“Politics of pavement” amidst the start of construction season

Commuters and taxpayers may be unhappy with annoying roadwork but as this summary of upcoming projects in the Chicago region reminds us, roadwork is political:

With no state budget in sight as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner feuds with Democrats, the idea of a capital plan to fix infrastructure seems as likely as unicorns in hard hats.

That disconnect is not only strangling transportation funding in Illinois, it’s also thwarting a pet project of Rauner’s — adding tolled express lanes to I-55 in Cook and DuPage counties…

For the Illinois tollway, money’s not a problem. But the agency is locked in a dispute with the Canadian Pacific Railroad over land it wants for I-490, a ring road around the west side of O’Hare International Airport.

If Canadian Pacific wins support from federal regulators in a pending case, it’s a potential catastrophe for the tollway.

Roads are power? Any major infrastructure project involves lots of money, voters, and jobs. Additionally, in a country where driving is so important, construction on major roads is a big deal.

So, is anyone winning the political battle through roads in the Chicago region? Big city mayors like to claim that they are different than national politicians because the mayors have to get things done. The same may be true for governors on infrastructure issues. Presumably, limiting the political battles over roads helps everyone win as costs are reduced (prices for big projects only go up over time) and residents can start experiencing the benefits sooner.

Nature, driving, and states closing “old-fashioned” rest stops

When money is tight at the state level, one way to save money is to close highway rest areas:

Cash-strapped transportation agencies are shuttering the old ones to save money, or because they don’t attract enough traffic or are in such bad shape that renovating them is too costly. Or, the stops have been overtaken by tourist information centers, service plazas that take in revenue from gasoline and food sales, or commercial strips off interstate exits.

Florida, Michigan, Ohio and South Dakota are among the states that have closed traditional rest stops in the past two years. And a battle is brewing in Connecticut over a proposal to shut down all seven stops on its interstate highways to save money.

But advocates of maintaining traditional rest areas say even if motorists are offered flashier options for pit stops, the ones that sprung up as highways did are still needed for driver safety and convenience. Some view them as a tranquil, environmentally friendly alternative to crowded service plazas and commercial strips…

But unlike service plazas, rest areas on federal interstate highways are prohibited from selling gasoline or food other than from vending machines, the proceeds of which traditionally go to people who are visually impaired. State transportation departments run the rest areas and are responsible for cleaning and maintaining them. That can take a chunk of their budget, depending on staffing and amenities, officials say.

It almost seems quaint that highway driving should be broken up to stops at state rest areas where drivers can experience nature and rest. Can highways and nature go together, especially on a small patch of green land within earshot of the interstate? Highways can of course be used for pleasurable trips but the majority of highway traffic is likely for practical purposes such as going to work or conducting some kind of personal business. In contrast, given our reliance on the trucking industry, the issue of spaces for truck drivers to stop seems like a bigger deal.

Ultimately, this seems to be about whether Americans deserve to have some spaces in life where commercial interests are severely limited or not allowed. Given the encroachment of economic life into many life domains, this change isn’t too surprising.

Atlanta bridge collapses, traffic isn’t that bad

Urban highways are often very busy but when they are completely out of commission, it doesn’t necessarily lead to horrific traffic:

You’ll forgive our excessively clinical attitude about this damage—and it’s going to cost tens of millions to fix—but what we have here is a classic “natural experiment” of the kind economists and students of public policy relish. So what happens when we take a major urban freeway out of service for a couple of months? Are Atlanta commuters in for hours of gridlock every day and grisly commutes? Will the region’s economy grind to a halt as a result? We’ll be watching over the next several months to see.

So far, the results are consistent with what we’ve seen in Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Monday morning came, and something funny happened: traffic wasn’t so bad

So what’s going on here? Arguably, our mental model of traffic is just wrong. We tend to think of traffic volumes, and trip-making generally as inexorable forces of nature. The diurnal flow of 250,000 vehicles a day on an urban freeway like I-85 is just as regular and predictable as the tides. What this misses is that there’s a deep behavioral basis to travel. Human beings will shift their behavior in response to changing circumstances. If road capacity is impaired, many people can decide not to travel, change when they travel, change where they travel, or even change their mode of travel. The fact that Carmageddon almost never comes is powerful evidence of induced demand: people travel on roadways because the capacity is available for their trips, and when the capacity goes away, so does much of the trip making.

If Atlanta can survive for a month or two without a major chunk of its freeway, that’s a powerful indication that more modest steps to alter road capacity don’t really mean the end of the world. If we recognize that traffic will tend to adjust to available capacity, we then end up taking a different view of how to balance transportation against other objectives. For example, this ought to be a signal that road diets, which have been shown to greatly improve safety and encourage walking and cycling, don’t have anything approaching the kinds of adverse effects on travel that highway engineers usually predict.

I do think that this suggests drivers will adjust their behaviors based on what roads are available. At the same time, there is probably a tipping point where reducing too much traffic capacity would make a big difference. This might be especially true in car-driven places like Atlanta and Los Angeles that are known for sprawl. Presumably, places where traffic capacity could be picked up by other transportation options (such as closing the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco where driving is already a hassle and other options include BART, Muni, etc.) would fare better. Or, perhaps road capacity has to be reduced gradually so that people have time to adjust and make new choices about travel and where they live and work.

See earlier posts about what happened with Carmageddon I and Carmageddon II in Los Angeles

A map that would reveal what was there before the highway was built

This article discusses a cool tool that removes highways on the map so you can see what else is using that space:

In true public-spirited manner, the map is built from an OpenStreetMap, with tags identifying highways, off-ramps, and exits to make the roads vanish or reappear. However, Sisson didn’t set out on a nihilistic quest to annihilate all highways—he just wanted to look underneath them.

I wish this went one step further: when the highway is removed from the map, could we see what was there before? Urban highways have famously altered numerous neighborhoods – whether the highway that was later replaced by the Big Dig in Boston or the fight between Jane Jacobs and activists in Manhattan and Robert Moses to avoid a new highway or the Dan Ryan in Chicago separating black and white neighborhoods – yet those neighborhoods mostly disappear. The highway seems permanent even though most have only been around for 50-70 years. Of course, it would be really difficult to project what those spaces might look like today if the highway had not been constructed but it would still be nice to be able to peel back the layers. Actually, this wouldn’t be a bad idea for many city locations: what if Google Maps had a timeline component where you could set it to 1950 and see what there then (particularly if images could be incorporated) or even earlier?

Honor a president…with a highway named after them

Chicago likes to honor famous people and politicians by affixing their names to roads so what would be a fitting honor for former president Barack Obama?

A few weeks ago, state Rep. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, submitted a resolution to have the entirety of Interstate 294 named after President Obama. However, in the same week, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, indicated that he was moving to submit legislation that would rename much of Interstate 55 that passes through Illinois as the “Barack Obama Expressway.” The moves in Springfield led to chatter in the press and elsewhere about how to honor President Obama and his legacy.

Perhaps because driving is so ingrained in American culture officials like to rename roads and highways. A highway seems so dull here: it will be a staple of morning traffic reports (“The Obama is clogged from 159th to Cicero”) and make it into countless digital and print atlases. I imagine it takes time for a name change to switch over into normal use: is I-55 the Southwest Highway, the original name, or I-55 (when it was adopted into the Federal Interstate System), or the Stevenson (to honor an Illinois governor and twice-failed presidential candidate. How many people who live in the area say they drive the Reagan?

But, there are plenty of other infrastructure options: how about O’Hare Airport (named after a World War II aviator), one of the most important airports in the American system? How about a branch of the L? Think how many people travel on and would see the Obama Line and perhaps some politicians would rather be known for promoting mass transit. Of course, if you didn’t like a politician (not the case here), you could attach their name to something less worthy like a sewage treatment plant or a viaduct.


Imagine corporate highways with autonomous vehicles

Pair self-driving vehicles with highways that can coordinate their movement and corporations may be interested. More on those highways:

Amazon was awarded a patent for a network that manages a very specific aspect of the self-driving experience: How autonomous cars navigate reversible lanes…

In the patent, Amazon outlines a network that can communicate with self-driving vehicles so they can adjust to the change in traffic flow. That’s particularly important for self-driving vehicles traveling across state lines onto new roads with unfamiliar traffic laws…

The patent also indicates that the roadway management system will help “assign” lanes to autonomous vehicles depending on where the vehicle is going and what would best alleviate traffic…

The main difference is that Amazon’s proposed network would be owned and operated by Amazon, not each individual automaker. It also appears to be designed so any carmaker’s vehicles can take advantage of the technology.

We’ve seen highways funded or operated with private money. But, imagine a highway built and run by Amazon for the primary purposes of moving Amazon traffic. With the traffic management capabilities and the autonomous vehicles, you could reduce the number of required lanes, increase speeds, and cut labor costs. Roads still aren’t cheap to construct but this may be feasible monetarily in particular corridors.

Even better: an Amazon Hyperloop.

Successful: reversing highway lanes to evacuate people ahead of a hurricane

As Hurricane Matthew approached, officials used all the lanes of highways:

Across swaths of Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina, half the highway lanes have reversed. Traffic engineers call this “contraflow,” the volte-face of normal traffic. Now, on both sides of these roads, vehicles only run one way—away from Hurricane Matthew

To select the exit routes months or even years before hurricane season, transportation planners turn to flood maps and atmospheric modeling. They predict hazards: wind, storm surge, freshwater flooding. They rely on traffic counts and experience to predict if and when residents will decide to finally leave their homes, and how…

The planners build computer simulations of their predictions, and tinker with the variables—down to specific intersections’ traffic signals—to speed up the process. With a few days notice, some regions choose to evacuate in waves, asking those living at low elevations to depart hours or even days before inland residents.

Rural regions often direct their residents toward one major highway, physically blocking off smaller roads. This undoubtedly results in jams, but some officials would rather have their populations—with their attendant gas, medical, and food needs—bunched together than spread throughout the hinterlands. Metropolitan areas are more likely to shut down an entire stretch of interstate, forcing cars onto side roads until they converge on bumper-to-bumper congestion miles from a flood zone.

It makes sense to use all available lanes going away from the hurricane, especially toward the end when few people would want to go the other direction. I would still be intrigued to see how many police such an effort requires and how drivers navigate on and off ramps going the opposite direction than normal. Even with all the lanes open one way, I imagine the traffic is not moving too fast.

If I remember correctly, reversing the lanes of highways was also on the table during the Cold War to quickly evacuate a major city. You can read a current-day guide to preparing for a nuclear blast here – there is no mention of highways. However, it does suggest more scenarios when people might be asked to evacuate:

Evacuations are more common than many people realize. Fires and floods cause evacuations most frequently across the U.S. and almost every year, people along coastlines evacuate as hurricanes approach. In addition, hundreds of times a year, transportation and industrial accidents release harmful substances, forcing many people to leave their homes.

While people may not think about evacuations much, I don’t think the highway lane reversals are common at all.