The disadvantages and advantages to living on a major suburban road

I regularly drive by a single-family home that is located on a busy four lane road. Decades ago, this was a two lane road and traffic was lighter. Now, it is a road with a 50 MPH speed limit and many cars zooming daily between suburbs. In the morning, the school bus stops on the busy road to pick up kids from one house. Most of the housing in this area is located on streets that branch off this main road; this is common in suburban areas as residential neighborhood traffic is routed to arterial roads.

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When looking for housing years ago, I remember seeing homes located on such roads. What might be the advantages and disadvantages of such properties?

Advantages:

-Quick access to a major road. Suburban subdivisions can be big and the roads winding. It can take minutes just to leave the neighborhood.

-A reduced price. If the road is busy and noisy, this may mean the property is cheaper than comparable houses and lots.

-A location along a known road.

Disadvantages:

-Noise. The sound of cars and trucks is constant.

-Safety. Many suburbanites might wonder whether kids can safely play.

-Lower property values in comparison to similar properties.

-Less parking. If you have lots of people over, is the driveway big enough for everyone?

I would guess many suburbanites would choose not to live on or even near such a major road if they can help it. At the same time, plenty of suburbs have houses located along busy and fast roads.

Turning a busy road into a “smart corridor”

The Illinois Department of Transportation has plans to create two new “smart corridors” along major suburban roads:

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The improvements include: traffic signal upgrades to modernize the corridors, synchronizing signals, dynamic message signs in strategic spots, and accommodations for pedestrians, officials said.

The Route 64 revamp stretches between Smith/Kautz Road and Route 50 (Cicero Avenue); the Route 56 redo runs from Route 59 to York Street.

For walkers and transit users, upgrades to sidewalks, crosswalks and pedestrian signals are coming, plus new, strategically located bus stops that expedite traffic flow.

“The long-range idea is to get those corridors working as efficiently as possible and to help support transit and buses,” IDOT District 1 Program Development Engineer John Baszek said.

These are busy roads – tens of thousands of vehicles each day – with high rates of speed. The project seems to have two goals: (1) improve traffic flow and (2) facilitate use beyond cars and trucks. Can both be done at the same time?

Not only have I driven these roads, I have biked along both roads. There is a lot that would have to be done to make this feel like a safe and pleasant experience for bicyclists and pedestrians. Having more cars flowing more efficiently does not seem like it necessarily fits with this.

As a driver, synchronized lights seem to make a lot of sense. On some of the regular routes I drive, I am pretty sure the lights are intentionally not in my favor; i.e., I turn left at the green arrow from one major road to the next and am immediately met with a red light. Keeping traffic flowing would seem to be good for congestion and the environment (through avoiding idling and stopping and starting).

Does predicting bad Thanksgiving traffic and airport congestion change people’s behavior?

Each year, INRIX releases a report regarding Thanksgiving congestion. Here are predictions for the Chicago area:

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Along with Chicago, highways in Atlanta, New York City and Los Angeles will be the busiest, according to data analytics firm INRIX. To avoid the worst congestion, INRIX recommends traveling early Wednesday, or before 11 a.m. Thanksgiving Day…

The report predicts almost double the typical traffic along a westbound stretch of Interstate 290 from Chicago’s Near West Side to suburban Hillside, peaking between 3 and 5 p.m. Wednesday. Significant additional congestion is expected Wednesday along the same stretch of eastbound I-290, with an anticipated 84% spike in traffic…

The outlook isn’t much brighter for travelers flying out of the city. Chicago-based United Airlines expects O’Hare to be its busiest airport, with more than 650,000 customers anticipated for the holiday. It reports Sunday, Nov. 27, will be its busiest travel day since before the pandemic, with 460,000 travelers taking to the skies. Nationwide, the airline awaits more than 5.5 million travelers during the Thanksgiving travel period, up 12% from last year and nearly twice as many as in a typical November week…

“Regardless of the transportation you have chosen, expect crowds during your trip and at your destination,” Twidale said. Travelers with flexible schedules should consider off-peak travel times to avoid the biggest rush.

The last paragraph quoted above might be key: given the predicted congestion, will people choose different times and days to travel? And, if enough people do this, will the model be wrong?

Transportation systems can only handle so many travelers. Highways attempt to accommodate rush hour peaks. Airports try to handle the busier days. Yet, the systems can become overwhelmed in unusual circumstances. Accidents. Pandemics. Holiday weekends where lots of people want to go certain places.

If enough people hear of this predicted model, will they change their plans? They may or may not be able to, given work hours, school hours, family plans, pricing, and more. These are the busiest times because they are convenient for a lot of people. If all or most workplaces and schools closed for the whole week, then road and air traffic might be distributed differently.

I would be interested in hearing how many people need to change their behavior to change these models. If more people decide they will leave earlier or later Wednesday, does that mean the bad traffic is spread out all day Wednesday or the predicted doomsday traffic does not happen? How many fliers need to change their flights to Saturday or Monday to make a difference?

If people do change their behavior, perhaps this report is really more of a public service announcement.

Looking at the driver next to you who is clearly looking at their phone

How often do you pull near another vehicle and take a quick look over? These days, you will often see a driver looking at their phone. Recognizing phone use while driving is relatively easy to spot: the driver’s head is tilted down, not looking at the road. There is a particular posture, as illustrated in the photo below:

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This can occur while accelerating in leaving an intersection or driving at high speed down the highway. Many drivers appear unable to keep their eyes off their phone while their vehicle is in motion.

Perhaps this is just a sign of our era? Americans love driving and love smartphones. Even as deaths while driving increase, phone use continues. The acknowledgment of a public problem with phone use while driving from years ago seems to have faded away a bit.

From a driving norms perspective, is there a polite way to signal to another driver that you can see their phone use and request they pay attention to their safety and your safety?

From a social perspective, is the smartphone the new car in that we are willing to reorganize society around using smartphone use rather than fitting smartphones into our existing social order?

Putting together statistical data and experiences, Right Turn on Red edition

A discussion of Red Turn on Red (ROTR) pits statistical evidence and experiential data:

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Critics of the D.C. bill have pointed out the lack of data showing the dangers of RTOR, but many people who don’t use cars know instinctively how dangerous turning vehicles can be. “Our current safety studies fail to capture the reality of the constant near misses and confrontations that result between these motorists and pedestrians, which can be observed daily just by observing a typical busy intersection with RTOR,” Schultheiss says.

When teaching a research methods class, I can often come back to this observation about how sociologists approach data and evidence: we want both “facts” and “interpretations” to get the complete story of what is going on. In this particular situation, here is what that might mean: even if the statistical data suggests ROTR is not very dangerous, it matters that people still fear cars turning right on red. The experiences of pedestrians, bicyclists, and others on sidewalks and streets is part of the larger picture of understanding turning right on red. This would go alongside the data and experiences of vehicles and drivers.

Once this full set of data is collected, making policy decisions is another matter. If leaders want to prioritize vehicles, that is one choice. Or, as the piece suggests, some cities want to rethink streets and transportation, and they can end ROTR. But, it would be advisable to have all of the evidence before acting.

Trying to make suburban mass transit more attractive by offering private rides and vans to reserve

Pace has tried for decades to increase bus ridership in the Chicago suburbs. Here are two new strategies:

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Commuters can reserve a $2 ride in a small bus that typically stops at train stations and travels on major roads…

On-Demand service runs from early morning to evening with zones in Aurora, Batavia, Hoffman Estates, Naperville, Round Lake, St. Charles/Geneva, Vernon Hills/Mundelein, West Joliet and Wheaton/Winfield. Rides need to be booked at least an hour in advance.

Another experiment is the VanGo program that lets people reserve a Pace van at the Lake Forest or Lake-Cook Metra stations and drive to employment centers such as Baxter International. An expansion to Palatine is under consideration.

“We give you a code for the vehicle, it unlocks the door, it unlocks the key, you can take it to work and back at night to the train station” along with co-workers, Metzger said.

VanGo drivers must have a credit card and a good driving record, plus meet other requirements. A round trip is $5.

These are mass transit options – still mass transit because the vehicles are operated by a transportation entity and because they are hoping there are multiple riders in the vehicle – that try to adapt to suburban sprawl. A lack of density in the suburbs means that traditional railroad and bus lines cannot reach enough people and the ease of traveling by car means that many people will choose driving. These options offer more flexibility to individual users and specific locations.

Will it work? Can Pace compete with ride shares companies or companies that offer access to vehicles? I am skeptical that it will be effective in the long run given the current nature of suburbia.

A marker of a certain kind of community: lots of Teslas on suburban roads

I believe I have seen a growing number of Teslas on local suburban roads. How much is this tied to the kind of community I live in plus the character and demographics of nearby communities? A few thoughts:

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  1. Teslas are not cheap. There is not a big used market. People need money to purchase Teslas. (New cars are not cheap in the US overall.)
  2. Teslas are electric and electric car owners may have particular political and social patterns. This area has leaned slightly Democratic in recent national elections. As a company, Tesla itself may be more aligned with libertarian or conservative causes, but I do not see large numbers of other electric vehicles. (There are plenty of Prii.)
  3. Teslas are a particular status symbol. They are cool. Some have a cool matte finish or special trim levels. Particular suburbanites want to have one. (Particularly compare them to other “cool” suburban driving options, whether the latest SUV or a sports car.)
  4. The people here take a lot of shorter trips and/or have access to electric chargers. Even the vacation destinations of many in this area – whether Wisconsin or southwest Michigan – are within a single charge.
  5. They are available at local showrooms and dealers. One can go to a nearby suburban shopping mall and check out a Tesla.

If it is true that you can tell something about a community by looking at what cars are in parking lots or driveways, all of these Teslas say something.

The American difficulty in building and funding major infrastructure projects, California high-speed train edition

The cost and time needed to build a high-speed rail line in California keeps increasing:

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A New York Times review of hundreds of pages of documents, engineering reports, meeting transcripts and interviews with dozens of key political leaders show that the detour through the Mojave Desert was part of a string of decisions that, in hindsight, have seriously impeded the state’s ability to deliver on its promise to create a new way of transporting people in an era of climate change…

When California voters first approved a bond issue for the project in 2008, the rail line was to be completed by 2020, and its cost seemed astronomical at the time — $33 billion — but it was still considered worthwhile as an alternative to the state’s endless web of freeways and the carbon emissions generated.

Fourteen years later, construction is underway on part of a 171-mile “starter” line connecting a few cities in the middle of California, which has been promised for 2030.

Meanwhile, costs have continued to escalate. When the California High-Speed Rail Authority issued its new 2022 draft business plan in February, it estimated an ultimate cost as high as $105 billion. Less than three months later, the “final plan” raised the estimate to $113 billion.

This is not the first time this has happened in the United States. Many major projects, ranging from highway construction to tunnels to bridges, involve expanding timelines and budgets. Even though people may not care as much about these changes once the project is done and things work, the extra time and money comes from somewhere and can affect a lot of people.

There must be some major projects that are completed on time and on budget. Are these properly celebrated?

“Driving in ‘American Dream mode'”

Driving during a stretch of pleasant fall weather, I thought of a phrase I heard a few months back in a radio conversation: “driving in ‘American Dream mode’.” The idea was this: putting the windows down, turning up the radio or music, and enjoying the drive is an ideal expression of the American Dream. Freedom. Cars. Moving quickly through the landscape.

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Many car commercials play off this idea. These commercials rarely feature traffic and stopping for traffic lights or stop signs. The driving is often through pleasant landscapes. The drivers and the passengers are enjoying the experience. The cars are new and loaded with features.

Numerous social forces converged to this point where a particular driving experience embodies the American Dream. The construction of roads and highways. Sprawling suburbs. The rise of fast food, big box stores, and road trips. Driving is an essential part of the American way of life.

Even if relatively few people get to regularly drive in “American Dream mode,” it is a powerful symbol.

All the construction at the same time + the other factors that increase traffic

A “perfect storm” of traffic has hit Chicagoland:

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The recent traffic backups aren’t a mirage, say transportation officials. It’s really a perfect storm of ongoing construction projects occurring at nearly all points of the expressway system. This includes the Jane Byrne Interchange project, the behind schedule and over budget construction job that offers one of the worst choke points for congestion in the heart of downtown Chicago…

The last week in September saw some of the worst traffic in recent memory, thanks not only to the ongoing construction — including the start of three-weekend lane reductions on Interstate 57 to accommodate ramp patching and resurfacing — but also an emergency closure of the outbound Dan Ryan Expressway ramp to the outbound Stevenson Expressway that isn’t expected to completed until Sunday, according to IDOT…

Transit experts say that Chicago, which has some of the worst congestion of any American city, is also grappling with its return to normalcy following closures brought on by the pandemic. The added congestion comes at a time when many workers such as Cavanagh are returning to the office after two years of work-from-home protocols. Rider usage of transit systems such as the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace also haven’t yet returned to normal…

“In other words, drivers are making more trips, but they’re shorter trips on average,” Dan Ginsburg, TTWN’s director of operations said in an email.

So the old joke in Chicago, “there are two seasons: construction and winter,” rings true again?

But, this is a bigger issue than just construction. The infrastructure needs help. More people are driving. People live and work in different locations. Mass transit is not being used much. Mass transit does not necessarily reach where it needs to reach. People want to drive faster. There is a lot of freight and cargo moving through the region and so on.

This “perfect storm” could be an opportunity to ask how to address traffic and congestion throughout the city and region for the next few decades? How will this get any better?