A hub-and-spoke highway system in the Chicago region leads to more traffic

In reaction to a new report suggesting Chicago area drivers faced the most traffic of any region, one expert highlights the design of the highway system in the region:

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The design of Chicago’s expressways are also partly to blame, as they funnel traffic into downtown.

“The design of our expressway system has hurt traffic flow for generations,” Schwieterman said.

The Chicago highway system consists of numerous paths leading right to downtown. Several of these highways converge at the Jane Byrne Interchange, leading to traffic and construction issues. Another connects to the lakefront just south of Grant Park. There are several ring highways but they do not necessarily connect all of the relevant parts of the region. One short highway famously went to neither place in its name.

This is not limited just to highways; the railroad system in the region also operates this way. Numerous early railroads ended right in the heart of the city and along the riverfront. The current system has all sorts of congestion issues with the amount of railroad traffic trying to move in and through the region. Railroad passengers in the region cannot travel easily between suburbs because most trips require going into the city first and then going back out on another line.

At one time, this system may have made sense. The Chicago region, as in multiple regions in the Northeast and Midwest, was organized with a dense commercial district at the core. Today, this makes less sense in many US metropolitan regions where the many trips and commutes are suburb to suburb. Throughout a region, suburbs are job centers, entertainment centers, and residential communities.

Reconfiguring infrastructure like highways, railroads, and mass transit to fit these new realities – perhaps now exacerbated by more employees working from home – is a long process with multiple avenues to pursue.

The changed traffic patterns in the Chicago region

A global pandemic plus other changes mean that there are new patterns of traffic in Chicagoland:

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The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which tracks these patterns, has found that drivers are taking trips on different days, at different times, and sticking closer to home than they used to. An analysis done for WGN-TV shows fewer trips being made at the familiar times and locations of rush hours. “Instead, they are more spread-out, making travel and congestion unpredictable,” WGN reported.

Another big factor in this traffic roulette is the continued rise of e-commerce. Amazon, FedEx and UPS trucks are everywhere, it seems, stopping-and-going, and sometimes blocking streets as drivers deliver online orders. CMAP reports that single-unit truck traffic (including those delivery vans) has shot up 20% since early 2020.

The third variable is public transit. Ridership on CTA, Metra and Pace continues to lag pre-pandemic levels, thanks in no small part to the perception that they are either unsafe, inconvenient or both, meaning more commuters are driving. As a result, motoring to and from downtown can be as rough as ever, especially on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, when employers are more likely to require the physical presence of their office workers.

While these patterns will continue to evolve in the years ahead, working and shopping from home are here to stay, and public transit has a long journey to win back its customers. Planners need to adjust accordingly, and that probably means re-engineering traffic systems.

Summary: Tuesday through Thursday are now the worst “regular” rush hour days, trucks and traffic can be anywhere, and fewer people are using mass transit.

Does the Chicago area have an advantage because of its grid network? If drivers encounter a problem, it is not hard to find an alternative route. Compared to cities with longer histories and fewer major roads in the Northeast, Chicagoans have a plethora of options. On the other hand, the Chicago area is limited in terms of highways and sprawling roads compared to some places in the South and West.

Even with a grid and flat surface, one of the biggest problems seems to be that traffic – driving and rail – tends to end up in particular chokepoints that are more unpredictable in their use. Drivers still go through the Jane Byrne Interchange. Freight traffic needs to get through railyards and across at-grade crossings. Could this traffic be effectively lessened or rerouted in ways that help people and goods flow more quickly?

If there was an issue that the over 9 million people in the Chicago region could address together, this might be it. Yes, few people want to pay for solutions they do not directly benefit from. However, solutions to these issues across the region would benefit everyone.

Updated figures on Chicago as “the country’s largest freight hub”

Freight and cargo continue to be important for Chicago and the region:

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Chicago is still the country’s largest freight hub, handling half of all U.S. intermodal trains and a total of $3 trillion worth of cargo each year, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

That is a lot of money and traffic.

Whether the Chicago region is acting as a good steward of all of this is another matter. The figures come from an article about pollution from idling trains and truck plus increased freight traffic. Additionally, is the Chicago area prepared to be a freight leader in the future? If so much traffic passes through the region, there is a lot riding on facilities and infrastructure making sure everything gets to its destination.

Is it possible to get convincing data on whether the media is covering a story or not?

A strike is threatening the operation of railroads in the United States. Is the media coverage of the story sufficient or appropriate to the scale of the issue? How could this be measured?

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Media stories and/or reports can be counted in multiple ways. Count articles, headlines, the number of words written, social media posts, time spent on it during television broadcasts. Look at where and when stories are reported or not; does it lead the news or come later? Is it buried on a webpage or a newspaper page? How many resources are devoted to the topic could involve looking at how many reporters are on a story or the length of stories and reports.

But, this measurement question is complicated by the issue of knowing when the coverage is enough or not. My sense of most of the Internet arguments about this is that one political side feels for one reason or another that a story is not getting sufficient attention. Would an accurate count or measurement of coverage be convincing? What is an appropriate level of coverage depends on who is asking.

Additionally, the media has its own logics and pressures regarding what stories it covers and how it displays them. Not everything can be the top headline. Resources for covering the news are limited.

This might just be a perfect kind of argument for our politicized and fragmented current age. For those who really care about an issue, no level of media coverage might be enough. For those who are less interested or less aware, they might not care or know what they are missing. Media sources will provide information but not so do necessarily evenly across all news stories. And social media, the Internet, and politics provides space to express concern or outrage about the coverage or lack thereof.

How US freight trains might come to a halt (or, how a crisis can be averted)

Many goods are carried by the freight train network in the United States. Yet, several factors are converging that could lead to a disruption of freight service:

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In April, the STB held hearings on the meltdown, where representatives from sectors including agriculture, energy, and chemicals joined trade unions to complain of poor service and working conditions. STB data says railroads cut their workforce by 45,000, or 29 percent, over the past six years, with pandemic furloughs pushing staffing levels past a tipping point. By late May, only 67 percent of trains arrived within 24 hours of their scheduled time, down from 85 percent pre-pandemic, according to data submitted to the STB by the four largest US freight railroads.

Worse, the US freight rail system is now poised on the brink of total paralysis because of a contract dispute between 115,000 rail workers and their employers. Negotiations have dragged on since the last contract expired in 2019, during which time rail workers have not had a raise. Under the Railway Labor Act, federal government mediators try to prevent railroad work stoppages, in this case to no avail. On August 16, a three-member presidential emergency board appointed by President Biden issued recommendations for the basis of a new contract. If the sides don’t reach agreement by September 15, rail workers can strike—a scenario that Rick Paterson, a rail analyst at the investment firm Loop Capital Markets who testified during the STB hearings, calls “economic WMD.”

The fallout of a prolonged strike would likely eclipse those from pandemic delays to ocean shipping because a foundational component of many supply chains would see its labor supply evaporate overnight, says Paterson. Ports would jam; trucking rates would soar; livestock would run out of feed. For that reason, Congress would likely intervene to delay or quickly end a strike, as it did during the last railroad strike in 1991. But lawmakers may not have much time: The deadline is just three days after the House of Representatives returns from recess…

US freight railroads cut staff in recent years as part of a shift toward a leaner and more profitable operating model dubbed Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR). It was invented by a Canadian railroad executive and later replicated in the US, with the intention of simplifying a complex rail network by running fewer, longer trains, replacing single-commodity trains with mixed freight, and slashing labor. US freight trains grew 25 percent in length between 2008 and 2017 and now sometimes reach 3 miles long. And while the profits materialized, the promised service improvements have not always followed.

As with much critical infrastructure, relatively few Americans pay attention to its operation outside of the ways it might affect their daily life. See one recent example involving freight lines from the Chicago suburbs. If the trains keep running on time – or close to on time – it will not attract much attention.

But, a day without freight trains would quickly lead to big issues. Some might notice it quicker than others; perhaps they are associated with a certain industry or business or they live in a community where freight trains are ever-present and/or vital.

Given the stakes described above, I assume the crisis will be addressed and the trains will keep running. However, getting past this moment is not necessarily the same as setting up a structure that works for an extended period of time.

A freight train through the center of town

At-grade railroad crossings present dangers. But, what if the freight line runs right down the middle of a road through the center of town? This is LaGrange, Kentucky:

More images here and here.

This is an unusual situation but it hints at the intertwining of trains and communities. This would be a strong reminder of the goods moving across the landscape and how it intersects with traffic, pedestrians, buildings, and residents. Many might prefer that freight just shows up where it needs to – usually at the point of use or access by consumers – but it has to come from and to somewhere first.

Now I wonder how many American communities have this particular situation. This might be more common in big cities or in cities in other countries where mass transit lines run on roadways. Or, this could encourage remembrances of the extensive streetcar systems in many American communities that utilized local roadways.

Chicago suburbs continue the fight against railroad mergers they say will negatively impact their communities

This started years ago in response to the purchase of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway and continues now as eight Chicago suburbs challenge the potential merger of the Canadian Pacific and the Kansas City Southern railroads:

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Bartlett, Bensenville, Elgin, Itasca, Hanover Park, Roselle, Wood Dale and Schaumburg formed the Coalition to Stop CPKC last week in a bid to convince the board that the merger would bring so many additional trains to the Milwaukee West Line that it would dramatically alter life in their communities…

The merger would create the first single-line rail network linking the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The railroads filed the merger application in October.

Each of the eight suburbs conducted evaluations and determined what mitigations would be needed to protect their residents and businesses from the increase in freight traffic. Pileski said Roselle alone would need at least $30 million to create pathways and modify roads to get around the freight trains.

The coalition filing says the potential price tag for mitigations in all eight suburbs could reach $9.5 billion, and negate any benefit to the railroads.

Railroad traffic in many suburbs is viewed negatively due to an increase in blocked crossings or waiting for trains, more noise and pollution, and a disruption to a quiet suburban life. On the other hand, rail traffic helps deliver a lot of goods, can be more efficient than other shipping options, and might limit traffic – train or on roads – elsewhere.

In the larger picture of the Surface Transportation Board, where do the concerns of these 8 suburbs fit with other concerns or advantages regarding this potential merger?

In a region built in part on railroad transportation and that continues to see tremendous amounts of railroad freight traffic, it will be worth watching this outcome.

Balancing the needs of a region and nation versus the impact on local communities

Following up on a possible railroad merger that would affect multiple Chicago suburbs, several suburban leaders acknowledge that there are both community and larger interests at stake:

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Communities’ concerns about the length and frequency of trains are valid, but the key is to find a balance between alleviating their concerns and letting the railroads operate efficiently, bringing needed goods from one place to another, said Karen Darch, village president of Barrington and a board member of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning who has worked on railroad issues.

“We need transportation, this is a big industry for us, for the country,” she said. “And yet we want our communities to be safe and livable.”…

“It’s hard to argue against the commercial benefits that will occur from unifying these lines, and so the city’s trying to be realistic in terms of balancing its own interests with the greater benefit that can come for the U.S. economy,” he said. “We’re just asking, with the recognition that the railroads are going to benefit from this merger, we need some help.”

This is a conundrum that faces communities, regions, and the nation in multiple areas. The issue often arises in transportation but could also include eminent domain and land use, the move of a company from one location to another, and uneven development across communities. Whose interests should win out? How much room for compromise is there? How much can everyone involved see all of the layers?

There is little question that the Chicago region is an important region for railroad traffic in the United States. At the same time, that traffic impacts day-to-day experiences as well as long-term prospects for communities. What is good for the region or for national traffic may not look like what communities want.

The key here might be the efforts of the railroads themselves. What would they be willing to change about their operations and how much money would they contribute to help alleviate problems? This could range from listening to concerns, rerouting traffic away from residential areas, and contributing to the construction of bridges or underpasses to alleviate issues at at-grade crossings. This also helps make the contributions of railroads more tangible to suburbanites; people may know abstractly that railroads are important but have little to no direct interaction with any railroad company or representatives.

Fighting for decades against more freight trains in the Chicago suburbs

The mayor of Barrington, Illinois recently spoke about a long fight against large train companies and more freight traffic through the suburban community:

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Karen Darch was elected mayor of Barrington in 2005, only two years before the merger of the Canadian National and EJ&E that would increase the freight traffic in Barrington from three trains to up to 20 each day. She understands what worries Roselle and other suburbs along the Canadian Pacific line, as CP and the Kansas City Southern pursue a merger.

The merger could bring six to eight more freight trains a day through Roselle, Itasca, Wood Dale, Elgin, Bartlett, Schaumburg, Hanover Park and Bensenville. Leaders in those towns are concerned about potential traffic backups, emergency vehicle delays, additional noise and more pollution, as vehicles idle for longer…

Under Darch’s leadership, Barrington fought to extend the oversight period over CN, arguing that crossings were being blocked for longer than what the railroad agreed to.

The village also worked for years to get federal money to build an underpass for Northwest Highway at the CN tracks — improving traffic flow and making it easier for ambulances to get to Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital.

I first ran into this issue in the late 2000s while conducting research involving a community that was also affected by the moves of Canadian National. To many leaders and residents in such suburbs, the increased traffic was not just a nuisance; in a region with many at-grade rail crossings, more and/or longer trains has the potential to snarl traffic, limit the ability of emergency vehicles to get around the community, and create more noise and pollution.

The irony is that many Chicago suburbs were founded along railroad lines and the region itself is central to the American passenger and freight rail network. Without the railroad, the Chicago region and many of its communities would not be the same. That same train that makes day to day suburban life more difficult is important for Barrington and the region as a whole.

There still might be solutions to these problems. One solution underway for a while is to move more of the freight train around the outskirts of the region so that it is does end up in communities and the city itself. A second solution is to limit the number of at-grade crossings so that roadways and trains do not interact as much. A third option is to see the whole of the region in these discussions so that what is good for Barrington and other suburbs could also be good for the region and vice versa.

Autonomous railroads and the importance of shipping goods by train

An exploration of autonomous trains in the United States includes this graphic about how cargo is moved in the country:

At this point, railroad shipping is very important: roughly one-third of cargo goes via train. This only follows trucks. And I wonder how this data works when cargo goes much of the way via train but then needs to make it “the last mile” from the railyard to specific locations.

So how much might autonomous railroads help? Here is some suggestive data:

A European Union-funded study published in 2020 found that moving to newer systems for managing trains could increase the capacity of existing rail networks by up to 44%. An internal study by Wabtec indicates in the U.S. the increase could be even higher, up to 50%. An increase of that magnitude in the ton-miles carried by America’s rail network would be the equivalent of moving approximately one million fully loaded Boeing 747-10 passenger jet planes from coast to coast every year.

Combine this with autonomous trucks (which, according to this piece, may take longer than moving to autonomous trains) and drones and perhaps more future goods could be moved even more quickly.