“Politics of pavement” amidst the start of construction season

Commuters and taxpayers may be unhappy with annoying roadwork but as this summary of upcoming projects in the Chicago region reminds us, roadwork is political:

With no state budget in sight as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner feuds with Democrats, the idea of a capital plan to fix infrastructure seems as likely as unicorns in hard hats.

That disconnect is not only strangling transportation funding in Illinois, it’s also thwarting a pet project of Rauner’s — adding tolled express lanes to I-55 in Cook and DuPage counties…

For the Illinois tollway, money’s not a problem. But the agency is locked in a dispute with the Canadian Pacific Railroad over land it wants for I-490, a ring road around the west side of O’Hare International Airport.

If Canadian Pacific wins support from federal regulators in a pending case, it’s a potential catastrophe for the tollway.

Roads are power? Any major infrastructure project involves lots of money, voters, and jobs. Additionally, in a country where driving is so important, construction on major roads is a big deal.

So, is anyone winning the political battle through roads in the Chicago region? Big city mayors like to claim that they are different than national politicians because the mayors have to get things done. The same may be true for governors on infrastructure issues. Presumably, limiting the political battles over roads helps everyone win as costs are reduced (prices for big projects only go up over time) and residents can start experiencing the benefits sooner.

Snowproofing the morning commute

Hearing the morning travel times near Chicago this morning, I wondered what it would take to reduce the abnormally high drive times due to the lake effect snow. The short answer is easy: get more people to take mass transit. But, this may not be doable. Here’s why:

  1. Not desirable. Even with the troubles presented by daily commuting via car (high costs, getting stuck in traffic, road maintenance), this is what Americans choose to do, even when they have other options. It is simply too attractive to be able to go and leave when you want and to not have to be close to other people while doing so.
  2. Not practical. Much of the American lifestyle, even in a city like Chicago, is built around the car. We have our own private homes with yards and garages (even in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods), we don’t put much emphasis on promoting street life, and our activities (work, school, recreation) tend to be all spread out. If you wanted to get rid of your car, you would need to live in denser areas – which do exist – but this would be a significant change for many.

Another way to put it is that days like today might be terrible for commuting but they are likely not enough to cause significant lifestyle changes. Americans have a high tolerance for putting up with commutes and having to use mass transit 300+ days a year isn’t worth it to many.

An additional option would be to delay commutes on days like these. Can’t more businesses and institutions provide more leeway to commuters? This might free up some road space if more people could delay their start or work from home.

Highlights from Chicago region commuting report

Here are some highlights from a new Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning report on commuting:

Here’s what you may not know: DuPage County has the highest percentage of residents (5.7 percent) using Metra. DuPage beat out suburban Cook (4.6 percent), even though Cook has more rail lines…

A one-way commute for white or Hispanic workers was 29 minutes compared to 31 minutes for Asians and 35 for blacks…

During the morning rush at 8 a.m., 39 percent of trips in the region were to jobs, 21 percent were school-related and 34 percent fell into an “other” category. Those include shopping, errands, recreation or personal business.

But by 5 p.m., that “other” category surged by 33 percent. That means instead of going straight home, thousands more vehicles are on the roads during the evening rush headed to a variety of destinations or making multiple stops.

There is a lot going on with daily trips within a region with over 9 million residents. It is a complex system involving multiple modes of travel – driving (solo or carpooling), trains, buses, bicycles, and walking – across a lot of land. Given the number of ways things can go wrong, such as accidents between vehicles, perhaps it is impressive how well it works (or how much we all put up with it).

Two additional thoughts or things I would highlight:

  1. Look at the interactive map of trips by time of day. Couldn’t a lot of problems be resolved if fewer people were traveling between 7-9 AM and 3-6 PM? I know people have proposed staggering work times but this could be a much easier fix compared to keep expanding max capacity (particularly on roads, where adding more lanes just leads to more traffic).
  2. The larger number of trips in the United States take place between suburbs. A lot of attention in Chicago is focused on suburbs to the city but there is a lot that could be improved in moving people throughout the region.

Mass transit users want three basic things

Fast wi-fi? Cushy seats? A recent survey of mass transit users suggest they want more basic features:

Analyses in the TransitCenter report suggest that riders agree. In one, the researchers compared satisfaction levels with various attributes of regional transit systems between respondents who said they’d recommend their transit service to others and those who wouldn’t. Of all the attributes (charted above), frequency of service demonstrated the largest gap in satisfaction between transit boosters and detractors, and it got the very lowest rating from transit detractors. That suggests that frequent service is essential if you want happy riders…In that same analysis, the second-largest gap in satisfaction was travel time—how long it takes to get from station to station. Translation: Fast trains equal more satisfied riders. A second analysis supports this conclusion. Respondents were asked to ranked the relative importance of 12 potential improvements to a hypothetical bus route (the results are charted below). They ranked travel time number one. (Frequency is a close second, with cost reduction in third place.)…

Finally, the report identifies walkability—here, the ability to walk to transit—as the third key factor at the heart of effective, useable transit. To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers broke down riders into three types: Occasional riders, who use transit only once in a while; commuters, who use transit regularly, but only to get to work; and “all-purpose” riders, who take transit regularly to travel to all types of destinations—work, dining, entertainment, and shopping. That last category is especially important for cities to pay attention to, Higadishe said: “When you have lots of all-purpose riders, that’s a signal that a transit system is really useful.”

Across all three rider types, most survey respondents said they typically walked to access transit. But all-purpose riders did so overwhelmingly, with 80 percent typically getting to transit on foot, compared to 53 percent of commuters and 57 percent of occasional riders. In an additional, more fine-tuned analysis of spatial data from TransitCenter’s national transit database AllTransit, the researchers identified a similar relationship…

Infrastructure tends to work this way: it has to work well and consistently. Perhaps then some extra frills could be considered but as long as they don’t compromise the basic features.

So, if these findings hold across a majority of transit users, why don’t politicians and infrastructure authorities pay more attention to these issues? Are they too expensive to address? Or, are these leaders always looking for cool new features (i.e., wi-fi) to impress the public? Perhaps this exposes a gap between who uses mass transit and who doesn’t – politicians and business leaders likely use it less.

The methodology of quantifying the cost of sprawl

A new analysis says sprawl costs over $107 billion each year – and here is how they arrived at that figure:

To get to those rather staggering numbers, Hertz developed a unique methodology: He took the average commute length, in miles, for America’s 50 largest metros (as determined by the Brookings Institution), and looked at how much shorter those commutes would be if each metro were more compact. He did this by setting different commute benchmarks for clusters of comparably populated metros: six miles for areas with populations of 2.5 million or below, and 7.5 miles for those with more than 2.5 million people. These benchmarks were just below the commute length of the metro with the shortest average commute length in each category, but still 0.5 miles within the real average of the overall category.

He multiplied the difference between the benchmark and each metro’s average commute length by an estimated cost-per-mile for a mid-sized sedan, then doubled that number to represent a daily roundtrip “sprawl tax” per worker, and then multiplied that by the number of workers within a metro region to get the area’s daily “sprawl tax.” After multiplying that by the annual number of workdays, and adding up each metro, he had a rough estimate of how much sprawl costs American commuters every year.

Then Hertz calculated the time lost by all this excessive commuting, “applying average travel speed for each metropolitan area to its benchmark commute distance, as opposed to its actual commute distance,” he explains in a blog post…

Hertz’s methodology may not be perfect. It might have served his analysis to have grouped these metros into narrower buckets, or by average commute distance rather than population. While it’s true that large cities tend to have longer commutes, there are exceptions. New Orleans and Louisville are non-dense, fairly sprawling cities, but their highways are built up enough that commute distances are fairly short. To really accurately assess the “sprawl tax” in cities like those, you’d have to include the other costs of spread-out development mentioned previously—the health impacts, the pollution, the car crashes, and so on. Hertz only addresses commute lengths and time.

In other words, a number of important conceptual decisions had to be made in order to arrive at this final figure. What might be more important in this situation is to know how different the final figure would be if certain calculations along the way were changed. Is it a relatively small shift or does this new methodology lead to figures much different than other studies? If they are really different, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong but it might suggest more scrutiny for the methodology.

Another thought: it is difficult to put the $107 trillion into context. It is hard to understand really big numbers. Also, how does it compare to other activities? How much do Americans lose by watching TV? Or by using their smartphones? Or by eating meals? The number sounds impressive and is likely geared toward reducing sprawl but the figure doesn’t interpret itself.

First segment of “bike autobahn” opens in Germany

Following up on an earlier post, the first part of the “bike autobahn” recently opened in northwest Germany:

Last month, Germany opened its first stretch of “bike autobahn,” a cycle route that will eventually cover 100 kilometers (62 miles) between the northwestern cities of Duisburg and Hamm. The autobahn moniker (the German term is actually radschnellweg) may sound over the top given that so far just five kilometers of the route have been launched. But the plan’s ultimate scale and ambition is not to be denied…

The idea nonetheless has real potential for medium-length journeys, pushing the limits of frequent daily bike use out from the (now well-provided-for) inner city into the suburbs and wider regions. Munich isalready planning a network like this one, which will stretch from the historic center out along 14 protected two-lane paths through the suburbs into the surrounding lake land. Germany’s fourth city, Cologne, has a smaller plan for a similar bike highway out into its western exurbs.

When it comes to extending this idea from metro areas to tracks between cities, the new Hamm-Duisburg route is ideal. It will pass through the most densely populated region of Germany, the Ruhr region, where a network of industrial cities lies scattered at only short distances from each other, interspersed with forest and farmland. When complete, the route will bring a string of cities into 30 minutes cycle distance of each other—almost 2 million people will live within a two-kilometer radius of the completed highway…

The main sticking point is cost. The full cost of the new Ruhr highway will be€180 million, funding that is not yet in place for the whole route but which should ultimately come from a blend of municipal and provincial budgets. Elsewhere, not everyone is convinced the benefits of projects like this outweigh the expense. A Berlin bike autobahn plan, which would link the city center with the southwest area, is facing resistance from opponents who say that, as as a link primarily used in good weather, it would do little to relieve pressure on existing rail links.

The portion that just opened – and the planned sections for Munich – seem to be primarily about commuters. If you have several million people within easy distance of these new routes, the bike autobahn could get significant use. It would be interesting to also know the ongoing maintenance cost of such paths; compared to laying down roads which need regular repair (and complete overhauls with several decades), these paths might be relatively cheap in the long run.

I do wonder how the commuters might mix with more recreational users. Perhaps the times of use might be slightly different but paths like these could attract both people who want to get to work and others out for exercise – all at varying speeds. Perhaps Europeans who are already more interested in bicycling around cities could handle this better than Americans who often use bike paths for recreational purposes.

Two questions regarding the “Zen commute”

I’ve seen numerous stories in recent months about creating more calm, Zen commutes. Here is a recent example:

“We can say, ‘OK, I’m going to be in the car for an hour,'” said actor Jeff Kober, who teaches meditation in Los Angeles. “‘Now, what can I do to improve my quality of life during that hour?'”

Resist the urge to relinquish that hour to an inner monologue of traffic complaints, work worries and side-eye looks at coughing riders. Instead, treat it as a time when you can incorporate more contentment, either by getting more meditative or taking measures to create your own oasis.

“Because we’re essentially captive, why not make it into something really productive?” said Maria Gonzalez, who teaches the benefits of mindfulness in business as founder of Argonauta Strategic Alliances Consulting in Toronto…

Experts say, however, that it is possible to change how you embark on, endure and exit your commute.

Even as these practices might limit the negative health consequences of commuting, there are two unanswered questions that came to my mind:

  1. Are mindful drivers safer drivers? There have been major campaigns in recent years to limit the distractions of drivers. If drivers are mindful or being Zen about things other than driving, isn’t this a problem? We still want drivers to focus on the driving, whether stressed while doing it or not.
  2. The bigger issue, of course, is why so many people have long commutes where they are so stressed and harmed. The average American commute is around 26 minutes (and supercommuters are limited) due to a variety of factors: Americans like cars, residences are spread out, our government promoted highways over mass transit, and so on. If we really wanted to deal with the problems of commuting, the Zen part seems like a band-aid on an issue of having people relatively far from their workplaces. Or, maybe this provides more reasons to promote telecommuting and working from home.