CREATE plan slowly moves to address Chicago area railroad congestion

An expensive and sizable project aims to solve the train congestion in the Chicago region:

CREATE takes an incremental approach to fixing rail gridlock in the suburbs and Chicago, the nation’s busiest rail hub.

One overpass here, two extra tracks there, and eventually freight trains will be chugging along instead of noisily idling in your neighborhood while emitting diesel fumes.

The downside is the cost — a staggering $4.4 billion to fix the region’s outdated rail infrastructure.

Despite funding challenges, 29 out of 70 CREATE projects in the region have been completed with $1 billion spent, Association of American Railroads Chief Engineer for CREATE William Thompson explained during a recent tour…

The Chicago region handles a whopping 25 percent of freight traffic in the U.S. That means almost 500 freight trains and 760 Metra and Amtrak trains pass through the region daily. Completing the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program that builds bridges and new track will mean the metro area can host 50,000 more freight trains a year by 2051.

The Chicago area is a critical railroad hub for the entire nation. Yet, given the amount of development in the region, making significant changes is difficult. For example, construction at O’Hare Airport is held up by a dispute over railroad land adjacent to the busy facility. Or, suburban residents and communities do not like it when freight traffic is increased near them even if benefits the region as a whole. Or, getting rid of the many at-grade crossings is a slow process. This is another good illustration of how foresight – addressing these issues decades ago as the region was growing at a face pace – could have cut off numerous later issues.

Also, I am intrigued by the last line from the article quoted above. I assume most of the region’s residents would assume that the amount of time and money poured into this project would eventually mean that they would encounter fewer trains. And this might be the case if more bridges, underpasses, and routes around the outskirts of the region limit the vehicular contact with trains. Yet, increasing the number of freight trains by 50,000 means more noise and possibly more traffic issues at the points in the transportation grid where trains and vehicles still come in contact. Would the majority of residents want 50,000 new trains? I would guess no even if it is essential to their day-to-day lives (delivering goods and food, etc.).


Study suggests more traffic is related to stronger metro economies

What if traffic is not something to avoid but rather a byproduct of a strong economy?

By comparing historic traffic data against several economic markers, the authors found virtually no indication that gridlock stalled commerce. In fact, it looked like the economy had its own HOV lane. Region by region, GDP and jobs grew, even as traffic increased. This does not mean speed bumps should come standard on every new highway. Traffic still sucks, and things that suck should be fixed. What this study does is acknowledge that economically vibrant cities will always have congestion. So transportation planners should instead focus on ways to alleviate the misery rather than eliminate the existence of congestion…

Marshall acknowledges that no statistic can paint a perfect picture of reality, but he says he and his coauthor wrangled their analysis into coherence. Once they accounted for all the hanging chads, the overall trend was pretty clear: Traffic really didn’t do much to the economy. In fact, they found that if anything, places with higher car congestion seemed to have stronger economies. Specifically, per capita GDP and job growth both tracked upward as traffic wait times got worse.

It sounds like the study suggests the better the economy is, the more traffic there will be. I could think of two observations that go with these findings:

  1. The idea of ghost towns, both literal and figurative. If there is a lack of economic activity, the streets and buildings will be pretty empty.
  2. Jane Jacobs argued the most interesting neighborhoods are those with a lot of street and sidewalk activity. This is certainly related to economic activity of businesses, shops, and restaurants as well as the ability of residents and visitors to spend money.

Even if this is true, I would guess this knowledge would do little to help people stuck in gridlock feel better about the situation. They should think “I’m glad I have a good job in a thriving metro area and the traffic is the small penalty to pay for that.”

Perhaps a final piece to this would be to think about what would need to change in urban areas or driving to decouple these factors. Would a significant investment in mass transit counter this connection? More telecommuting and working from home?

Two dead suburban transportation projects: the Metra STAR Line and the Prairie Parkway

A large metropolitan area of over 9 million residents could benefit from more transportation options for residents and visitors. Here are quick summaries about two projects that never got off the ground:

The STAR Line

The suburb-to-suburb STAR Line rail system was intended to loop from O’Hare to Hoffman Estates to Joliet along tracks formerly owned by the EJ & E railroad, providing an alternative to the suburb-to-city commuter lines.

But Canadian National Railroad bought the EJ & E in 2008 and moved freight traffic onto those tracks, effectively putting the STAR Line on ice. In 2011 Schaumburg pulled the plug on a special taxing district meant to spur development around the convention center, which had been envisioned as a STAR Line hub.

Prairie Parkway

The Prairie Parkway would have circled Chicago’s outer suburbs, linking I-88 near Elburn to I-80 near Minooka. The Illinois Department of Transportation began studies in 2003, and in 2005 President George W. Bush came to Montgomery to sign a highway funding bill and call the Prairie Parkway “crucial for economic progress for Kane and Kendall counties.”

Opponents organized and sued. The highway’s patron, former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Plano, was accused of profiting from land buys near the proposed highway. And in 2012, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its approval of the right of way. It was only in March that IDOT canceled the corridor.

I have always thought the STAR Line was a clever idea in multiple ways:

  1. It would provide needed railroad links throughout the region so that not all riders have to go into Chicago before making transfers. The spoke model in the Chicago region is good for getting to downtown but the biggest number of trips these days are suburb to suburb.
  2. It made use of existing tracks. Although they likely needed more capacity to run regular passenger service and new tracks would be needed along I-90, some of the infrastructure was already there. This is not something to look past in an era when acquiring land can be expensive and time-consuming.
  3. It had the potential to spur transit-oriented suburban development in a number of communities. This is a hot topic in many suburban downtowns and it could have opened up new commuting, residential, and business opportunities.

Yet, the plan was scuttled by several factors:

  1. A lack of money. This project has been around since the 1990s but it was unclear who would fund it.
  2. Control of the EJ&E tracks.
  3. Likely concerns from neighbors to these tracks. When CN purchased these tracks and added freight trains, multiple communities pushed back.

The Prairie Parkway may have not offered as much opportunity to remove cars from roads but could have spurred development on some of the edges of the Chicago region and offered a shorter drive time in these areas. Building belt-line highways like this require some foresight: if they are constructed after too much development has occurred, they can be much more expensive to build. Also, neighbors can object to the plans, such as with the Illiana Expressway which also has not gotten off the ground.

Forget smart cars; we should at least have smart traffic lights everywhere

Getting to the point where most or all American drivers have safe and reliable driverless cars will take time. In the meantime, why don’t we have smart traffic lights or at least every traffic light operating with sensors?

There are several intersections near my house and work that clearly do not have sensors. You pull up in your vehicle and regardless of time of day or how many others want to go the same way as you do, you will wait a full light cycle. Some of these lights are one to one and a half minutes long. Sometimes this makes sense: one road clearly has more cars. Yet, often this full period passes with few to no cars going through the light.

But, let’s go further. I’ve also run into situations where the sensors might just be too sensitive. This occurs particularly between 9 PM and 5 AM when traffic is light on major roads. A single vehicle wanting to turn onto the major road can stop traffic. If you have a few of these on a single trip, this can be frustrating. Why not have coordinated light signals along major corridors? Cities and suburbs do not necessarily have to go to full-blown smart systems that hope to coordinate all traffic; even just doing this on a few main roads with significant amounts of traffic could help ease congestion.

Perhaps one issue is cost: what municipalities or other governments (depending on who has jurisdiction over the road) want to spend money on sensors and devices? One of the supposed benefits of driverless cars is that they will allow for more flowing traffic through coordination across vehicles. However, in that scenario the cost of less congestion is pushed to the car owners who have to purchase such a vehicle. Sensors at major intersections or at all intersections would not require anything or much from drivers. Yet, I bet you could make an argument that putting money into better intersections will be a cost savings in the long run with less time spent in traffic.

Solving traffic problems by developing resilient roads

A new study suggests cities and regions should think about their whole network of roads as resilient rather than focusing on main arteries:

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, Maksim Kitsak, associate research scientist in the Department of Physics and Northeastern’s Network Science Institute, and his colleagues examine the resilience and efficiency in city transportation systems. Efficiency refers to the average time delay a commuter would face annually due to traffic. Resilience is the ability of road networks to absorb adverse events that fall outside normal daily traffic patterns…

“What we show is actually these two measures are not really correlated with each other,” Kitsak said. “One would think that if the city is bad for traffic under normal conditions, it would be equally bad or worse for traffic under additional stress events, like severe weather. But we show that is not quite the case.”

For example, the study found that the Los Angeles transportation network—while inefficient on a daily basis—doesn’t suffer much from adverse events. The road systems are resilient. They function more or less the same regardless of unforeseen incidents…

Why is the City of Angels more resilient than the City by the Bay? Kitsak said there are many factors that influence transportation resiliency, but one of the most important ones is the availability of backup roads. Los Angeles has many, while San Francisco does not. San Francisco also relies heavily on bridges, which separate the city from other parts of the Bay Area where many commuters live.

This is more evidence that simply adding lanes to major highways or even constructing more major roads is not necessarily the way to go to solve traffic and congestion issues. All the roads (plus other transportation options) work together in a system or network.

Speaking of Los Angeles, this reminds me that the region can illustrate both the good and bad of having a more resilient road network. On the good side, concern about potential Carmageddon and Carmageddon 2 were overblown as the closing of a major highway for repairs was not as disruptive as some thought. On the flip side, a few years ago some Los Angeles residents complained about Waze rerouting cars through their quiet neighborhood to avoid backups on the main roads.

Finally, this study could also be related to claims by New Urbanists that the best option for laying out roads and space is on a grid system. Grids allow drivers and other easy ways to get around problem spots. In contrast, subdivisions (common in suburban areas) that include quiet and occasionally winding residential roads that dump onto clogged main arteries do not contain many alternatives should something go wrong on the main roads.

So is the trick in the long run to create a resilient road network within a region that is not totally dependent on cars? Los Angeles might come up looking good in this study but not everyone would agree that sprawl and lots and driving is desirable.

Arguing that $40 congestion charges are good for drivers

The new express lanes on I-66 outside Washington D.C. may just be what driving looks like in the future:

The express lanes on Interstate 66 near DC, previously reserved for vehicles carrying two or more people, opened up to solo travelers. Except those single-occupancy vehicles have to pay a toll, one that fluctuates according to demand. The world watched, aghast, as tolling prices hit $40 for folks headed into the capital on Tuesday morning…

“Transportation pricing usually takes several months or even years to achieve its full effects, so the current maximum prices are probably two or three times what will occur once everybody becomes familiar with the system,” says Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Columbia. “Over the next few months, many travelers will probably change when and how they travel, so the maximum price will probably decline to a few dollars per trip.”

One of congestion pricing’s greatest strengths is convincing drivers to skip trips they don’t really need to take, or convince them to go at another time. Though the express lane scheme targets commuters, not everyone who travels during those periods is going to work. In fact, some might be taking totally optional trips—grabbing milk, meeting a friend for coffee. “The percentages vary by metro area and travel corridor (as do the timing and duration of peak periods) but the data show that about half of peak period trips are for other purposes,” says Elizabeth Deakin, who studies regional planning at UC Berkeley and has evaluated congestion tolling in the Bay Area.

Eventually—and you’ll have to wait a while to see this—congestion pricing can influence where people choose to live. If you don’t have to pay for tolls, the big house out in the suburbs with the huge backyard looks like a great option. When it costs $20 in tolls to get to work every day, not so much. If every one of those McMasion abandoners drives to work, well, that can make a dent in a traffic jam. Remember: You’re not in traffic. You are traffic.

The main purpose of such charges is to get drivers to think twice about traveling to that location via car or using that route. Not everyone will take the alternative – and Americans do like their driving and the freedom they think it offers even as they regularly complain about all the traffic in urban areas – but enough will do so to at least stop the increase in congestion.

As these options expand, it will be interesting to see how residents of each area respond. Will they protest by not taking those roads? (I remember such claims here in the Chicago region a few years back when tolls were raised.) Will they pursue public referendums? Will they refuse to pay? Would they vote out those who enabled these traffic changes? Even though there is likely to be a lot of complaining, it is also difficult to mount a serious political response to congestion pricing.

Self-driving cars could benefit suburban residents the most

While reading an article considering what daily life may be like with autonomous vehicles, a thought hit me: suburbs – compared to cities and rural areas – will benefit the most from self-driving cars. Sure, cities could remove a lot of cars off the streets and enhance pedestrian life. Rural areas could benefit from easier driving and trucking. Yet, as far as daily life is concerned, not having to pay attention to driving could help suburbanites the most as so much of their life involves driving from one place to another.

Here are the primary advantages of self-driving vehicles for the suburbs:

1. The commute to work changes as passengers can now work or relax or sleep on the way.

2. The other various trips in the suburbs now can be more enjoyable (like commuting in #1).

3. Suburbanites do not need to own as many vehicles.

4. Two groups disadvantaged by auto-dependent suburbs – teenagers and the elderly – now have access to transportation.

5. Suburbanites can live even further away from work and urban centers, possibly providing cheaper housing as well as more options regarding what communities they can live in.

6. The cheap goods suburbanites expect from big box stores and online retailers may be even cheaper as retailers and businesses also utilize autonomous vehicles.

7. Suburban congestion and traffic will be decreased due to both the new vehicles handling roads better and a reduction in vehicles (#3 above).

Granted, these reasons might not account for the ongoing costs of driving. For example, suburbanites may not need to own as many cars or may enjoy their regular drives more but roads still need to be built and maintained.