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:
- 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.
- 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.
…Not much of a surprise. But, Los Angeles does lead the way by quite a bit over other cities:
Drivers in the car-crazy California metropolis spent 104 hours each driving in congestion during peak travel periods last year. That topped second-place Moscow at 91 hours and third-place New York at 89, according to a traffic scorecard compiled by Inrix, a transportation analytics firm.
The U.S. had half the cities on Inrix’s list of the top 10 most congested areas in the world and was the most congested developed country on the planet, Inrix found. U.S. drivers averaged 42 hours per year in traffic during peak times, the study found. San Francisco was the fourth-most congested city, while Bogota, Colombia, was fifth, Sao Paulo ranked sixth and London, Atlanta, Paris and Miami rounded out the top 10…
Study authors said a stable U.S. economy, continued urbanization of big cities, employment growth and low gas prices all contributed to increased traffic and congestion worldwide in 2016, lowering the quality of life.
The city built around the car and highways lives and dies with those same cars and highways.
What would it take to dramatically reduce that time in Los Angeles? The city has both a history of mass transit – extensive streetcar lines in the early 1900s – as well as rumblings about increased mass transit options in the future. See this 2012 post that sums up this potential “mass transit revolution.” But, any such effort must be monumental and involve both infrastructure as well as cultural change. Could we truly envision a Los Angeles in several decades where the car is not at the center of everyday life (both in practice and mythos) or will we have piecemeal efforts (including continuing trying to maximize driving through schemes like boring under the city) that don’t add up to much? Large-scale transformation would take a significant shift in focus by the city and other bodies and require sustained pressure for decades.
Another thought: are there effective ways for angry drivers to protest congestion? Yes, they can vote for certain candidates or policies. What if drivers one day symbolically walked away from their cars during the afternoon rush hour? (Such a protest, unfortunately, only would add to the congestion.) Could drivers clog the downtown streets in protest to block politicians? Refuse to go to work? There does not seem to be many options for the average driver to express their displeasure.
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:
- 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).
- 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.
A recent study of bus travel in Montreal suggests that it is a much safer experience compared to driving:
By perusing police reports from 2001 to 2010, they found motorists on these routes had more than three times the injury rate of bus passengers. Buses were also safer for people sharing the road. Cars were responsible for 95 percent of pedestrian and 96 percent of cyclist injuries on these arteries, they write in a presentation for this month’s meeting of the Transportation Research Board.
During the same time period in Montreal, nobody was killed while riding the bus, though 668 people were injured. (It’s unknown if that number includes bus operators, who are powerful magnets for abuse.) Meanwhile, auto occupants suffered 19 deaths and 10,892 injuries. Cars were linked to 42 pedestrian and three cyclist deaths, while buses were linked to four and zero, respectively…
In the United States car occupants have a fatality rate 23 times greater than bus passengers, while it’s respectively 11 and 10 times higher in Australia and Europe. They suggest getting more people on public transit could make a large impact on public health.
In terms of public health, the safety argument is compelling: without having to go all the way to self-driving vehicles for all, buses could be an important tool in reducing deaths. Yet, I’ve discussed before that I don’t think many middle- to upper-class Americans would choose to travel by bus in denser areas if they can afford to drive. I don’t know if the safety argument could overcome either (1) the stereotypes of riding the bus and (2) the inconvenience of the bus schedule as opposed to driving a car.
Perhaps what we need is for a city or two to experiment with a public campaign to boost bus membership with a safety campaign. Would residents find it compelling?
The new film The Founder tells of the founding of McDonald’s and involves a number of suburban sites – that were all recreated in Georgia:
Because of their limited budget and ultrafast 34-day shooting schedule, the filmmakers had to be resourceful in showing McDonald’s restaurants all over the United States, without actually leaving Georgia.
So, they repurposed their “Des Plaines” building.
“When you see Schaumburg, when you see Minneapolis, when you see all the McDonald’s from around the country, those are subtle reworkings of only one set,” Corenblith said.
“Just by changing the parking lot stripes configuration, it was a very subtle way to tell the audience that, no, this isn’t the place you just saw because the cars are now parked perpendicularly and not diagonally or parallel.”
Corenblith’s eye for authentic detail fooled even Keaton. He assumed the crew had found an old McDonald’s restaurant and rehabbed it for the film shoot.
The magic of Hollywood…or the similarities in suburban settings?
This movie may be worth seeing just to consider the American suburban lifestyle. Would McDonald’s and other fast food companies exist without it? Fast food takes perfect advantage of a number of factors: suburbanites need to/want to drive, all that driving means it would be convenient to eat along the way, fast food restaurants are often located at busy intersections or along busy roads, the dining experience is standardized, and the reasonable prices appeal to the middle class. No suburbs, likely no McDonald’s or a very different kind of McDonald’s.
A scientist discusses the issues that need to be solved for Americans to voluntarily carpool in larger numbers:
Maybe carpooling apps should let drivers set clear terms about the kind of behaviors they expect and encourage in their car, says Glasnapp. Maybe they permit conference calls and snacking, or maybe they’d prefer friendly, food-and-phone-free conversation. (Or total silence!) Riders should have the option to choose specific types of in-car experiences, too, with the understanding that the lower cost they are paying to carpool comes with a different set of expectations than does ride-hailing.
Technology has simplified the logistics of the rider/driver experience, says Glasnapp, but that sometimes comes at the expense of control. Most carpool apps offer specific time brackets during which drivers and riders can schedule rides—for example, on Scoop, morning trips have to be solidified by 9 PM the night before, and evening trips by 3:30 PM the same day, and matches are made after that deadline. That clarity is nice, says Glasnapp, but it’s almost too inflexible, since the system penalized him for making changes afterwards, and didn’t notify him if his ride offer had been accepted until after the cut-off. On the other hand, Waze operates its carpool system at any time of the day that drivers are on the road, which can be somewhat chaotic for riders’ expectations, says Glasnapp. The best carpool app will find a balancing point between structure and flexibility…
Finding the sweet spot for payment might be the most elusive goal for a great carpool system. Each app Glasnapp tested had their own approach to setting prices and payments for passengers and drivers: On Waze, riders pay a price that reflects the federal mileage reimbursement rate of $.54 per mile; this money is transferred directly to the driver. Lyft took the approach of setting flat fares, where carpool drivers earned up to $10, and riders paid anywhere between $4 and $10. Scoop pricing follows a similar model, and it also partners with local employers to provide discounted trips for riders, Glasnapp says. So long as drivers are still getting their cut, that’s an attractive strategy for all parties.
Even if the mileage rate is attractive on its face, though, the length of the journey has to match up to the driver’s expectation of fair compensation. If you’re already driving 40 miles to work, a request from a rider who is 17 minutes out of the way might require a pretty healthy compensation for you to accept—more than, say, the $10-and-under that a standard Lyft or Waze trip paid. “I think there is a magic number for every driver based on amount of inconvenience,” Glasnapp says. This is also sort of a chicken-and-egg problem—if there were more carpool drivers on the road, they wouldn’t be receiving such far-flung requests. But a great carpool app will need to nail the (highly individual!) question of pricing, so that more drivers want in.
A few other problems I could imagine:
- The lack of personal space. Is there a way to design carpool vehicles where each person has this own compartment? This would cut down on the problems of differences in behavioral expectations and have the passengers and drivers not even interact or possibly even see each other.
- Can everyone who wants to find someone to carpool with? I’m imagining it would be tougher for those with irregular work hours or who live in certain locations (or have unique paths). Would this be seen as a penalty for certain people for circumstances that may be difficult to control?
- Is the answer necessarily an app?
- The article suggests Americans have done this twice before – World War II and the 1970s Oil Crisis. This could be reassuring …or not. Might it suggest that Americans will only carpool when circumstances really demand it?
How did Vancouver reach its goal of limiting car trips ahead of schedule? Here is one explanation:
It all began back in the late 1960s, says the city’s former chief planner (and urban-Twitter celeb) Brent Toderian, when residents rejected a proposed highway that would have torn up the dense urban core and separated it from its famous waterfront. Vancouver is still the only major North American city without a freeway running through it. The open waterfront became the location of the hugely successful Expo ‘86, which was themed around the future of transportation and featured the debut of the elevated SkyTrain, a swoopy automated light rail system. A new extension that opened in December allowed SkyTrain to reclaim its title as the world’s longest fully automated metro system in the world (besting the similarly driverless Dubai Metro). The system also helped pave the way for the dramatic transformation of Vancouver’s waterfront a couple of years later. Hundreds of new residences and offices were built, unified by pedestrian thoroughfares and the city’s seawall—which is “routinely ranked as the best public space in at least Canada,” says Toderian.
The 2010 Winter Olympics encouraged more car-to-pedestrian street conversations, and peppering the in-between years were lots of smart decision-making, such as turning a stretch of Granville Street into a pedestrian mall in the 1970s and the city’s 2008 strategic shift to support cycling as daily form of mobility rather than pure recreation. A mess of new protected bike lanes have pushed Vancouver’s active-transit infrastructure beyond the downtown core: “24 percent of our bike network is now considered [appropriate] for all ages and abilities,” says Dale Bracewell, the city’s manager of transportation planning. A $2 billion plan to expand TransLink, Vancouver’s mass transportation network, was approved last month by the mayor’s council, and stands to bring active transit options to parts of the city that haven’t had them before.
Three quick thoughts:
- Such efforts do not happen overnight. This explanation involves decades of consistent efforts to provide other transportation alternatives. Many American places could benefit from less driving but quick fixes are difficult.
- Related to #1, how many places could sustain such efforts over decades? Are certain places like Vancouver more predisposed toward such ideas? There could be multiple reasons for this. Perhaps different urban cultures enjoy less driving. Perhaps the government here was particularly effective in funneling funds and resources to mass transit rather than roads. Perhaps the housing in Vancouver is so expensive that it is unrealistic for a lot of people to also pay for cars.
- Vancouver is often said to have a very good quality of life. Would Americans made the trade of a better life overall for people versus the individual freedom they often value to drive around when they want?