Limited solutions to ensuring more long green light stretches of suburban driving

After occasionally finding stretches of hitting all green lights on major suburban roadways, I wanted to consider how these experiences might become more common. Is it possible? Here are some strategies alongside my sense of whether these would help.

Photo by C. Cagnin on
  1. Synchronizing traffic lights. Los Angeles did this a few years ago to help traffic flow. As a kid, I recall sitting in the car in Chicago and hearing tell of how Clark Street on Chicago’s North Side was set up this way: follow the speed limit and a driver should hit multiple greens in a row. This could be harder to accomplish across a range of municipalities and the various traffic volumes intersecting with the main road. Additionally, this might not help much if there is just too much traffic on the road.
  2. Providing more lanes, more driving options. Americans tend to like this strategy: more lanes, more roads equals more space for vehicles, right? Research suggests otherwise: if you add road capacity, drivers will tend to fill that up. Americans like driving in the suburbs and this is not a long-term solution. In fact, road diets may be more helpful: reduce capacity and it pushes drivers toward other options. Furthermore, expanding roads in an already developed suburban area can get quite expensive and may be controversial.
  3. Encouraging more mass transit use, more walking and bicycling, and less driving. If there are simply too many cars, limiting trips would help ensure smoother driving experiences. All of these options are tough sells in the suburbs. It is hard to provide mass transit in a decentralized landscape and wealthier residents are unlikely to use it. Residential neighborhoods might be set up for biking and walking but connecting to other uses – grocery stores, schools, businesses – is often not possible or is dangerous.
  4. Having more employees work from home. This may be temporary due to COVID-19 but could be a long-term solution for traffic and congestion issues. Of course, there may be more people living in the suburbs due to COVID-19.

This suggests that there may be some short-term solutions but the bigger issue would take more time and effort: American suburbs are built around driving.

Trying to forecast future suburban commuting patterns, Naperville edition

The Naperville train stations are busy – until COVID-19. So how full will the parking lots be in the future?

Photo by Irina Iriser on

The city conducted a survey in the fall to gather data on commuting habits and gauge when people expect to return to work. The information will be used as the city reevaluates the Commuter Parking and Access Work Plan instituted in 2019…

A survey shows 81% of respondents are not commuting, but 75% indicated they expect to return to their “pre-pandemic schedule for commuting by Metra” by the end of 2021…

The survey shows 1,642 respondents, or 76%, said they commuted on Metra four or more days per week before the pandemic. But 37%, or 797, said they expect to continue commuting four or more days when life gets back to normal…

When people do return to a regular commute, Naperville’s parking survey showed 69% of responders would like the city to consider other payment options beyond quarterly and daily fees.

Trying to forecast commuting via multiple means – train, car, bus, subway, etc. – is going to be difficult for a while. As the article notes, a work from home option from many employers could continue. The willingness of commuters to return to mass transit and regularly proximity to others also might matter (and more of those who return to the office might choose driving which leads to other problems).

Yet, even if ridership or commuting stays low, systems still need to run and be maintained. With less revenue, how do transportation systems and municipalities keep up with costs?

This can contribute to an ongoing chicken-and-egg problem often posed in the United States. If there was better mass transit, would this lead to increased use? Or, do you have to have increased ridership or interest before building out transit systems?

The effects could be broader than just infrastructure and local budgets. Populations might shift if people change their commuting patterns for the long-term. Workplaces and offices could be very different. Suburbs, already built around private homes and lots of driving, could change in character and land use.

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.


Photo by Jack Gittoes on

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.

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

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.