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

Photo by Trace Hudson on Pexels.com

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.

Subways and individual cars during COVID-19

A new study suggests New York City’s subway system helped spread COVID-19:

The paper, by MIT economics professor and physician Jeffrey Harris, points to a parallel between high ridership “and the rapid, exponential surge in infections” in the first two weeks of March — when the subways were still packed with up to 5 million riders per day — as well as between turnstile entries and virus hotspots.

“New York City’s multitentacled subway system was a major disseminator — if not the principal transmission vehicle — of coronavirus infection during the initial takeoff of the massive epidemic,” argues Harris, who works as a physician in Massachusetts.

While the study concedes that the data “cannot by itself answer question of causation,” Harris says the conditions of a typical subway car or bus match up with the current understanding of how the virus spreads…

“Social density … was a result of many factors — business, restaurants, bars, Madison Square Garden, sports arenas, concerts, and the things that make New York happen,” Foye said.

New York City is already unique with its level of mass transit use. The large subway system helps people move around in a crowded city where both parking and driving a car can prove difficult.

The contrast to New York City is sprawling suburbia (including within the New York City region – see Levittown). Americans love to drive and the suburbs are built around cars, driving, and covering relatively large distances on a daily basis within a private vehicle.

With Americans already predisposed toward driving if they can, will COVID-19 increase their reluctance to take mass transit? Is driving safer in these times? (Of course, one could look at the number of deaths related to cars – accidents, pedestrians – and argue otherwise.)

New York City is not the only city dependent on subways; numerous large cities around the world need subways to move large numbers of people. Perhaps there will be new health measures in subways and other forms of mass transit moving forward. But, without fundamentally altering such cities and the benefits that come with density, subways cannot be removed or limited on a long-term basis – can they?

Boost economic opportunity by giving all Americans a car

In discussing the possibility of free transit, the alternative of providing cars comes up:

Instead of the pledges to expand electric vehicle charging stations that fill their presidential platforms, the candidates should all be focusing on how to eliminate car ownership. Because right now, if our only goal were to improve individual economic outcomes, we’d just give every person in this country a brand-new car. In the same way universal health care has been made part of the Green New Deal, universal access to zero-emission transportation needs to be included, too.

A driver’s license has has become virtually required to participate in much of U.S. society. But what if the piece of plastic we use to validate our identities guaranteed access to so much more? Imagine a single card—or an app—that, like in many other countries, could unlock train rides, bus rides, bike rides, scooter rides, van rides, car rides anywhere in the nation. Now imagine what we might achieve when those services are not only funded adequately, but also free for everyone to use.

Free transit alone isn’t nearly enough to fix this country—but it could be one piece of a bigger, truly universal transportation solution that might.

This reminds me of a program I once heard about in Wisconsin. A group provided lower-income residents a reliable used car so that they could then access jobs and other opportunities. If the goal is to help people find steady employment, having a car that works without needing a lot of maintenance or a lot of gas can go a long way.

The paragraphs above do bring up a conundrum in the United States: if many people need to drive significant distances on a daily basis to find good work (spatial mismatch) and having a car is expensive, what are those without resources supposed to do? A consequence of sprawling cities, suburbs, and regions is that people need to provide their own transportation and this comes at a significant cost. As noted in the article, even free transit may not solve everything if mass transit does not connect where people live to where people work.

As people try to promote free transit (and better transit), this conversation could lead to a different kind of car commercial at the holidays. Used Toyota Corollas for those who need them! A Christmas gift of a reliable used car could just mean the difference between a good life and a tough life.

Considering regional transit in the suburbs of Detroit

Suburban voters and leaders regularly resist efforts to bring mass transit to the suburbs (see examples like Nashville). The tide might be changing in parts of suburban Detroit:

In contrast, Coulter has declared that he will be a “champion” of regional transit—and given how narrow the initial defeat was, that could make all the difference. In November, he appeared with other regional leaders to announce legislation that would give Wayne, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties the power to negotiate a transit plan among themselves—a first step toward putting a revised plan before voters in 2020.

Like his predecessor once argued of sprawl, Coulter touts better regional transit as an economic development tool: “If we’re going to try to keep our young talent here, we’re going to have to compete with other regions in the country.”

The change in leadership has Detroit’s transit boosters thinking positively. “I am pretty optimistic,” says Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a local advocacy group. “When Brooks Patterson passed away and Dave Coulter was appointed executive, that was a watershed moment and a huge opportunity for regional transit. Dave Coulter understands what regional transit could mean—not only for urbanized communities, but for the county as a whole.”

In that way, she says, Coulter is more in-step with changing suburban demographics and preferences in a region where immigrant communities are growing, populations are aging, and young professionals are more likely to want to live in walkable communities. “We look back 20 years ago, and there was much more of an attitude of, ‘Transit? Who cares! We’re the Motor City!’” Owens says. “Now, the conversation is more about, ‘What kind of transit?’”

Suburbanites have resisted mass transit for multiple reasons: they do not want tax money going to transportation forms they do not plan to use or going to bureaucrats they do not control; the kinds of people who might ride mass transit (particularly from the city to the suburbs); the kind of denser development that might accompany mass transit corridors or hubs; and concerns about having enough money to pay for roads since many suburbanites would prefer to drive.It is then interesting to put these reasons next to the logic expressed above: what if mass transit is an economic development tool for suburbs? If suburbs are regularly competing with other suburbs and a big city within their own metropolitan region (let alone competing with other metropolitan regions), what if they need mass transit to keep up? Putting in significant mass transit will not be easy and I assume there will always be limits on how much density suburbs will accept but it will be worth watching to see how many wealthier suburban areas go in this direction in the next decade or two.

(On a more cynical note, perhaps the demographic change in the suburbs with more non-white and lower- or working-class residents means that suburbanites can no longer easily dismiss mass transit because they are worried about city residenst accessing the suburbs.)

Collectively addressing traffic rather than individual drivers looking for the best route for them

As Waze and other apps route drivers all over the place in order to find the shortest route, one writer argues we need to consider how traffic and congestion is a collective issue:

Road traffic is a great example: absent other incentives, I’m always going to choose the fastest route home that is available to me, even though taking a longer, more circuitous route would help spread out traffic and ease congestion for other drivers across my city. Traffic engineers have long assumed that the Nash equilibrium describes real-world rush hours pretty well.

In fact, mathematical studies and behavioral experiments dating back to the 1960s have shown that the collective delay is almost always worse in the Nash equilibrium, a.k.a. “user-optimized” driving scenario, compared to a world where drivers worked as a team for smoother traffic overall. Imagine a centralized transportation planner who assigned commuters their routes based on what was going to most benefit everybody. That god-like figure could impel some drivers to protract their journeys in order to improve the overall flow and decrease the cumulative time spent in traffic.

In this “system-optimized” equilibrium, our trips would be less harried on average: One widely cited 2001 paper by computer scientists at Cornell found that a network of “user-optimized” drivers can experience travel times equivalent to what a network of “system-optimized” drivers would experience with twice as many cars. Transport engineers call the difference between selfish and social equilibria the “price of anarchy.”

And the proposed solution:

Perhaps the best approach to the future of traffic starts with redefining the problem we’re trying to solve. For most of the 20th century, the principal concern of transportation economists was to reduce travel time across a given distance. But getting as many people as possible to and from work, school, and shopping—period—might be the more important task. If the goal is reframed as increasing access, rather than increasing speed, then the answer involves more than traffic apps and vehicle transponders. Land use patterns would have to be rethought so that people can live closer to the destinations they care about. People should be able to walk as much as they want to, and use bikes, scooters, buses, and trains. Autonomous vehicles, if they come, ought to be carefully folded into the mix with care so as not to double down on congestion and carbon emissions.

The solution hints that this is a much larger issue than apps and whether they should be held responsible by the public. The underlying issue may be this: are Americans generally willing to set aside their own personal priorities in favor of societal arrangements that can benefit more people on the whole?

Americans like to drive and it is baked into the American way of life. One of the reasons Americans like their own vehicles is that it offers independence and control. Rather than relying on a set schedule or having or riding with other people or supporting big systems, Americans like the idea that they can get into their vehicle at any time and go wherever they want. They may not actually do this much – hence, we get fairly predictable rush hours when everyone is trying to go places at the same time – but individual vehicles provide options in a way that mass transit does not.

Making the switch over to systems rather than individual options – including mass transit – requires submitting parts of life to a collective that cares less about individuals and more about the whole. This same debate is playing out in other arenas such as how healthcare should be organized or whether wealth inequality should be addressed. If the favored outcome is individual choice, it is hard to move people toward collective approaches. Even if thinking of traffic and transportation as a larger system means that more people might be stuck less in traffic, the individual participant may not gain that much or may lose the feel of control. Access for all is a hard sell when many like their individual choices (even as they bemoan congestion).

It might take decades or generations before a significant shift away from individual drivers might occur. Indeed, more than just apps can continue to promote individual approaches to driving: ride-sharing still is largely an individual act and the private nature of self-driving cars might just make the choice to drive even easier for some.

Three larger issues underlying mass transit problems in the Chicago suburbs

Suburbs in the Chicago region are looking for ways to help workers make the “last mile” connection between existing transit and their workplaces but there are few easy solutions:

Transit advocates and local officials are looking at ways to fill the “first mile/last mile” gap, which could include shuttle buses, bikes, scooters, better sidewalks, ride-share vehicles and, eventually, autonomous or self-driving vehicles…

Suburbs with manufacturing and warehouse businesses offer examples of the last-mile problem. Bedford Park has just 600 residents, but 400 businesses and about 30,000 jobs at big companies like Cintas, FedEx, Home Chef and CSX. Located near Midway International Airport, the village has for years promoted itself as business-friendly, and has seen jobs grow…

The last-mile problem goes beyond Bedford Park and into other other suburbs with light manufacturing like Addison, where it’s difficult for workers to connect with Metra because of varying shifts, Wennink said. It also affects white-collar work zones, like the office complexes of Naperville and Warrenville, Wennink said.

A longer-term solution to the job/worker disconnect is to have more jobs located in transit-oriented development areas, Wennink said. But in the meantime, businesses, employers and towns are trying a patchwork of fixes.

These commuting issues connect to three broader issues that, if addressed, could help address the last mile problem:

1. As noted, the Chicago region operates on a hub-and-spoke model where train lines and other transit options tend to radiate out of downtown but then there is little connecting the spokes. As one example, efforts to create a rail line that would connect some of the existing rail lines and job centers did not get very far.

2. Individual suburbs will find it difficult to address these issues on their own without more regional or metropolitan-wide support (and resources). These are collective problems but the preference for local governments in the suburbs plus limited organizational capability or power in the Chicago region means the efforts will likely remain just a patchwork.

3. While this might look like a transit problem, it could also be a housing issue. If people do not or cannot easily live near where they work, then transit is needed. The deeper underlying issue, however, might be residential patterns regularly organized by race/ethnicity and class that makes it difficult for many of the workers described in the article to be close to their place of employment. The social science term for this is spatial mismatch.

Trying to revive buses in American cities

A new book looks at how buses could become more viable transportation options. From the author of the book:

One of the statistics that is telling in the book is that when you look at bus ridership in a place like Germany, the people who ride the bus have the same median income as the average German. In the U.S., they’re much poorer. At the same time, it’s not a service that actually serves low-income people well at all. So is it really for them? It’s really a system for people who don’t have alternatives…

One of the biggest omissions from federal policy is that federal transportation programs are almost always about building things. But the biggest problem [with public transit] in most cities is that we don’t run enough service. You could use federal transportation funding to buy a bus, or stripe a bus lane, but you can’t use it to hire a bus operator, or dispatchers, or people who are planning bus priority projects. In the book, I write about this really bizarre set of affairs in the [2008] stimulus package, where cities all over the country were using federal stimulus dollars to buy buses. At the same time, they had to lay off all of their bus operators. That’s not really doing anything to further equity for people on the ground…

There’s a cycle between culture and reality. We design bus systems that are really inconvenient, and that only people without great alternatives will use, and that colors how decision makers think about who bus riders are. And that’s really important to disrupt.

One of the promising things you see in places that are improving bus service is how quickly it can turn around. You just provide more service in a route, and upgrade the shelters, and you see ridership increasing. We have this terrible conception of the so-called captive rider in transportation planning, when all the actual data shows that basically everyone has choices, and sometimes those choices can be pretty inconvenient, like having to get a ride with your friends, or having to walk four miles to work. Transit service can always deteriorate to the point that people are going to choose something else. But as you make bus service better, more and more people start gravitating towards it. It’s a very natural thing.

There a lot of issues to overcome in addition to the ones cited above. In my mind, buses have one major advantage over other forms of mass transit: they utilize existing roads and highways to provide mass transit. It would take a lot to reverse the American preference for driving and all that comes with it. Of course, as the article notes, buses that crawl along in traffic like cars and trucks may not be very attractive to riders and may require dedicated lanes. Similarly, buses in sprawling areas may not work as well if people are not willing to start at a common location and give up some freedom of mobility. (The discussion in the article revolves around cities but there are denser suburbs – and suburban like areas of some cities – where buses might work.)

The discussion hints at a related issue: there has to be enough bus service to be attractive but getting people to ride the bus in the first place is difficult when driving a car is a culturally preferred option as well as the option that best suits the existing infrastructure. How many local governments are willing to stick with busing even when it might not be successful at first? Furthermore, would increases in service be accompanied by changes in development policy that would seek to create housing and jobs along bus transit corridors?

Reading the full discussion, it does seem it might not be too difficult to revive bus transit in big cities. On the other hand, bus transit is a hard sell in many American communities and a long-term commitment from all levels might be needed before significant change occurs.

 

 

Mass transit agencies developing land to generate revenues

The actions of New York’s MTA – Metropolitan Transportation Authority – suggest a way American mass transit agencies can generate money: through partnering on transit-oriented development.

That is what inspired Harrison’s Halstead Avenue project, a $76.8 million mixed-use real estate development built in collaboration between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which oversees the Metro-North, and developer AvalonBay Communities. It is the first time ever that the Metro-North will sell a parcel of its land for transit-oriented development (TOD); in this case: 143 apartments, 27,000 square feet of retail space, two pedestrian plazas, and a 598-space parking garage, most of which is reserved for the public and commuters…

The New York MTA, the largest transit agency in the U.S., is becoming more familiar with this type of construction. The Hudson Yards project—where the MTA decked over its train yards, and sold the rights to developers for $1 billion to build an entire Manhattan neighborhood on top, with a new subway line extension beneath—is perhaps the largest TOD project in American history. At One Vanderbilt Avenue, an office building being constructed across from Grand Central Terminal, developer fees to the MTA will pay for interior improvements throughout the huge hub.

But the Harrison project marks a new direction for the cash-strapped MTA, which is on the hunt for new revenue: Decades of underinvestment and recent ridership declines have left the MTA with a projected $433 million budget shortfall, a gap that a recession could worsen. Meanwhile, critics agree that Manhattan’s soon-to-come congestion pricing scheme cannot alone cover the cost of the subway system’s badly needed overhaul. Capturing revenues from transit-oriented development on MTA-owned lots could help. So the agency is eyeing projects in suburban communities outside of Manhattan, with the hopes that the prospect of economic development will prod smaller towns to plot their futures near its train stations…

Transit agencies in Europe and Asia are much more likely use development as a revenue tool much more commonly than their U.S. counterparts. David King, a professor at Arizona State University who has studied transit-oriented development, said that this is largely due to the fragmented (and car-centric) nature of land and transit planning, capital investment and operation in the United States. For example, as a state-regulated public authority, with a variety of funding pots for capital and operating costs, the MTA has to comply with home rule for a housing project.

Private transportation firms in the United States have promoted and/or participated in development for years. It was good business for transportation providers to promote travel and now more accessible properties. Railroad and streetcar lines made special trips to the end of their lines where they would then sell riders on new properties.

What could make this more complicated in the United States is that transit agencies could be drawing on public funds and the United States has a history of concern about how public funds are used for development. If public money helps support traditional suburban life – think the single-family homes and highways the federal government and others groups helped make possible before and after World War II – then there may be limited outcry. Try using such monies for affordable housing, particularly for poorer residents, and opposition will arise.

Thus, this project in suburban Harrison, New York fits existing patterns. Transit-oriented development along rail lines in suburban downtowns is very common and desired by many suburbs. The project is not too big. It sounds like the suburb wants some denser downtown development. It does not involve housing considered too cheap by the community. But, whether this tactic could expand across metropolitan regions remains to be seen.

Connecting residential segregation, highways, mass transit, and congestion

Historian Kevin Kruse suggests the traffic congestion in today’s big cities is connected to segregation:

This intertwined history of infrastructure and racial inequality extended into the 1950s and 1960s with the creation of the Interstate highway system. The federal government shouldered nine-tenths of the cost of the new Interstate highways, but local officials often had a say in selecting the path. As in most American cities in the decades after the Second World War, the new highways in Atlanta — local expressways at first, then Interstates — were steered along routes that bulldozed “blighted” neighborhoods that housed its poorest residents, almost always racial minorities. This was a common practice not just in Southern cities like Jacksonville, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Richmond and Tampa, but in countless metropolises across the country, including Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Syracuse and Washington.

While Interstates were regularly used to destroy black neighborhoods, they were also used to keep black and white neighborhoods apart. Today, major roads and highways serve as stark dividing lines between black and white sections in cities like Buffalo, Hartford, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. In Atlanta, the intent to segregate was crystal clear. Interstate 20, the east-west corridor that connects with I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta’s center, was deliberately plotted along a winding route in the late 1950s to serve, in the words of Mayor Bill Hartsfield, as “the boundary between the white and Negro communities” on the west side of town. Black neighborhoods, he hoped, would be hemmed in on one side of the new expressway, while white neighborhoods on the other side of it would be protected. Racial residential patterns have long since changed, of course, but the awkward path of I-20 remains in place…

[S]uburbanites waged a sustained campaign against the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) from its inception. Residents of the nearly all-white Cobb County resoundingly rejected the system in a 1965 vote. In 1971, Gwinnett and Clayton Counties, which were then also overwhelmingly white, followed suit, voting down a proposal to join MARTA by nearly 4-1 margins, and keeping MARTA out became the default position of many local politicians. (Emmett Burton, a Cobb County commissioner, won praise for promising to “stock the Chattahoochee with piranha” if that were needed to keep MARTA away.) David Chesnut, the white chairman of MARTA, insisted in 1987 that suburban opposition to mass transit had been “90 percent a racial issue.” Because of that resistance, MARTA became a city-only service that did little to relieve commuter traffic. By the mid-1980s, white racists were joking that MARTA, with its heavily black ridership, stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”…

Earlier this year, Gwinnett County voted MARTA down for a third time. Proponents had hoped that changes in the county’s racial composition, which was becoming less white, might make a difference. But the March initiative still failed by an eight-point margin. Officials discovered that some nonwhite suburbanites shared the isolationist instincts of earlier white suburbanites. One white property manager in her late 50s told a reporter that she voted against mass transit because it was used by poorer residents and immigrants, whom she called “illegals.” “Why should we pay for it?” she asked. “Why subsidize people who can’t manage their money and save up a dime to buy a car?”

Translation: decisions about transportation were both a consequence of a national inclination toward racial and ethnic segregation and an ongoing contributor toward racial and ethnic segregation. In a country that is relatively sprawling and prefers cars, determining who has access to transportation and what kind of transportation is available can be part of who can get ahead.

While the root cause of all of this may be racial issues, it is interesting to consider this as a congestion issue. Would the public be convinced to change transportation infrastructure because they dislike sitting in traffic? The evidence from Atlanta as well as numerous other American cities (such as developing a regional transportation effort in the Chicago region) suggests this is not a strong argument. Wealthier residents are hesitant to ride buses, trains may be tolerable, but driving is still preferred even when so many hours per year are devoted to it. Suburban Americans like cars and they like the ability to exclude and I would argue the second is the master priority when push comes to shove.

Two data points in transportation change: NYC subway ridership peaks in 1946, US non-commuter rail traffic drops after 1945

That the automobile came to dominate American social life and physical spaces after World War II is clear in multiple ways but two recent points of data I saw helped drive this point home.

Start in an obvious place: New York City. On one hand, the use of mass transit in New York City is unparalleled in the biggest American cities. On the other hand, subway ridership peaked in 1946:

1946: Subway ridership peaks

Subway ridership has never been as high as it was in 1946, and a precipitous decline began in the late 1940s as automobiles became widely available. The busiest station in the system, Times Square, saw its ridership drop from 102,511,841 riders in 1946 to 66,447,227 riders in 1953. Subway expansion would become increasingly difficult to justify as New Yorkers were abandoning the existing system—even though outward expansion was just what was needed to keep the subway as the region’s primary mode of transportation.

To a less obvious place: Toledo, Ohio. In the late 1940s, the city proudly constructs a new train station amid a growing population and optimism about the future. And then train traffic fell off dramatically across the country:

In the 20 years following Toledo Tomorrow, non-commuter rail travel in the U.S. collapsed, falling 84 percent nationwide, thanks in large part to the airports and the ribbons of limited-access high-speed roads Bel Geddes had foretold. Five years after the new railroad station opened in Toledo, the New York Central put it up for sale. Eight years later, the Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station in New York City would be demolished; five years after that, the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads combined to form Penn Central, then the largest merger in American history. It would become the largest bankruptcy in American history two years later.

There is little doubt that the car is a nearly essential part of American culture today but it was not always this way nor is it guaranteed to be in the future. Reversing or countering a major trend is always difficult, particularly when its tentacles are everywhere and embedded in infrastructure and culture. To truly move to other forms of transportation would require not just fewer cars and vehicles on roads but a massive reconfiguring of American society.