A hub-and-spoke highway system in the Chicago region leads to more traffic

In reaction to a new report suggesting Chicago area drivers faced the most traffic of any region, one expert highlights the design of the highway system in the region:

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The design of Chicago’s expressways are also partly to blame, as they funnel traffic into downtown.

“The design of our expressway system has hurt traffic flow for generations,” Schwieterman said.

The Chicago highway system consists of numerous paths leading right to downtown. Several of these highways converge at the Jane Byrne Interchange, leading to traffic and construction issues. Another connects to the lakefront just south of Grant Park. There are several ring highways but they do not necessarily connect all of the relevant parts of the region. One short highway famously went to neither place in its name.

This is not limited just to highways; the railroad system in the region also operates this way. Numerous early railroads ended right in the heart of the city and along the riverfront. The current system has all sorts of congestion issues with the amount of railroad traffic trying to move in and through the region. Railroad passengers in the region cannot travel easily between suburbs because most trips require going into the city first and then going back out on another line.

At one time, this system may have made sense. The Chicago region, as in multiple regions in the Northeast and Midwest, was organized with a dense commercial district at the core. Today, this makes less sense in many US metropolitan regions where the many trips and commutes are suburb to suburb. Throughout a region, suburbs are job centers, entertainment centers, and residential communities.

Reconfiguring infrastructure like highways, railroads, and mass transit to fit these new realities – perhaps now exacerbated by more employees working from home – is a long process with multiple avenues to pursue.

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