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?

Neighborhood change via highway construction and the resulting change in local character

Neighborhood or community change happens over time. Yet, as this look back at a Black Dallas neighborhood that was drastically altered by the construction of a highway in the late 1960s suggests, it was not just that the physical aspects of the neighborhood that changes: the intangible yet experienced character of a community matters.

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That is why these three forgotten old News stories about Deep Ellum are so important. Almost unintentionally, they document what was really lost when I-345 was built. Sure, the neighborhood lost shops, hotels, and historic buildings. But the most significant loss was something more intangible. Call it memory, or character, or spirit. Call it a continuity of shared experience, or sense of identity shaped by the ebbs and flows of prosperity and decline.

Whatever you call it, that intangible quality is the real ingredient that makes cities and neighborhoods great. You can’t plan it or build it. You can’t fund it through philanthropy or market it in a tourism brochure. It isn’t “walkability” or “urbanism.” It takes generations to take shape. If you’re lucky, you capture it by carefully preserving all the beautifully ugly conditions that feed it life.

But if you lose it, it’s gone forever.

This helps explain the anger and protests in the last sixty years or so about highways bulldozing their way through urban neighborhoods. The particular form of highways – wide, noisy, made to help people speed through the community rather than visit or stop – and consequences – often bisecting lively places, erecting a barrier, destroying important structures, and furthering connections for wealthier and suburban residents at the expense of others – could be very detrimental.

More broadly, this hints at the delicate nature of neighborhood or community character. Change will happen but it matters how quickly the change happens, what form it takes, and who drives the process. Highways do not do well in these three metrics: they tend to go from bulldozing to construction to use within a few years, it is difficult to rebuild street life around it, and it is pushed on a community by others. Could highways support neighborhood character in any form? Perhaps not. But, it is a question asked not just of highways: the issue of character comes up with structures and development of a different form including denser housing among single-family homes, a major height differential such as a 20 story tall building in a community with a current max of five story buildings, or a new kind of land use. It could be easy to write off the concerns of local residents and leaders as NIMBY concerns but they may have a point in that new construction could change the character.

And, as noted above, the character of a place is vitally important. The people who live and work there have a particular understanding of what it is. When it is threatened by something as characterless as a highway, this can be particularly painful.

Los Angeles as a city state?

The idea of the global city and metropolis of today as a city state is not a new one. However, I was interested to see this discussion of how Los Angeles might really fit the bill:

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Los Angeles fits the city-state frame well, certainly better than it does a lot of other possibilities—if we update the model a bit. In 2010, Forbes suggested that if the criteria for a place to be considered a city-state were modernized for the 21st century, certain global capitals might qualify thanks to a few key features: a big port to sustain trade; investors from overseas; money laundering; international museums worth visiting; multiple languages spoken in good restaurants serving alcohol; and an ambition to host the World Cup…

The city-state label rings true to me for hazier reasons as well. Los Angeles lacks the bedrock Americana that anchor towns like Chicago, New York, and Boston. In terms of identity, it doesn’t attach to the state of California the way that Houston and Dallas serve Texas. As for international ties, Miami has Latin America, Seattle has Canada and Asia, but Los Angeles, perhaps the city of globalism, has everybody. We’re Angelenos first, Californians second, Americans third or not at all.

“I absolutely think of Los Angeles as a city-state,” Mayor Eric Garcetti told me a few months ago. “The root of politics is the same as the root word in Greek for “city”: polis. People engage in politics because they came to a city and vice versa.” I wanted to point out that lots of citizens don’t engage with Greater L.A. in the way he described. If anything, civic life here often feels optional. Residents stay in the bounds of their neighborhood. Voters supported a $1.2 billion bond in 2016 to build supportive housing, but progress on the homeless problem is abysmal, stymied in part by NIMBYism. To borrow Garcetti’s measure, had life in the Greek city-states been as complacent, as mean, as L.A. often feels? “The man who took no interest in the affairs of state was not a man who minded his own business,” the ancient historian Thucydides wrote, “but a man who had no business being in Athens at all.”

My unspoken question for Garcetti was a nod to the fact that the city-state label can stretch only so far, at least until Los Angeles secedes from the United States. Angelenos may not always feel particularly American, but L.A. continues to receive policies and funding from Sacramento, which receives the nod—or not—from Washington. Our tap water flows from the Colorado River. A fifth of our power is from a coal plant in Utah. Los Angeles simply isn’t self-reliant. We have plenty of investment from abroad, but no local currency. The world’s largest jail system, but no independent military. Garcetti recently proposed a guaranteed-basic-income program that would be the country’s largest experiment of its kind—but that’s only even theoretically possible thanks to funding from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

The main argument here seems to be that Los Angeles has the infrastructure, amenities, and identity needed to be a city state. On the other hand, the political fragmentation and reliance on other parts of the American federal system may be obstacles. However, I am not sure

  1. Political fragmentation comes through the sprawling and decentralized landscape. Who is in change? Whose opinions should hold sway? Going further, what is the relationship between the sprawling city and the sprawling suburbs? This would seem to be in tension with the identity as Angelenos. On which issues does the identity bring political unity and where do the fault lines emerge when fragmentation bests identity?
  2. A city state could make relationships with other entities. But, this might be a little different than having steady relationships within a system versus having to negotiate new relationships if Los Angeles became a city state. Take an example relevant to sprawling LA: could a city state of Los Angeles afford to fund all of the highways that right way get monies from the federal government? Or, would this then courage a LA city state to pursue more mass transit? Right now, the highways might be an amenity but
  3. If the mayor of Los Angeles operates now as if his city is a city state, what exactly does this mean? Is there an American city that is already more city state like and provides a model of how this might look in the future?

Starchitect Jahn’s buildings in the Chicago suburbs

World famous architect Helmut Jahn died over the weekend. He built iconic buildings in major global cities and several notable buildings in the western suburbs of Chicago.

A native of Germany, Jahn won international recognition and awards for projects around the globe, including United Airlines Terminal 1 at O’Hare International Airport, the former Citigroup Center (the main entrance to the Richard B. Ogilvie Transportation Center) in Chicago, and the Sony Center in Berlin.

Besides MetroWest in Naperville, his suburban work includes the Oakbrook Terrace Tower in Oakbrook Terrace.

Here are images of the two buildings referenced:

Both buildings are interesting structures to see in their suburban settings. They would not be out of place in a major city. They are full of steel and glass. They have sharp angles. They can be seen from a distance and are of a height beyond most suburban buildings.

But, they also stick out. They are right next to major highways. They are not surrounded by other tall buildings; the size of the Oakbrook Terrace Tower is particularly notable. Instead, they are surrounded by parking lots and smaller suburban office parks. They are in the suburbs but they are not of the suburbs; few residents would want these structures anywhere near their single-family homes.

In other words, a starchitect can build in the suburbs. In many parts of the United States, they are growing and a majority of Americans live in suburban settings. Interesting buildings help add to the status of certain suburbs as job centers. Yet, the interesting buildings by a famous architect can only go so far in sprawling settings: they do not really fit in even as they provide something different to view at 70 miles per hour.

Driving down, traffic deaths up in Illinois and across the US

Usually traffic deaths decrease when people drive less. This has not been the case in Illinois or the United States as a whole in the last year:

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About 1,166 people died in motor vehicle crashes in Illinois in 2020, a nearly 16% increase over 2019, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. That’s a provisional number, said IDOT spokesperson Guy Tridgell, since it takes the state agency 12-18 months to finalize annual data…

Speeding and traffic fatalities typically go down during recessions, according to an October study published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Illinois, for example, deaths dipped sharply in 2008 and 2009 according to state data, though they’ve been up slightly since…

About 28,190 people died in crashes from January to September 2020, more than a thousand more fatalities than in the same period in 2019, the federal agency estimated. A full annual report is expected to be released in the late fall…

What’s more, traffic deaths nationally were down from March to May, but jumped back up after states began reopening in June, according to the agency’s estimates.

This suggests safety is not solely a function of the number of miles driven or trips taken. How people drive and the conditions matter quite a bit. In this case, the article hints at multiple possible reasons for this jump. This includes speeding, more impaired drivers, and less seat belt use among those hurt.

I wonder if there are several other factors at play. With many public and private locations shut down, did driving become an even more important escape for some Americans? With limited places to go, driving and doing so dangerously could be a kind of release not available elsewhere.

Second, is there a safety feature to a certain level of traffic? With fewer people out, does this encourage riskier driving compared to having to navigate more vehicles on the road? Too many cars likely leads to more accidents but what about too few compared to typical conditions?

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?

Carmageddon in Los Angeles vs. Carmageddon in New York City

Remember Carmageddon and Carmageddon II in Los Angeles? Now, Carmageddon has come to New York City:

In Chicago and in other cities with robust transit systems, people who have never owned cars before are suddenly buying them. In New York City, some are calling it “carmaggedon,” as residents there registered 40,000 new cars in July, the highest monthly total in years. Meanwhile, NYC subway ridership is still down more than 75% from last year.

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The difference in what leads to carmageddon in each city is striking. In Los Angeles, closing a section of a major highway is a problem for the entire system. Because of the emphasis on driving and the various chokepoints in the road system, a single closure has ripple effects. In New York City, the opposite is the case: high mass transit use, particularly in Manhattan and denser parts of the city, is necessary. If something threatens the mass transit lines – here, it is an unwillingness to use mass transit when there is a pandemic – then too many cars may be on roads that cannot handle the increased volume.

Fortunately for Los Angeles and unfortunately for New York, the length of Carmageddon matters. Closing a major highway for just a few days is survivable. Indeed, Los Angeles got out ahead of the problem and enough drivers were able to make alternate plans. Decreased mass transit use due to COVID-19 is another story. How long will the virus be around? Will there be a point where residents return to mass transit even with the threat of the virus present? Carmageddon in New York might prove more lengthy and much more difficult to remedy.

Bringing the Texas U-turn to Chicago

An innovation is coming to a particularly difficult Chicago road construction site: a Texas U-turn will be in place for drivers hoping to get on the northbound Kennedy from the eastbound Eisenhower.

Google Maps image of Meachem Road and Illinois Route 390

Kennedy-bound traffic will be detoured onto the far-right Eisenhower lane and steered to the outbound Dan Ryan Expressway. From there, motorists will take a “Texas U-turn” at the Taylor Street interchange and go from there to the westbound Kennedy…

“The detour will be a dedicated lane separated by a barrier wall to restrict merging into the regular Dan Ryan lanes and requiring drivers to use the Taylor Street interchange,” IDOT engineers said.

What’s a Texas U-turn? It “refers to a roadway that allows vehicles to make a 180-degree maneuver to go in the opposite direction, usually without traffic signals,” IDOT spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said. “They were first widely used in Texas on one-way frontage roads that paralleled expressways.

“The free flow U-turn improves traffic flow and reduces congestion in certain situations because it keeps the U-turning traffic out of the cross road intersections. An example of this is at the Meacham Road interchange on Route 390.”

According to Wikipedia, the Texas U-turn is present in a number of states.

Two additional thoughts:

1. A precondition for the Texas U-turn seems to be having frontage roads along highways. There are some areas in the Chicago region where this is common – such as long the Dan Ryan Expressway – but many other areas where frontage roads are not present and properties back up to the highway. In Chicago, I wonder if the frontage roads are the result of fitting highways into the existing street grid (such as the Congress Street Expressway, later the Eisenhower).

2. It would be interesting to see how different road innovations spread across states. How do highway innovations diffuse across the United States? They may arise because of particular local conditions but then engineers and planners elsewhere see how they are applicable. At some point, there is federal intervention regarding safety and regulations. Having driven on highways across the United States, there is both familiarity with the system – similar signage, the roadways themselves look similar – as well as local peculiarities – exits on different sides, the size of on and off-ramps as well as the space between them, HOV lanes, etc.

Related post: the coming of the diamond interchange to the Chicago area.

Trying to convince Illinois drivers to use zipper merges

New recommendations from the Illinois Department of Transportation mean drivers should expect to see more zipper merges:

Most people aren’t familiar with the zipper merge and have never even heard of it. But with construction season just a couple months away, the Illinois Department of Transportation wants drivers to use the zipper merge technique when approaching lane closures…

Experts believe that is the quickest way to get through construction sites and entrances on highways during busy season.

So much so that a new law for 2020 mandates the zipper merge be included in this year’s Illinois Rules of the Road handbook, following many other states that already use the technique like Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Montana and Nevada, to name a few…

Not only is the zipper merge a safer and more efficient way to merge into traffic, it’s the law and carries a $164 fine, not including court costs and fees.

Changing decades of ingrained patterns is not an easy task. New drivers can be trained on this from the start but many drivers have been operating with different methods for decades. However, I would guess the presence of police and the use of tickets in situations where zipper merges will now be expected could help prompt people to follow the new guidelines. Or, imagine a campaign on public media where drivers who do not follow the guidelines are highlighted.

The one thing I do not get about resistance to zipper merges and the drivers who look to block traffic is that it is inefficient to not follow the zipper merge. Theoretically, everyone wants to to get where they need to go as quickly as possible. Hence, rampant speeding and other behavior intended to save time. Zipper merges are supposed to help with this which should be a win-win for everyone.

The widest highway in the world: 26 lanes in Houston

I recently ran into a discussion of the widest highways and a 2018 Houston Chronicle article claims the 26 lane stretch in Houston leads the world:

For what it’s worth, we can lay claim to the world’s widest freeway: The Katy Freeway at Beltway 8 is 26 lanes across.

Here’s how that breaks down: 12 main lanes (six in each direction), eight feeder lanes and six managed lanes. The managed lanes carry mass transit and high-occupancy vehicles during peak hours and are made available to single-occupancy vehicles for a toll fee during off-peak periods…

A few other contenders come close to the title but don’t quite make it, Voigt said, noting that the discussion had come up at the institute when the Katy widening project was completed in late 2008.

“Off the top of my head, the 401 in Toronto is 22 lanes at the widest and I think a part of the NJ (New Jersey) Turnpike is 18 lanes at one point,” Voigt’s email said.

That is a lot of lanes to maintain and I imagine the highway takes up quite a bit of space (and woe to those located right next to this stretch of road). Driving here must be an interesting experience, particularly if the driver is used to narrower highways.

Is it a surprise that this is in Texas, where everything is bigger and people like to drive, and in Houston, the quintessential sprawling and growing city with no zoning regulations?

It would be interesting to get a more in-depth history of this particular stretch of road. How many lanes did the highway initially have? Who approved the construction of so many lanes? Is there consensus that this was a positive move for traffic? How much money has been spent on this stretch (and that could have been spent on other transportation options)?