Calculating the costs of commuting versus benefits of living further from work

INRIX recently published data on traffic and congestion in major American cities with Boston leading the way. Here is one of the data tables:

INRIXcongestion2020

When put in these terms, it looks like commuters lose a lot of hours and money by sitting in traffic. In addition to the time it should take to commute by car, drivers in Boston lose over 6 days to congestion and over $2,000 dollars. The cost for the city/region is huge when all the drivers are added together. In New York City, $11 billion lost!

On the other hand, people keep commuting. Why would they do this in light of these costs? The pull of the suburbs and locations away from their work is strong. Perhaps workers should be able to live near their work but a good number choose or are pushed to locations far from their jobs. And they might be willing to put up with these costs because the places where they live offer other good things (and measurable benefits). In American life, suburbs offer single-family homes, places for family life, and more. Losing 100+ hours in traffic each year in the biggest cities could be tolerable if it comes with a bigger, cheaper home in a well-regarded community.

In an ideal world, workplaces and communities that people want to live in and would thrive in would be located near each other. Sometimes they are but often they are not. In a country where Americans and their government have prioritized certain things – driving over mass transit throughout metropolitan regions, for example – even the hassles of commuting make some sense.

Using helicopters to avoid driving in traffic

Highways and major roads in and around big cities can be full of traffic. For those with resources, traveling by helicopter can be much quicker:

But the use of commuter helicopters in the greater Los Angeles area is probably second only to New York City, said Kurt Deetz, who ferried Bryant from 2014 to 2016 as a former pilot for the charter service Island Express Holding Corp.

The customer base skews rich, famous and traffic-averse. In 1997, for instance, Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs got permission from officials in Richmond, Calif., to build a heliport that was only a short drive from his office at Pixar Animation Studios.

“It’s about time and money,” Deetz said. “If you were to go from Orange County to Los Angeles on a Friday at 4 p.m., how long would that take you? It’s convenience.”…

The choppers are used by “everyone from celebrities to actors to investment guys and simply people with a lot of money,” Deetz said. “It’s not a poor man’s way of transportation.”

Perhaps this information would fit into a class-based system of daily transportation in the United States (in broad strokes): poor and working-class with more reliance on mass transit where available, people of most classes looking to drive themselves if they have the resources, and then the wealthy seeking alternatives (ranging from having drivers or using helicopters and planes). Driving regularly signals a level of independence and status that many Americans want – unless they have so much money that they can get around everyone else who wants to drive.

The article mentions expanding opportunities for helicopter transport in Los Angeles as well as the possibility of flying cars or vehicles that can vertically land and take off. Would there be a point where there are so many trips by those vehicles that the advantage of going by air is decreased?

Longer freight trains in the United States

Astute observers at crossings for freight trains might have noticed this over the last decade: on average, freight trains have become longer.

Freight trains have grown in length by about 25% since 2008, with trains on some railroads averaging 1.2 to 1.4 miles in 2017, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office…

Seven major railroads operating in the U.S. are running longer than average trains on specific routes, although some indicated that’s just a small percentage of total traffic. “One railroad said it runs a 3-mile-long train twice week,” the GOA noted.

With the government asking drivers to report long waits at crossings, perhaps the length of trains could change or they might move faster:

The agency recently launched the website www.fra.dot.gov/blockedcrossings with the intent of capturing data on blocked crossings to help identify chronic situations where trains cause traffic jams and hamstring first-responders for long stretches of time…

But will knowledge equal power? The hope is communities that experience the worst train-generated gridlock could lobby for federal dollars to build grade separations or use the knowledge to pressure railroads to offer operational fixes.

This is just made for the Chicago region where numerous at-grade crossings and a railroad bottleneck can lead to frustration or safety concerns.

But, this data does not seem that surprising. There are now more people living in the United States and so why wouldn’t there be more stuff shipped around the country? Presumably, a longer train is more efficient than running more trains. As the recent radio ads from the pipeline industry suggest, would drivers and residents prefer more trucks on the road to ship items than freight trains?

The long-term solution would seem to be the slow work of converting high-traffic at-grade crossings to bridges or underpasses or at least making this an option in some communities so that a slow, long, or stopped train is not a huge impediment. These projects can be costly and disruptive to nearby properties, particularly if located in downtowns. Additionally, intermodal facilities can be located further out in populated regions so as to keep long trains away from more populated areas. (The intermodal facilities can lead to their own problems.)

Finally, if the government wanted to solve the problem, why rely on drivers to report the data? This seems more likely to collect information from (1) certain people (perhaps more technologically savvy, perhaps those who can organize a campaign) and (2) certain locations that are problems. Is this a case where the squeaky (car) wheels will win out and see change?

Collectively addressing traffic rather than individual drivers looking for the best route for them

As Waze and other apps route drivers all over the place in order to find the shortest route, one writer argues we need to consider how traffic and congestion is a collective issue:

Road traffic is a great example: absent other incentives, I’m always going to choose the fastest route home that is available to me, even though taking a longer, more circuitous route would help spread out traffic and ease congestion for other drivers across my city. Traffic engineers have long assumed that the Nash equilibrium describes real-world rush hours pretty well.

In fact, mathematical studies and behavioral experiments dating back to the 1960s have shown that the collective delay is almost always worse in the Nash equilibrium, a.k.a. “user-optimized” driving scenario, compared to a world where drivers worked as a team for smoother traffic overall. Imagine a centralized transportation planner who assigned commuters their routes based on what was going to most benefit everybody. That god-like figure could impel some drivers to protract their journeys in order to improve the overall flow and decrease the cumulative time spent in traffic.

In this “system-optimized” equilibrium, our trips would be less harried on average: One widely cited 2001 paper by computer scientists at Cornell found that a network of “user-optimized” drivers can experience travel times equivalent to what a network of “system-optimized” drivers would experience with twice as many cars. Transport engineers call the difference between selfish and social equilibria the “price of anarchy.”

And the proposed solution:

Perhaps the best approach to the future of traffic starts with redefining the problem we’re trying to solve. For most of the 20th century, the principal concern of transportation economists was to reduce travel time across a given distance. But getting as many people as possible to and from work, school, and shopping—period—might be the more important task. If the goal is reframed as increasing access, rather than increasing speed, then the answer involves more than traffic apps and vehicle transponders. Land use patterns would have to be rethought so that people can live closer to the destinations they care about. People should be able to walk as much as they want to, and use bikes, scooters, buses, and trains. Autonomous vehicles, if they come, ought to be carefully folded into the mix with care so as not to double down on congestion and carbon emissions.

The solution hints that this is a much larger issue than apps and whether they should be held responsible by the public. The underlying issue may be this: are Americans generally willing to set aside their own personal priorities in favor of societal arrangements that can benefit more people on the whole?

Americans like to drive and it is baked into the American way of life. One of the reasons Americans like their own vehicles is that it offers independence and control. Rather than relying on a set schedule or having or riding with other people or supporting big systems, Americans like the idea that they can get into their vehicle at any time and go wherever they want. They may not actually do this much – hence, we get fairly predictable rush hours when everyone is trying to go places at the same time – but individual vehicles provide options in a way that mass transit does not.

Making the switch over to systems rather than individual options – including mass transit – requires submitting parts of life to a collective that cares less about individuals and more about the whole. This same debate is playing out in other arenas such as how healthcare should be organized or whether wealth inequality should be addressed. If the favored outcome is individual choice, it is hard to move people toward collective approaches. Even if thinking of traffic and transportation as a larger system means that more people might be stuck less in traffic, the individual participant may not gain that much or may lose the feel of control. Access for all is a hard sell when many like their individual choices (even as they bemoan congestion).

It might take decades or generations before a significant shift away from individual drivers might occur. Indeed, more than just apps can continue to promote individual approaches to driving: ride-sharing still is largely an individual act and the private nature of self-driving cars might just make the choice to drive even easier for some.

Mapping vehicle emissions in the Chicago metropolitan region

The New York Times maps and discusses vehicle emissions across American metropolitan areas:

ChicagoVehicleEmissionsMap

Even as the United States has reduced carbon dioxide emissions from its electric grid, largely by switching from coal power to less-polluting natural gas, emissions from transportation have remained stubbornly high.

The bulk of those emissions, nearly 60 percent, come from the country’s 250 million passenger cars, S.U.V.s and pickup trucks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Freight trucks contribute an additional 23 percent…

Suburban driving, including commuting, has been a major contributor to the expanding carbon footprint of urban areas, Dr. Gately said.

But, he added, “Even in the densest cities, the vast majority of trips still happen in a motor vehicle.” These trips include work commutes, school drop-offs and millions of other daily errands as well as freight deliveries and other business traffic, each of which contribute to planetary warming.

The United States has organized much of its society around driving. Plus, many Americans like driving or the benefits they believe driving offers. It will be hard to enact quick large-scale changes to this though smaller efforts (such as fleets of electric vehicles or denser suburban areas) could add up to change over time.

The data from the Chicago area is interesting. Like most metro areas, the emissions are centered on major highways with some of the areas with most emissions being the Kennedy Expressway, the Dan Ryan Expressway, I-88 at I-294, and I-88 at I-355 (these are likely areas with high levels of congestion and gridlock). From the maps, it is hard to know how much of the emissions come from freight trucks but I would imagine the proportion could be high in the Chicago area given its central location, highways, and intermodal facilities. Chicago ranks 5th in total emissions – behind New York, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston – and the per-person emissions ranks on the low end of metropolitan areas. Although the region is the third largest metropolitan region in the United States, it does have more mass transit than a number of other regions.

Connecting residential segregation, highways, mass transit, and congestion

Historian Kevin Kruse suggests the traffic congestion in today’s big cities is connected to segregation:

This intertwined history of infrastructure and racial inequality extended into the 1950s and 1960s with the creation of the Interstate highway system. The federal government shouldered nine-tenths of the cost of the new Interstate highways, but local officials often had a say in selecting the path. As in most American cities in the decades after the Second World War, the new highways in Atlanta — local expressways at first, then Interstates — were steered along routes that bulldozed “blighted” neighborhoods that housed its poorest residents, almost always racial minorities. This was a common practice not just in Southern cities like Jacksonville, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Richmond and Tampa, but in countless metropolises across the country, including Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Syracuse and Washington.

While Interstates were regularly used to destroy black neighborhoods, they were also used to keep black and white neighborhoods apart. Today, major roads and highways serve as stark dividing lines between black and white sections in cities like Buffalo, Hartford, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. In Atlanta, the intent to segregate was crystal clear. Interstate 20, the east-west corridor that connects with I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta’s center, was deliberately plotted along a winding route in the late 1950s to serve, in the words of Mayor Bill Hartsfield, as “the boundary between the white and Negro communities” on the west side of town. Black neighborhoods, he hoped, would be hemmed in on one side of the new expressway, while white neighborhoods on the other side of it would be protected. Racial residential patterns have long since changed, of course, but the awkward path of I-20 remains in place…

[S]uburbanites waged a sustained campaign against the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) from its inception. Residents of the nearly all-white Cobb County resoundingly rejected the system in a 1965 vote. In 1971, Gwinnett and Clayton Counties, which were then also overwhelmingly white, followed suit, voting down a proposal to join MARTA by nearly 4-1 margins, and keeping MARTA out became the default position of many local politicians. (Emmett Burton, a Cobb County commissioner, won praise for promising to “stock the Chattahoochee with piranha” if that were needed to keep MARTA away.) David Chesnut, the white chairman of MARTA, insisted in 1987 that suburban opposition to mass transit had been “90 percent a racial issue.” Because of that resistance, MARTA became a city-only service that did little to relieve commuter traffic. By the mid-1980s, white racists were joking that MARTA, with its heavily black ridership, stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”…

Earlier this year, Gwinnett County voted MARTA down for a third time. Proponents had hoped that changes in the county’s racial composition, which was becoming less white, might make a difference. But the March initiative still failed by an eight-point margin. Officials discovered that some nonwhite suburbanites shared the isolationist instincts of earlier white suburbanites. One white property manager in her late 50s told a reporter that she voted against mass transit because it was used by poorer residents and immigrants, whom she called “illegals.” “Why should we pay for it?” she asked. “Why subsidize people who can’t manage their money and save up a dime to buy a car?”

Translation: decisions about transportation were both a consequence of a national inclination toward racial and ethnic segregation and an ongoing contributor toward racial and ethnic segregation. In a country that is relatively sprawling and prefers cars, determining who has access to transportation and what kind of transportation is available can be part of who can get ahead.

While the root cause of all of this may be racial issues, it is interesting to consider this as a congestion issue. Would the public be convinced to change transportation infrastructure because they dislike sitting in traffic? The evidence from Atlanta as well as numerous other American cities (such as developing a regional transportation effort in the Chicago region) suggests this is not a strong argument. Wealthier residents are hesitant to ride buses, trains may be tolerable, but driving is still preferred even when so many hours per year are devoted to it. Suburban Americans like cars and they like the ability to exclude and I would argue the second is the master priority when push comes to shove.

Buying and demolishing expensive suburban homes to expand I-294

Acquiring property for right-of-ways for highways and other uses can get expensive. Here are a few examples of the Illinois Tollway purchasing homes in Elmhurst and Hinsdale:

A two-story, 3,145-square-foot house in Elmhurst that was built in 2005 and that the Illinois Tollway bought for $710,000 has a date with a wrecking ball later this year. It’s one of the more unusual aspects of the upcoming $4 billion widening of Interstate Highway 294…

The house due to be razed, at 505 E. Crescent Ave. in Elmhurst, abuts a noise wall that parallels a ramp linking Interstate Highway 290 to I-294. The Illinois Toll Highway Authority needs the house’s 0.3-acre parcel to provide room for an interchange ramp, said tollway spokesman Dan Rozek. It’s the only house in Elmhurst that the toll authority intends to acquire…

While the tollway’s plans call for just that one house acquisition in Elmhurst, the tollway intends to acquire and demolish some 11 homes farther south in Hinsdale for the project, many of which are on Harding Road and Mills Street. In a reflection of the relatively high cost of homes in Hinsdale, the tollway paid even more for two Hinsdale homes than it did for the Elmhurst acquisition, shelling out $870,000 for a house at 621 Harding Road and $825,000 for a home at 645 Harding Road.

However, most of those pending Hinsdale demolitions are of homes that are much older than the one in Elmhurst. Of the Hinsdale acquisitions, the house that was most recently built is a four-bedroom, 2,346-square-foot, neo-eclectic-style house at 417 Mills Street, which was built in 1996. The tollway acquired that house in December for $700,000.

Suburban areas have lots of homes adjacent to highways and relatively few meet this fate. And such homes can be worth quite a bit even with all that noise if located in the right community and with the right features (such as plenty of square footage and a recent build).

This is a reminder that perhaps the best lesson to take from all of this is for leaders and planners to do these sorts of things earlier rather than later to save money. If the plan is always to add lanes – which probably just encourages traffic rather than relieving congestion – then do it earlier. These more recent homes might never have been built and communities could plan earlier for such major changes to residential areas.