The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which tracks these patterns, has found that drivers are taking trips on different days, at different times, and sticking closer to home than they used to. An analysis done for WGN-TV shows fewer trips being made at the familiar times and locations of rush hours. “Instead, they are more spread-out, making travel and congestion unpredictable,” WGN reported.
Another big factor in this traffic roulette is the continued rise of e-commerce. Amazon, FedEx and UPS trucks are everywhere, it seems, stopping-and-going, and sometimes blocking streets as drivers deliver online orders. CMAP reports that single-unit truck traffic (including those delivery vans) has shot up 20% since early 2020.
The third variable is public transit. Ridership on CTA, Metra and Pace continues to lag pre-pandemic levels, thanks in no small part to the perception that they are either unsafe, inconvenient or both, meaning more commuters are driving. As a result, motoring to and from downtown can be as rough as ever, especially on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, when employers are more likely to require the physical presence of their office workers.
While these patterns will continue to evolve in the years ahead, working and shopping from home are here to stay, and public transit has a long journey to win back its customers. Planners need to adjust accordingly, and that probably means re-engineering traffic systems.
Summary: Tuesday through Thursday are now the worst “regular” rush hour days, trucks and traffic can be anywhere, and fewer people are using mass transit.
Does the Chicago area have an advantage because of its grid network? If drivers encounter a problem, it is not hard to find an alternative route. Compared to cities with longer histories and fewer major roads in the Northeast, Chicagoans have a plethora of options. On the other hand, the Chicago area is limited in terms of highways and sprawling roads compared to some places in the South and West.
Even with a grid and flat surface, one of the biggest problems seems to be that traffic – driving and rail – tends to end up in particular chokepoints that are more unpredictable in their use. Drivers still go through the Jane Byrne Interchange. Freight traffic needs to get through railyards and across at-grade crossings. Could this traffic be effectively lessened or rerouted in ways that help people and goods flow more quickly?
If there was an issue that the over 9 million people in the Chicago region could address together, this might be it. Yes, few people want to pay for solutions they do not directly benefit from. However, solutions to these issues across the region would benefit everyone.