facilities vie with Los Angeles as the largest container handler in the entire Western Hemisphere.

Metropolitan Chicago's impressive transportation performance helps to drive the regional economy. The freight industry directly employs truckers, rail workers, terminal workers, logistics providers, and others. Together, these interrelated industries account for 200,000 jobs and provide over $13 billion in personal income for the residents of northeastern Illinois. A greater proportion of metropolitan Chicago's employment falls in these freight industries compared to the national rate, and this specialization has grown over the past decade.

Freight supports jobs not only in transportation and logistics but also in freight-dependent industries such as manufacturing and wholesale trade. Indeed, one-quarter of all jobs in the regional economy are in industries directly tied to freight. These freight-dependent industries add over $115 billion to the regional economy each year.

The region must address serious funding and governance issues if it is to maintain the vitality of its freight system. The Chicago area is routinely listed as having some of the worst highway congestion in the nation, costing billions of dollars annually in terms of wasted time and fuel. Furthermore, the region's rail system is beset by congestion, with numerous heavily-used freight lines crossing each other at grade and being used for commuter and intercity passenger services. Significant investments will be needed to bring the freight system to a state of good repair, as well as expand capacity to meet current and future demand. However, traditional revenue sources to support public investments in transportation have failed to keep pace with needs.

Northeastern Illinois contains seven counties, 284 municipalities, and 123 townships. Those general purpose units of government, along with the state, have jurisdiction over the highway network. Through that authority, they regulate truck routes, parking, and delivery restrictions, determine size and weight restrictions, and impose fees. Further, they zone to control and regulate land uses. While these decisions may reflect local preferences, they do not always aggregate to a coherent whole, and the multiplicity of local regulations imposes a burden on the freight system.

Freight Updates

Freight land use clusters in northeastern Illinois

Freight is a critical component of the regional economy in northeastern Illinois and generates significant transportation demand across multiple modes. While much of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's (CMAP) prior and ongoing work focuses on the economic and transportation aspects of freight planning, proper freight land use strategies and policies are also essential to ensuring a high-quality freight network. Freight-related land uses affect issues of regional concern, such as development patterns and the transportation system, as well as more local concerns such as mitigation of harms from incompatible land uses.

To help provide a foundation for freight land use issues, this Policy Update identifies the most significant clusters of freight-supportive land uses in metropolitan Chicago and presents key descriptive statistics regarding the land use and transportation context of those clusters. Previous CMAP Policy Updates have analyzed recent industrial development trends in the Chicago region and how those compare to trends in the rest of the country.

Identifying regional clusters

While freight activity can be generated from a variety of land uses, some are more freight-intensive than others. Moreover, these freight-intensive land uses tend to co-locate in order to take advantage of efficiencies derived from shared infrastructure and workforce. Identifying regional clusters of dense, freight-supportive land uses will help to focus future research and recommendations.

There are two ways to describe the density of freight-supportive land use: either the land area encompassed by freight-related activities, or the building stock of freight-related facilities. An area with most of its land set aside for industrial use will clearly have concerns related to freight, but so will an area with less total industrial land but many facilities generating freight traffic.

This cluster analysis assesses both the percentage of land designated for industrial use and the amount of rentable building area (RBA) classified as warehouse, manufacturing and food processing, or distribution in by CoStar, a provider of real estate data. These three subcategories of industrial facilities were judged to have the largest impact on freight movement; other industrial subcategories such as flex space were not included. The resulting individual clusters were classified based on geography, statistical profile, and a qualitative assessment of shared concerns, shown below.

Spatial analysis of land use and building stock data resulted in six regional clusters. Three of those clusters -- Core/Midway, Greater O'Hare, and South Cook -- are located near the center of the region, close to established transportation facilities and workforce. The other three -- North Chicagoland, Fox River Valley, and Will County -- lie further towards the edge of the region. These clusters contain 71 percent of the industrial land and 82 percent of freight-related building area in the region and roughly align with an initial staff assessment of trucking bottlenecks on the region's highway network.

This regional analysis is meant to identify and describe broader zones of freight-related activity, and future studies will analyze each of these clusters in greater depth. In some cases, it may be appropriate to further subdivide clusters for a more granular understanding of how to best address local routing, land use, and/or economic development issues.

Cluster statistics

Relevant statistics about these clusters can be organized into three sections: land use, RBA/buildings, and infrastructure. The cluster profiles below describe the varied makeups of these areas and highlight distinctions between the region's largest three clusters -- Greater O'Hare, Core/Midway, and Will County -- and the smaller clusters of Fox River Valley, South Cook, and North Chicagoland.

The land use statistics describe the total coverage of industrial land in each cluster. Other important considerations include the availability of that industrial land (i.e., whether it is occupied or vacant) and the size of parcels in the cluster. The latter two metrics suggest the cluster's potential for growth and its ability to adapt to demands for all kinds of industrial facilities, whether ever-larger distribution centers, or smaller, more flexible manufacturing, or warehouse spaces.

Land use and area by freight-supportive cluster, 2013


Land Area (sqmi)

Industrial Land (sqmi)

Percent Industrial Land

Vacant Industrial Land (sqmi)

Industrial Land Vacancy

Median Utilized Parcel Size (SF)

Median Vacant Parcel Size (SF)

Greater O'Hare
















Will County








Fox River Valley








South Cook








North Chicagoland
















Source: Chicago Metropolitan Agency Analysis of Land Use Inventory, 2013

RBA statistics indicate the intensity of freight-supportive uses in a cluster, as well as describe the industrial mix. Median age and size of buildings in a cluster are also important indicators of divergent needs. Legacy areas filled with older, smaller buildings will have very different land use issues than emerging clusters with newer, larger buildings.

Rentable building area and age by freight-supportive cluster, 2015


Warehouse, Manufacturing, Food, & Distribution

Warehouse RBA (% of Total Cluster)

Manu & Food RBA (% of Total Cluster)

Distribution RBA (% of Total Cluster)

Median Building Year Built

Median Building RBA (SF)

Vacancy Rate

Rentable Building Area

RBA per Square Mile

Greater O'Hare

225.1 M

2.2 M

134.9 M (60%)

64.1 M (28%)

26.0 M (12%)





192.2 M


89.6 M (47%)

87.4 M (45%)

15.2 M (8%)




Will County

113.3 M

1.1 M

59.8 M (53%)

17.0 M (15%)

36.5 M (32%)




Fox River Valley

97.0 M

1 M

46.0 M (47%)

36.5 M (38%)

14.5 M (15%)




South Cook

52.4 M

0.6 M

20.6 M (39%)

27.3 M (52%)

4.5 M (9%)




North Chicagoland

27.2 M

1.1 M

8.9 M (33%)

15.8 M (58%)

2.5 M (9%)




Source: Chicago Metropolitan Agency Analysis of CoStar data, 2015

One of the most important infrastructure concerns for a freight cluster is access to a freight-suitable transportation network. This includes railroads, highways in the National Highway Freight Network (NHFN) as initially designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation per the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, and designated state and local truck routes. Also, intermodal rail-highway facilities are increasingly key pieces in the freight transportation system, having grown in prominence as long-distance shippers continue to shift toward containerization.

Transportation infrastructure by freight-supportive cluster, 2015


Rail Miles

National Highway Freight Network Miles

Truck Route Miles

Intermodal Lifts

Greater O'Hare










Will County





Fox River Valley





South Cook





North Chicagoland





Source: Chicago Metropolitan Agency Analysis of Illinois Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, and private railroad data.

Although access to water and air transportation is an important consideration for some shippers, those assets were not included in these statistical profiles due to the limited geography of air and water facilities in the region. Even without measuring this infrastructure directly, the region's major airports clearly serve as hubs of freight activity in metropolitan Chicago. CMAP has already evaluated workforce, stormwater, and land use issues in the O'Hare subregion.

Finally, these clusters house 62 percent of the region's freight and manufacturing employment. Employment totals and densities reflect the type of use – manufacturing requires more employment than warehousing or distribution might. These totals are also directly related to the total amount of rentable building area in the freight land use cluster. Access to a well-trained workforce is critical, and prior CMAP analysis has found that the region's freight and manufacturing workers tend to live in areas that are somewhat proximate to freight and manufacturing employment centers.

Freight-Manufacturing employment by freight land use cluster, 2015


Freight-Manufacturing Employment

Greater O'Hare




Will County


Fox River Valley


South Cook


North Chicagoland


Source: Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning analysis of Illinois Department of Employment Security data, 2015.

Brief cluster profiles

A brief review of the statistical profiles shown above can help identify the major issues facing each cluster.  With over 26 percent of the region's freight-supportive RBA in only 2.5 percent of the land, the Greater O'Hare cluster is by far the largest and densest freight cluster in metropolitan Chicago. That density stems in part from having a very high percentage of its land set aside for industrial uses, coupled with very low building vacancy and almost no land vacancy. While utilized parcels are quite large, vacant parcels are small; when combined with the cluster's low vacancy rates, this suggests that growth will likely occur via redevelopment rather than expansion. Other notable features of the cluster include a heavy concentration in warehouse uses, a very high density of truck routes, and easy access to O'Hare International Airport, the region's largest air cargo facility. This cluster contains 22 percent of the region's freight and manufacturing employment.

As the name suggests, the Core/Midway cluster is located in the center of the Chicago region, with extensive legacy infrastructure, the oldest median building age, smallest median parcel size, and highest building vacancy rate. There is some geographic variation, though, as the industrial areas near Midway Airport are relatively newer and larger than the areas to the north and east. Among all the clusters, Core/Midway has the lowest percentage of industrial land, though that land is also more intensively built out than in other clusters. Despite being home to the largest intermodal facilities in the region, it has few of the new, large distribution facilities increasingly utilized for goods movement. Instead, this cluster hosts the largest concentration of manufacturing and food processing space in the region. Core/Midway faces significant variation in planning issues, with some areas undergoing a transition to residential and commercial uses, while others seek public and private reinvestment to promote long-term industrial success.

In contrast to the older, established clusters, Will County is an emerging freight center with a median industrial building age of only twenty years. In addition to being new, industrial buildings in Will County are comparatively large, with median building RBA and parcel sizes nearly twice as large as any other cluster. It also has a strong specialization in modern distribution facilities and is home to several large and growing intermodal terminals. The Will County cluster has more total industrial land and more than twice as much vacant land as the next-largest? cluster. There is a significant geographic split in the cluster between the developed northern half, which would be the second-densest in the region, and the relatively undeveloped southern half. This cluster has the lowest employment density, likely reflecting the lesser employment needs for distribution facilities as compared to some other types of manufacturing.

The remaining three clusters have less significant footprints of industrial land and freight-supportive buildings. Descriptive statistics for the Fox River Valley cluster are average in most dimensions, and the cluster's division into multiple nodes lacks geographic coherence. Its most notable attribute is the relative paucity of truck routes and rail mileage. South Cook is the least-dense identified cluster and features relatively high vacancy rates paired with small parcels and old buildings, potentially making redevelopment of existing industrial land a challenge. It does, however, have access to an extensive network of rail and truck infrastructure, as well as much of the region's water cargo system. Lastly, North Chicagoland is a very small cluster notable for its high industrial land vacancy and heavy concentration in advanced manufacturing and food processing.

Looking ahead

GO TO 2040 emphasizes the need to plan for land use, transportation, and economic development comprehensively. Understanding freight-supportive land uses can help identify freight transportation needs. This research establishes a baseline understanding of the key freight land use clusters in the region. Staff intends to work with stakeholders to refine these clusters, with an eye toward developing evaluations of the most pressing opportunities and challenges facing each cluster. These findings will help the Regional Freight Plan make specific recommendations on potential topics for inclusion in detailed local freight plans, along with policy recommendations for best practices in freight land use preservation and conflict mitigation.

The areas identified in this Policy Update strongly support our region's economic success, employing the preponderance of our freight and manufacturing workers. This analysis supplements our understanding of where these workers are most concentrated, contributing to our understanding of the region's land use and economy as we develop more specific recommendations for ON TO 2050.