Turning a busy road into a “smart corridor”

The Illinois Department of Transportation has plans to create two new “smart corridors” along major suburban roads:

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The improvements include: traffic signal upgrades to modernize the corridors, synchronizing signals, dynamic message signs in strategic spots, and accommodations for pedestrians, officials said.

The Route 64 revamp stretches between Smith/Kautz Road and Route 50 (Cicero Avenue); the Route 56 redo runs from Route 59 to York Street.

For walkers and transit users, upgrades to sidewalks, crosswalks and pedestrian signals are coming, plus new, strategically located bus stops that expedite traffic flow.

“The long-range idea is to get those corridors working as efficiently as possible and to help support transit and buses,” IDOT District 1 Program Development Engineer John Baszek said.

These are busy roads – tens of thousands of vehicles each day – with high rates of speed. The project seems to have two goals: (1) improve traffic flow and (2) facilitate use beyond cars and trucks. Can both be done at the same time?

Not only have I driven these roads, I have biked along both roads. There is a lot that would have to be done to make this feel like a safe and pleasant experience for bicyclists and pedestrians. Having more cars flowing more efficiently does not seem like it necessarily fits with this.

As a driver, synchronized lights seem to make a lot of sense. On some of the regular routes I drive, I am pretty sure the lights are intentionally not in my favor; i.e., I turn left at the green arrow from one major road to the next and am immediately met with a red light. Keeping traffic flowing would seem to be good for congestion and the environment (through avoiding idling and stopping and starting).

Trying to make suburban mass transit more attractive by offering private rides and vans to reserve

Pace has tried for decades to increase bus ridership in the Chicago suburbs. Here are two new strategies:

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Commuters can reserve a $2 ride in a small bus that typically stops at train stations and travels on major roads…

On-Demand service runs from early morning to evening with zones in Aurora, Batavia, Hoffman Estates, Naperville, Round Lake, St. Charles/Geneva, Vernon Hills/Mundelein, West Joliet and Wheaton/Winfield. Rides need to be booked at least an hour in advance.

Another experiment is the VanGo program that lets people reserve a Pace van at the Lake Forest or Lake-Cook Metra stations and drive to employment centers such as Baxter International. An expansion to Palatine is under consideration.

“We give you a code for the vehicle, it unlocks the door, it unlocks the key, you can take it to work and back at night to the train station” along with co-workers, Metzger said.

VanGo drivers must have a credit card and a good driving record, plus meet other requirements. A round trip is $5.

These are mass transit options – still mass transit because the vehicles are operated by a transportation entity and because they are hoping there are multiple riders in the vehicle – that try to adapt to suburban sprawl. A lack of density in the suburbs means that traditional railroad and bus lines cannot reach enough people and the ease of traveling by car means that many people will choose driving. These options offer more flexibility to individual users and specific locations.

Will it work? Can Pace compete with ride shares companies or companies that offer access to vehicles? I am skeptical that it will be effective in the long run given the current nature of suburbia.

All the construction at the same time + the other factors that increase traffic

A “perfect storm” of traffic has hit Chicagoland:

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The recent traffic backups aren’t a mirage, say transportation officials. It’s really a perfect storm of ongoing construction projects occurring at nearly all points of the expressway system. This includes the Jane Byrne Interchange project, the behind schedule and over budget construction job that offers one of the worst choke points for congestion in the heart of downtown Chicago…

The last week in September saw some of the worst traffic in recent memory, thanks not only to the ongoing construction — including the start of three-weekend lane reductions on Interstate 57 to accommodate ramp patching and resurfacing — but also an emergency closure of the outbound Dan Ryan Expressway ramp to the outbound Stevenson Expressway that isn’t expected to completed until Sunday, according to IDOT…

Transit experts say that Chicago, which has some of the worst congestion of any American city, is also grappling with its return to normalcy following closures brought on by the pandemic. The added congestion comes at a time when many workers such as Cavanagh are returning to the office after two years of work-from-home protocols. Rider usage of transit systems such as the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace also haven’t yet returned to normal…

“In other words, drivers are making more trips, but they’re shorter trips on average,” Dan Ginsburg, TTWN’s director of operations said in an email.

So the old joke in Chicago, “there are two seasons: construction and winter,” rings true again?

But, this is a bigger issue than just construction. The infrastructure needs help. More people are driving. People live and work in different locations. Mass transit is not being used much. Mass transit does not necessarily reach where it needs to reach. People want to drive faster. There is a lot of freight and cargo moving through the region and so on.

This “perfect storm” could be an opportunity to ask how to address traffic and congestion throughout the city and region for the next few decades? How will this get any better?

Building a car-free 1,000 person development in Arizona

Construction of a small community with no cars is underway in Tempe, Arizona:

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Culdesac, a 17-acre car-free community being built in Tempe, has leased out its final retail spot ahead of its opening later this year.

Culdesac Tempe, which cost $170 million to develop, will have 761 residential units but with zero parking spaces for its residents. The final retail spot fits into Cudlesac’s “post-car” design and ethos – Archer’s Bikes, which will offer bicycle and accessory sales, test rides, rentals and repair.

Three thoughts on this limited description:

  1. This fits with a number of trends including denser areas (both in cities and “surban” spaces) and utilizing other forms of transportation beyond personal cars. Add in an exciting mix of shops, restaurants, and entertainment spaces and I could imagine a new development like this charging top dollar for units.
  2. Such a development could help make more day-to-day activity car-free but residents would likely still need motorized transportation to access areas outside of these 17 acres. It is important for such a development to be near other walkable/bikeable areas and mass transit options so residents can easily access the rest of the city and more of the region.
  3. Once this development opens up, it would be interesting to track residents in how they move, where they work, the relationships they build, and more. If this is going to catch on elsewhere, positive data – and hopefully some data on how such developments could be accessible to a wide range of people – could help make the case.

Large disparities in risk of death across American transportation modes

Here is the risk of dying in a vehicle compared to other modes of transportation:

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Northwestern University economics professor Ian Savage examined American crash data over a decade, concluding that 7.3 people died in a car or truck for every billion passenger miles, 30 times the risk on urban rail and 66 times the risk aboard a bus. (If you’re wondering, motorcycles are by far the riskiest vehicles of all, while airplane travel is the safest.)

Even with these numbers, there are multiple reasons why many continue to prefer to drive:

Studies show that people typically feel safer in vehicles they control compared to those they cannot (i.e., a car compared to a bus or train). Worse, the rare transit crash is often a top media story, while daily car collisions barely register. “It’s baked into how we talk about crashes,” says Millar, of Washington State. “We had an Amtrak train crash here, three people died, and it was international news. That same week 10 people died on highways in this state—and it was the same the week before that, and the week before that.”

According to psychology’s “availability heuristic,” the intense attention paid to exceedingly rare plane or train crashes can lead us to unconsciously exaggerate their frequency, while the media’s shrug at car crashes causes us to discount the dangers of driving. One extreme example: A study found that the shift away from flying toward driving in the aftermath of 9/11 led to over 2,000 additional traffic deaths in the United States.

Lots of interesting factors to consider here. Do the perceived advantages of driving block out any consideration of the risk? Even if people had these numbers at their fingertips, would they consider risks or numbers?

I have argued before that the preference for driving is strong. If people in the United States have the resources and opportunity, they will pick driving over mass transit. Of course, the system is set up to make this choice for driving easier with an emphasis on roads and linking important cultural values and driving (such as individualism, taking road trips, suburban life, etc.).

This may be a prime case where making an argument from the numbers simply will not get far given the cultural narratives and social systems already in place. Perhaps the numbers could be paired with a compelling story or narrative? Even then, it could take a long time to convince Americans that because driving is more dangerous than other options they need to switch to other modes of transportation.

An argument for why “cars are simply vastly superior to transit alternatives”

An economist makes the case for why Americans choose cars:

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Automobiles have far greater and more flexible passenger- and cargo-carrying capacities than transit. They allow direct, point-to-point service, unlike transit. They allow self-scheduling rather than requiring advance planning. They save time, especially time spent waiting, which transit riders find the most onerous. They have far better multi-stop trip capability (which is why restrictions on auto use punish working mothers most). They offer a safer, more comfortable, more controllable environment, from the seats to the temperature to the music to the company.

Autos’ superiority doesn’t stop there, either. They expand workers’ access to jobs and educational opportunities, increase productivity and incomes, improve purchasing choices, lower consumer prices and widen social options. Trying to inconvenience people out of their cars undermines those major benefits, as well.

Cars allow decreased commuting times if not hamstrung, providing workers access to far more potential jobs and training possibilities. That improves worker-employer matches, with expanded productivity raising workers’ incomes as well as benefiting employers. One study found that 10 percent faster travel raised worker productivity by 3 percent, and increasing from 3 mph walking speed to 30 mph driving is a 900 percent increase. The magnitude of such advantages is seen in a Harvard analysis that concluded that for someone lacking a high-school diploma, owning a car increased their monthly earnings by $1,100.

Cars are also the only practical way to assemble enough widely dispersed potential customers to sustain large stores with affordable, diverse offerings. “Automobility” also sharply expands access to social opportunities. 

My sense is that Americans tend to agree with this, even if they do not think much about other transportation options.

At the same time, I could imagine two questions about this superiority:

  1. Is part of the superiority of the car due to the ways that American life are structured around cars? It is not just that people choose cars: the American way of life encourages car use.
  2. Are the individual choices made for cars best in the long run for communities and societies? Many individuals may like what cars enable but others would argue it leads to bad outcomes for the whole (one example here).

This belief in the superiority of cars also makes it difficult to find monies and the will to pursue other transportation options.

Focusing mass transit on those who need it or commuters

Looking at those who continued to use mass transit during COVID-19 helps raise the question of who public transit should serve:

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Yes, public transit ridership dropped like a stone after many places instituted stay-at-home orders. Americans took 186 million transit rides in the last week of February 2020, according to data compiled by the American Public Transit Association; a month later, that number had fallen by 72 percent, to 52.4 million. At the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which operates in the Pittsburgh area, ridership fell 68 percent.

Who kept riding? In a country where race is tied to economic opportunity and geography, transit riders have long been disproportionately low-income and people of color. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but they were the riders who stuck around. An analysis from the APTA found that white men were more likely to have given up transit during the pandemic; people of color, people who spoke Spanish, and women did not…

But US public transit has generally focused on commuters, especially those with traditional 9-to-5 schedules, who travel between city fringes and downtown business districts—riders who are less likely to be low-income and more likely to be white. That’s despite the fact that, even in the biggest cities, where transit use is more common, just half of pre-pandemic trips were to and from work. In smaller systems, the share is even less. The Port Authority of Allegheny County isn’t an exception. “Our system is very downtown centric, and it has historically relied very much on the commuter,” says Brandolph, the spokesperson. As a result, service within cities, serving people with less-regular work schedules or who took transit for other purposes, got short shrift.

That age may be over, says Alex Karner, who studies transportation equity as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. “The pandemic really exposed the truth that there are people for whom public transit is a vitally important public service,” he says. He says agencies now realize they will no longer be able to rely on peak-period commuters. When Urban Institute researchers surveyed 73 US and Canadian agencies on what service might look like in a “post-pandemic” era, more than half said they thought “peak period” travel would decrease. Nearly 70 percent said white-collar workers would take fewer rides. So transit agencies must decide what the new normal will be—and who it will serve.

In a country devoted to driving, those who have alternatives to mass transit to get to work will use those. Additionally, there is a class element to how mass transit is used and regarded and COVID-19 made work from home possible for some and not others.

The underlying assumption here appears to be that public transit cannot or cannot easily serve both groups of users. One aspect of this is that underlying patterns of residential segregation in cities and urban areas mean potential riders live in different locations. Additionally, later parts of the story cited above highlight the money mass transit systems have at the moment due to federal funds.

In the long run, when wealthier residents are asked to devote more funds to mass transit for equity and those who need it, will they agree? In Chicago, this has manifest in limited mass transit service in some areas compared to others. The new federal money means the Red Line can be extended on the South side. How far can efforts go? In other metro areas in recent years, wealthier suburbanites (see Nashville) have rejected efforts to expand mass transit. When suburbs are increasingly diverse and home to poorer residents, is there will to have consistent mass transit service?

Seeing 1930s Los Angeles streetcars in color

The fabled Los Angeles streetcar system is visible in a colorized video with added sound of the city in the 1930s:

The streetcar system is no more with numerous works discussing how it was dismantled amid a push for cars and highways. But, the video is a reminder that cars and streetcars operated together for at least a while as the city and region grew quickly. Both provided opportunities to travel throughout the area and utilized the same roadways.

It is also interesting how such altered videos – here with color and sound added – have the opportunity to change perceptions of the past. When even relatively recent history is displayed in black and white, it seems less vibrant and real. Throw in approximate sound and such video could help viewers feel as if they are back in Los Angeles nearly a century ago.

In a society devoted to driving and business, what alternatives are there to rental cars?

The rental car industry has had a difficult year, customers are unhappy, and some companies are still making money. In a country that likes driving, has planned around driving, and has oodles of cars plus encourages business activity, what could be done to not depend on rental cars? A few options:

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  1. Car sharing services. There are more of these around today. Cut out the middle-man business and just deal with a private car owner for your transportation.
  2. Taxis and/or ride share companies. These are more available in some places than others and do not allow the same freedom as being able to drive a rental car wherever and whenever you would like.
  3. Public transportation. Even less available outside of denser urban areas. And even in places where mass transit is plentiful, many people still opt for private vehicles.
  4. Walking or bicycling. Very difficult and possibly dangerous in many locations.
  5. Borrowing a car from family or friends or doing without it for a time. It could be done but the location and time frame is very important.

Thinking back, I can recall multiple trips where a rental car was a necessity in order to get where we wanted to go. At the same time, some work trips did not require a vehicle because the location of the meeting was in a large city with public transit options. And if you are in a suburban or more rural setting and your car is in the shop for more than a day, a car rental may be very necessary.

Does this mean Americans must put up with rental cars forever? Perhaps someday there will be fleets of electric vehicles for all to access. Until then, renting a car may be a necessary evil.

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?