I drove past the same scenery for almost eight years

I realized a few days ago that I drove almost the same route every day to and from work for almost eight years. It was not a bad drive: it usually took about 15-20 minutes to go roughly 7 miles, I saw a lot of greenery due to Forest Preserves and a private park, I drove past some important local institutions, and there were not too many traffic lights.

But, as I was recently driving part of this route for another destination, I noticed that I had not seen this part of the world for a few months – and I live just a few miles away. With no daily commute along this route, I do not need to bother with this territory.

Does it matter that I do not keep up with this area any longer? It did not appear that much had changed. Yet, I felt like I missed something that had been part of my life for years. Now, I see different things on my daily route: new houses and buildings, new cars, and new obstacles to avoid in order to reach work faster.

It was easier when I was younger to simply explore my own suburbs and those around it. Although slower, this could be accomplished best by bicycle and with no set destination. This could even be accomplished when driving was still exciting in the early years (and gas was very cheap and what else was there to do in high school and college). Today, my goal is usually to get to a place quickly.

In the end, it is easy to see one set of sites for years and years. At the least, we can try to pay attention to those sites and be a part of the place (even if that means passing through at 30+ MPH). On the flip side, we can blindly go along that same route for a long time and also miss out on numerous other nearby places that are just off our daily route.

The ongoing difficulty of Chicago suburb to suburb commuting

The Daily Herald’s transportation writer details the difficulties of taking mass transit between Chicago suburbs:

My odyssey was prompted by the annual Dump the Pump Day, which encourages people to embrace public transit instead of driving.

Here’s a recap of the two-hour, 36-minute voyage to work:

• 8:20 a.m.: Boarded a Metra BNSF train in Downers Grove that arrived at Union Station.

• 9:23 a.m.: Caught a Blue Line train to Rosemont after a short walk from Union Station and a fight with a Ventra machine.

• 10:13 a.m.: Arrived at Rosemont and transferred to Pace Bus Route 606 at 10:30 a.m.; reached work at 10:56 a.m.

The tedious reverse commute lasted two hours, 57 minutes.

• 2:49 p.m.: Boarded Pace Bus Route 757 in Arlington Heights en route to the Forest Park Transit Center.

• 4 p.m.: Left on Pace Bus Route 301 headed to Oak Brook Center.

• 5:03 p.m.: Departed on Pace Bus Route 322 to Yorktown Center at 5:23 p.m.

• 5:30 p.m.: Took Pace Bus Route 834. Arrived in Downers Grove at 5:46 p.m.

By car, the trip is typically 30 to 40 minutes in the morning and 30 to 60 minutes in the afternoon, depending on traffic.

There are some easy answers as well as some more difficult discussions. The easy reasons to start:

  1. Mass transit in the region was constructed in an earlier era when many more people wanted to commute from suburbs to the city. The suburb to suburb trip is a product of recent decades.
  2. There is not money to do mass transit in the suburbs. This applies both to constructing mass transit (such as rail options) or attracting riders (with buses) who have too many starting points and endpoints.

But, given that so much commuting is now suburb to suburb, why aren’t there some more consistent options? Two deeper reasons:

  1. Infrastructure – not just mass transit but other systems including water – are in trouble. We are decades behind in providing good infrastructure. If it is any consolation, highway systems aren’t in much better shape as they often wait too long to add lanes or new routes (and it is debatable how successful these efforts are anyway.) It is both a funding and planning issue.
  2. Wealthier suburbs and suburbanites don’t really want mass transit. They don’t want to pay for it and they don’t want certain people coming to their community. They can generally afford driving and they like the freedom (and the exclusivity) it provides.

Overall, there is both a lack of will to build and use mass transit in many suburbs.

“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.