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.

The changed traffic patterns in the Chicago region

A global pandemic plus other changes mean that there are new patterns of traffic in Chicagoland:

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The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which tracks these patterns, has found that drivers are taking trips on different days, at different times, and sticking closer to home than they used to. An analysis done for WGN-TV shows fewer trips being made at the familiar times and locations of rush hours. “Instead, they are more spread-out, making travel and congestion unpredictable,” WGN reported.

Another big factor in this traffic roulette is the continued rise of e-commerce. Amazon, FedEx and UPS trucks are everywhere, it seems, stopping-and-going, and sometimes blocking streets as drivers deliver online orders. CMAP reports that single-unit truck traffic (including those delivery vans) has shot up 20% since early 2020.

The third variable is public transit. Ridership on CTA, Metra and Pace continues to lag pre-pandemic levels, thanks in no small part to the perception that they are either unsafe, inconvenient or both, meaning more commuters are driving. As a result, motoring to and from downtown can be as rough as ever, especially on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, when employers are more likely to require the physical presence of their office workers.

While these patterns will continue to evolve in the years ahead, working and shopping from home are here to stay, and public transit has a long journey to win back its customers. Planners need to adjust accordingly, and that probably means re-engineering traffic systems.

Summary: Tuesday through Thursday are now the worst “regular” rush hour days, trucks and traffic can be anywhere, and fewer people are using mass transit.

Does the Chicago area have an advantage because of its grid network? If drivers encounter a problem, it is not hard to find an alternative route. Compared to cities with longer histories and fewer major roads in the Northeast, Chicagoans have a plethora of options. On the other hand, the Chicago area is limited in terms of highways and sprawling roads compared to some places in the South and West.

Even with a grid and flat surface, one of the biggest problems seems to be that traffic – driving and rail – tends to end up in particular chokepoints that are more unpredictable in their use. Drivers still go through the Jane Byrne Interchange. Freight traffic needs to get through railyards and across at-grade crossings. Could this traffic be effectively lessened or rerouted in ways that help people and goods flow more quickly?

If there was an issue that the over 9 million people in the Chicago region could address together, this might be it. Yes, few people want to pay for solutions they do not directly benefit from. However, solutions to these issues across the region would benefit everyone.

Metrics we need: claim that an expensive and lengthy construction project will cut delays 50%

With the unveiling of the reconstructed Jane Byrne Interchange in Chicago, this promise was made:

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Illinois Department of Transportation engineers are promising a 50% improvement in traffic delays as the interminable Jane Byrne Interchange rebuild wraps up…

It’s estimated the redo could save more than $180 million hours annually in lost productivity from workers in traffic jams and result in a one-third reduction in greenhouse gases.

Can we start tracking this immediately and see if the promise is true?

With numerous major projects facing longer-than-predicted timelines and significant cost overruns, perhaps this is a way forward in marketing. Ignore the extra time and money; it will be worth it!

At the same time, why not use similar metrics for all sorts of infrastructure projects? Infrastructure is needed for many areas of modern life to go well. Yet, people may not want to endure construction or costs. Promises like this at least fix a number on what people might experience as a positive outcome. And if the modeling is so difficult, does this mean that it might be hard to justify a big project? (I could imagine a different number that is also accurate but less negative: without this project, there will be this % of a negative outcome.)

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.

America: attend a festival and end with an 8 hour traffic jam

Live by the car, get stuck in traffic with the car:

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The first Burning Man festival after three years of COVID pandemic delays ended rather unceremoniously as exhausted revelers endured an apocalyptic eight-hour traffic jam in the sweltering desert to leave the site. Twitter posts depicting the post-revelry congestion — and a bizarre “Thunderdome”-style fight — are going viral online.

“Exodus wait time is currently around 8 hours,” Burning Man’s official travel account confirmed regarding the bash, which saw 80,000 Burners descend on the Black Rock Desert in Gerlach, Nevada, for nine days ending Monday. “Consider delaying your departure until conditions improve.”…

Meanwhile, one burned-out reveler posted photos depicting 15 lanes of traffic that were clogged bumper to bumper for miles like something out of a classic disaster movie.

At least this traffic jam had different scenery compared to the typical highway landscapes found in metropolitan areas?

The car may be essential to the American way of life – and celebrations of life – but traffic jams are one consequence many would hope to avoid. It offers freedom for individual drivers to go when they want at a pace partly of their own choosing, yet the system of roads and land uses can easily lead to backups and delays that limit such perceived freedoms. The car commercials featuring people enjoying driving on the open road do not typically reference any traffic jams. Or, how many movies or TV shows show the difficulties of traffic congestion? After a period of festival-going, just how frustrating is a long traffic jam?

Who has returned to the Chicago highways after COVID-19 is a little different

As traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels across the United States, data from Chicago suggests the composition of vehicles has changed a bit:

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Travel times have already returned mostly to normal on Chicago’s expressways, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. On the Eisenhower, it’s taking drivers an average of 40 minutes to get from Wolf Road to the Jane Byrne Interchange during morning rush hour, compared with 32 minutes in June 2019. Drivers taking the Kennedy from downtown to O’Hare International Airport in the afternoon spent about an hour on the road in both June 2019 and 2021.

Who’s on the road might be changing, though. Truck traffic is up, and more people are working remotely. Among those heading out, more people who were taking public transit before the pandemic seem to be driving, IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said.

On one hand, more people are working from home. On the other hand, another long-term change might be that those who used to take mass transit regularly will not go back to that for a long time or ever. What will it take for mass transit ridership to come back to pre-COVID-19 levels? When will people feel comfortable again on trains, buses, and subways? Multiple cities are trying to address this but, as I argued last week, mass transit is already is less preferable for many commuters even before COVID.

Imagine a post-COVID-19 traffic nightmare: trucks all over the place delivering goods as the economy continues to rebound. More cars on the roads because of fears about mass transit. People who were home for months and/or were used to less congestion on the road now stuck in worse traffic. Are there any good short and long-term solutions to addressing this while the mass transit efforts also continue?

Major highway projects continue in the year of COVID-19

The old Chicago joke goes that there are two seasons each year: winter and construction. During COVID-19, road construction goes on even with less driving, limited budgets, and the potential for sickness to spread among workers. First, an editorial update from the Chicago Tribune on the long-lasting Jane Byrne Interchange work in Chicago:

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The arrival of 2021 means we’ll soon be in Construction Season Nine of a notorious project that the Illinois Department of Transportation initially said would take four and a half years to complete.

We refer of course to the glacially paced reconstruction of The Jane Byrne Construction Museum. We use that respectful moniker — always capitalize The, like The Ohio State University — for what old-time Chicagoans used to call the Jane Byrne Interchange…

Whatever the reason, drivers who didn’t abandon the interchange years ago have, in recent days, found the final four rebuilt ramps open. Museum work has shifted to the mainline Dan Ryan and Kennedy expressways — although we trust that, somewhere, IDOT also is building a museum wing to house its excuses for the years of delays and cost overruns: poor soil conditions, unhelpful rules from Chicago’s City Hall, mistakes by engineering firms, utility rerouting, the diversion of resources to emergency repair projects elsewhere, and on and on…

Surely you aren’t surprised that the cost has grown by some 48%, from $535.5 million to $794 million. Most museums recruit donors to cover their big projects. The Jane Byrne Construction Museum instead gets public dollars. Which has us wondering how many gazillion gallons of amply taxed gasoline burned into the atmosphere as all those mummified motorists sat and sat.

Second, a group puts together an annual list of road construction boondoggles. About this year’s selections:

Highways often get greenlit for expensive work because they require engineering upgrades or significant maintenance. The projects in PIRG’s least-wanted list go beyond those basic needs. Like the group’s previous boondoggle roundups, this one calls attention to taxpayer-funded projects set to consume environmental resources, cut through existing communities, and lock in decades of new carbon emissions, for what PIRG argues is little payoff in congestion relief or economic growth. The 2020 report arrives as the ongoing pandemic clobbers state and local budgets and dramatically reshuffles travel patterns.

The largest on the list is Florida’s M-CORES project, a $10 billion, 330-mile plan to build three toll roads through rural southwest and central Florida. Dubbed the “Billionaire Boulevard” by critics who characterize the project as a handout to developers, a state task force recently found a lack of “specific need” for any of the roads, which would run through environmentally sensitive areas.

There’s also the Cincinnati Eastern Bypass, a $7.3 billion highway set to loop around the eastern side of Cincinnati. Originally proposed by a local homebuilder as a replacement (and then some) for the aging bridge that leads into downtown Cincinnati, the 75-mile, four-lane bypass is designed to divert trucks passing through the region on Interstate 75, easing congestion for local drivers, boosters claim. But the report’s authors state that the highway is projected to add thousands of new vehicle trips per day, encouraging sprawl and contradicting Cincinnati’s goals to increase “population density and transit-oriented development” and decrease fossil fuel use by 20%.

No highway policy critique would be complete without a contribution from Texas. The $1.36 billion Loop 1604 Expansion in San Antonio would add four to six additional lanes on 23 miles of an existing four-lane highway, as well as new frontage roads and a five-tier interchange with Interstate 10. Texas DOT says that the new lanes are needed to keep up with population growth, but transportation planners say that the principle of induced demand would cancel out the benefits while adding pollution. The PIRG report puts it this way: “Additional capacity causes more driving and congestion.”

These summaries of major highway projects provide good reminders of several features of such undertakings:

  1. They often require years of planning and years to complete. From start to finish, this could cover a decade-plus. They take a lot of effort to get going across numerous agencies, governments, and actors and have their own kind of inertia as they move toward completion.
  2. These projects are often intended to make driving easier. Adding lanes and capacity can also attract more drivers. In a country devoted to driving, these contradictory ideas can go together. And the roads and systems for driving keep expanding and evolving.
  3. The costs are huge and the efforts required massive. Yet, the average driver may think about nothing but the congestion caused by the construction.
  4. When completed, such roads (and other significant infrastructure projects) can be impressive in their scale. (Whether this is the best use of the land or moving people around leads to other arguments.)

While these articles do not address this, are there significant infrastructure projects that drivers and residents would be pleasantly surprised to find that had been completed during COVID-19?

Imagining self-driving car underground tunnels under major American cities

Elon Musk’s plan for self-driving cars to operate in tunnels under Las Vegas appears close to becoming reality:

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On Tuesday, Musk announced on Twitter that, after a full year in the making, The Boring Company’s first operational “loop tunnel” in Las Vegas is “almost done.”…

The Boring Company built a test tunnel in 2018 near its headquarters in Hawthorne, California. A year later, it landed a commercial contract in Las Vegas to build a loop tunnel system for public use. According to The Boring Company’s proposal, the final system will be able to shuttle passengers in self-driving Tesla cars between any two destinations in Sin City within minutes.

Construction of the initial twin tunnels near the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) was complete in May. The system is expected to be ready for public use for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2021. But the event has been moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, The Boring Company won a county approval to expand its LVCC transportation Loop to include an underground station at the new Resorts World hotel located at the north end of the Vegas Strip. Ultimately, the company aims to connect all major tourist destinations along the Strip, as well as two terminals of the nearby McCarran International Airport and downtown Vegas.

This location makes sense when tourism is in full swing in Las Vegas. While the airport is relatively close to the strip, it is not necessarily close time-wise and a quick, automated car ride could please a lot of visitors. It is also fun to imagine this in other cities. The tunnels bring to mind memories of playing the Lower Wacker track on Cruis’n USA. Chicago has some of this infrastructure already in place while other cities might be able to convert or expand existing tunnels.

How this could positively affect streetscapes is fascinating. Imagine major American cities with less traffic in their denser areas, more room for pedestrians, more space for properties to extend past the building. Cars would still be in use – just moved to a different plane – but the emphasis on vehicles would be reduced. More streets could be closed, the scale of social life could change (though the towering buildings in some districts would still loom), and the streets would be safer. (I imagine taxis and others might not be pleased to have the business moved underground.)

This is likely a long project to pursue in any city; making big changes underground in many locations is very difficult. It does keep cars around (just more out of sight) and both the money spent to put the system in place and the ongoing commitment to the system could continue to inhibit other options such as promoting mass transit.

Addressing more Chicago traffic when fewer people take mass transit

With COVID-19, few may be willing to ride mass transit even as everyday life slowly returns to some normalcy. This has consequences for traffic:

man standing beside train

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World Business Chicago, a public-private nonprofit agency that promotes the city, estimates that on a given workday there about 406,000 office workers in downtown Chicago, making it the country’s second-biggest central business district after Manhattan.

Many of those people arrive by trains and buses, with the CTA and Metra providing almost 1.9 million rides combined on an average, pre-coronavirus weekday. That includes 1.6 million total one-way CTA rides and 263,000 Metra trips…

Riders’ hesitation may come in part from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation in May that people drive to work alone. That guidance rankled public transportation advocates and created concerns of major traffic and environmental impacts in densely populated cities…

“We’re hearing stories from New York and (Washington) D.C. about employers saying if you’ve taken public transportation you can’t come in the building,” Lavin said. “We want to be sure there’s nothing against public transportation here. In order to do that, we need to have a dialogue.”

Chicago has heavy traffic even with mass transit use because it is a transportation center with plenty of highways and intermodal facilities.

As noted in an earlier blog post, this does present an opportunity to reduce traffic long-term or make a choice to continue to rely on a sprawling landscape full of drivers in their own private vehicles. There are multiple options to pursue:

1. More people working from home. This would reduce traffic on major roads.

2. Stagger work times more so that “rush hour” is more spread out.

3. Find ways to make sure mass transit is safe and/or people feel confident riding it. This might require more resources or better PR or new ideas.

4. Pushing for more people to be able to work closer to their workplaces (meaning more housing options throughout a metropolitan region).

5. Pushing for denser areas in the city or suburbs. (This might be a hard sell right at the moment due to concerns about COVID-19.)

6. Providing more incentives for fleets of vehicles (electric or otherwise) so that not every household has so many cars.

Any one of these or several of them could be pursued at multiple levels with actions from individuals, local groups and municipalities, states, regions, and the federal government.

Returning to a traffic-filled world – or moving to reduce traffic in the future

With activity picking back up, traffic and driving is trending up. Will people go back to accepting the typical commute at just over 27 minutes one way? Or, will people get behind options that might reduce traffic?

Here are a few alternatives:

  1. More working from home would reduce traffic. This seems popular and limits the need for commuting. (Bonus: no one is changing roadways like some of the below options.)
  2. Closing streets to allow more space in cities could extend further. Indeed, cities have already tried this in small doses before COVID-19.
  3. Road diets try to limit the lanes available to drivers. Fewer lanes means more congestion which could discourage driving.
  4. Continuing to close major highways in urban areas (like Seoul and Seattle) and instead devoting the land to pedestrians, bicyclists, and local users.
  5. Promoting more mass transit options and/or coverage throughout regions.
  6. Providing more opportunities for pedestrians and bicyclists – or at least trying to keep them safe.
  7. Providing more housing close to jobs so that commutes do not have to be so long.

Americans like driving yet COVID-19 does provide an opportunity to rethink how much driving Americans do on a daily basis. Is this the system people want or is it more of what happened given American interests in suburbs and single-family homes?