When more technology leads to more traffic

Americans tend to assume technology will solve social problems but what if its use in vehicles leads to more traffic?

As Greater Boston creates more jobs and attracts more residents, car commutes have slowed to an excruciating pace. But while economists love congestion pricing — i.e., making people pay for the street space they use and the damage their cars inflict on the environment — it rankles Americans who’ve been raised to view driving alone as a human right. And in cities around the country, the advent of fully driverless cars, which could be many years away, has become an excuse for not building high-capacity transit networks. Autonomous vehicles, The New York Times reported this summer, became a major talking point in anti-transit campaigns in Indianapolis, Detroit, and Nashville.

Meanwhile, big names in the tech industry are portraying public transit as obsolete or worse. “It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it,” Tesla’s Elon Musk told a crowd last year, per an account in Wired. “And there’s, like, a bunch of random strangers, one of whom might be a serial killer. OK, great. And that’s why people like individualized transport that goes where you want when you want.”…

What autonomous vehicles won’t do is make traffic jams disappear. Someday, a driverless car could drop you off at work at 9 a.m. But what if, instead of parking itself in a private garage — which would cost money — it just circles the block until it picks you up at 5 p.m., because we refuse to charge motorists for the use of most streets?…

That’s all the more reason why Greater Boston can’t sit around waiting to see whether and how driverless cars will evolve. We’ll never squeeze enough cars into crowded spaces to get people where they need to go. In the end, no artificial-intelligence algorithm can change the laws of physics. Plan accordingly.

Adding more vehicles to the road leads to more traffic, even if it is easier to obtain those vehicles or the vehicles can drive themselves.

While this article calls for a long-term look at whether cities like Boston should prioritize mass transit or vehicles (and then act accordingly through means like congestion pricing or spending more money on mass transit), this is part of a bigger conversation: what if Americans will do whatever possible to keep up their ability to drive/ride in cars from their single-family homes to where they want to go? Even putting more money in mass transit can only do so much if density does not increase. And in a city like Boston that is already pretty dense, that could lead to some tough conversations about more affordable housing closer to jobs rather than relying on transportation to even out differences in where people live.

Why do communities allow charities to collect money by standing at intersections?

I live near a suburban intersection that regularly has people from charities standing at the stop signs to collect money. I suspect the suburb is willing to let this happen for two reasons:

  1. It is good for the city to allow local charities to be out in the community. This helps build good relationships between everyone. The charities then help people in the community.
  2. The strategy is effective. The people collecting money are in direct eye contact with possible donors. As people come to a stop, they feel obligated to drop some change into the bucket or jug. While this method likely does not lead to large sums of money being donated by a single person, it can add up quickly.

On the other hand, this is an odd way to collect money for a few reasons:

  1. Suburban drivers just want to get through the intersection, not be slowed down. Even if they do not give money and have an interaction with the person standing there, they have to be more careful with a person in the roadway.
  2. Many drivers would respond much more negatively if another party was collecting money or soliciting people at this same spot. Many communities have homeless or jobless people sitting at intersections looking for help or people selling items or services (like squeegeing a windshield without the driver asking for it).
  3. Having people stand in the roadway is generally not a good idea given the lack of attention paid to pedestrians.

Perhaps communities try to balance these two sides by only offering limited numbers of opportunities for charities to do this (it can’t happen every week, for example) or limiting activity to certain intersections where drivers are going slower and traffic is not impeded as much.

On the whole, this particular method is unusual and maybe only certain charities can get away with it with limited exposure to drivers.

Speeding occurs when a road feels like a highway but has low speed limits

An analysis of high-speed tickets issued in Chicago highlights a fundamental contradiction with Lake Shore Drive:

The number of tickets issued on Lake Shore Drive points to a long-standing problem — with four lanes in each direction along most of the road, the drive looks and feels like a highway, though it was intended as a scenic boulevard and in some places has no guard rails or emergency shoulders. The maximum speed limit is 40 mph on the North Side and 45 mph on the South, but up to 95 percent of drivers exceed the limit when the road is not congested, according to an Illinois Department of Transportation study.

The majority of motorists getting nabbed for speeding on the drive were going at least 75 to 80 mph.

“I observe some people driving extremely fast,” said Joseph Schofer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University. “The roadway kind of invites that. When there’s not much traffic, it’s a pleasant drive; there are not many sharp curves. It feels like the Edens Expressway.”…

While drivers speed both north and south of Madison, there are more tickets on the South Side. It is both easier to go at high speeds and easier to catch speeders south of the Museum Campus.

The current solution to the contradiction seems to be more enforcement of speed limits on Lake Shore Drive. More tickets and public knowledge of more tickets issued should theoretically help drivers think twice before going fast.

But, this ignores the underlying issue: the road is built and designed in such a way that fast driving can appear safe. Even if the road is not actually built for those speeds, having all those lanes plus a large number of drivers going fast can overrule a rational approach to the speed limit. Additionally, this is a major north-south artery in Chicago. There are a limited number of these, particularly those without many traffic stops. Outside of a crowded Kennedy and Dan Ryan Expressways (consistently rated as some of the worst spots for traffic in the United States), Lake Shore Drive is it. Even with its traffic lights around Grant Park, it offers unparalleled ease of travel.

It would be interesting to see what the City of Chicago could dream up to slow down drivers. The other complication is the road is intended to be a scenic one as it often travels through parks and offers numerous great views on one side of Lake Michigan and on the other a thriving global city. Speed bumps? Giant signs about traffic? A road diet to limit the width of the road? More guard rails and visible safety symbols? If the true goal is to improve safety, just handing out tickets is not enough.

Suburban traffic trapped by train, Barrington edition

Combining the issues posed by numerous at-grade crossings in the Chicago area plus the purchase of the EJ&E tracks by Canadian National, an afternoon rush hour situation arose June 12 in the suburb of Barrington because of a stopped freight train:

Among the thousands of vehicles caught in the jam were ambulances headed to Good Shepherd Hospital with two patients from a DUI crash at Ela Road and Northwest Highway…

As first-responders quickly found out, all four CN crossings — at Main Street, Hough Street (Route 59), Northwest Highway and Lake Zurich Road — were inaccessible, and trains on an intersecting rail line also backed up…

While traffic gridlock spiraled, Barrington police who had coalesced south of the tracks to handle the DUI crash reached out to neighboring departments. “Can you please let Lake Zurich PD, Lake County and Barrington Hills know on our northwest side we have no officers on right now. So if we need assistance we’ll be calling them,” a dispatcher asked.

As she idled in traffic, Barrington resident Erika Olivares tried to troubleshoot how to reach her 8-month-old son, Leo, before day care closed. “Basically I was panicking,” she recalled Thursday.

Some desperate commuters ducked under train cars to reach the opposite side. “There are numerous people who are actually crawling over the train that’s stopped here,” a 911 caller reported. “It’s getting more and more dangerous — there are kids doing it as well.”

Several quick thoughts:

  1. I would guess the winning issue on which to focus to solve this problem are the safety concerns. If people cannot make it to the hospital or police and fire units cannot make it to scenes, lives in the community may be endangered. Even though it would be interesting to look at how many safety cases are involved on an annual basis, the argument that even one endangered life is too many would likely convince many suburbanites.
  2. The traffic caused by such an incident is experienced by numerous Chicago area suburbs. Lots of at-grade crossings add up to the potential for outraged drivers. Even if rail lines move tremendous amounts of goods, the backups may leave the average suburbanite with the impression that the trains are foremost a nuisance.
  3. The fallout of the Canadian National purchase of the EJ&E tracks continues. What is potentially lost in stories like this from Barrington about changes in communities are the effects on the entire region. One of the outcomes of the purchase was to be that more freight traffic would be rerouted around the region rather than to areas closer to the city with further inconveniences to those communities. The Chicago area has long had problems with too many trains yet it is a vital part of the local and national economy.

Study suggests more traffic is related to stronger metro economies

What if traffic is not something to avoid but rather a byproduct of a strong economy?

By comparing historic traffic data against several economic markers, the authors found virtually no indication that gridlock stalled commerce. In fact, it looked like the economy had its own HOV lane. Region by region, GDP and jobs grew, even as traffic increased. This does not mean speed bumps should come standard on every new highway. Traffic still sucks, and things that suck should be fixed. What this study does is acknowledge that economically vibrant cities will always have congestion. So transportation planners should instead focus on ways to alleviate the misery rather than eliminate the existence of congestion…

Marshall acknowledges that no statistic can paint a perfect picture of reality, but he says he and his coauthor wrangled their analysis into coherence. Once they accounted for all the hanging chads, the overall trend was pretty clear: Traffic really didn’t do much to the economy. In fact, they found that if anything, places with higher car congestion seemed to have stronger economies. Specifically, per capita GDP and job growth both tracked upward as traffic wait times got worse.

It sounds like the study suggests the better the economy is, the more traffic there will be. I could think of two observations that go with these findings:

  1. The idea of ghost towns, both literal and figurative. If there is a lack of economic activity, the streets and buildings will be pretty empty.
  2. Jane Jacobs argued the most interesting neighborhoods are those with a lot of street and sidewalk activity. This is certainly related to economic activity of businesses, shops, and restaurants as well as the ability of residents and visitors to spend money.

Even if this is true, I would guess this knowledge would do little to help people stuck in gridlock feel better about the situation. They should think “I’m glad I have a good job in a thriving metro area and the traffic is the small penalty to pay for that.”

Perhaps a final piece to this would be to think about what would need to change in urban areas or driving to decouple these factors. Would a significant investment in mass transit counter this connection? More telecommuting and working from home?

Two dead suburban transportation projects: the Metra STAR Line and the Prairie Parkway

A large metropolitan area of over 9 million residents could benefit from more transportation options for residents and visitors. Here are quick summaries about two projects that never got off the ground:

The STAR Line

The suburb-to-suburb STAR Line rail system was intended to loop from O’Hare to Hoffman Estates to Joliet along tracks formerly owned by the EJ & E railroad, providing an alternative to the suburb-to-city commuter lines.

But Canadian National Railroad bought the EJ & E in 2008 and moved freight traffic onto those tracks, effectively putting the STAR Line on ice. In 2011 Schaumburg pulled the plug on a special taxing district meant to spur development around the convention center, which had been envisioned as a STAR Line hub.

Prairie Parkway

The Prairie Parkway would have circled Chicago’s outer suburbs, linking I-88 near Elburn to I-80 near Minooka. The Illinois Department of Transportation began studies in 2003, and in 2005 President George W. Bush came to Montgomery to sign a highway funding bill and call the Prairie Parkway “crucial for economic progress for Kane and Kendall counties.”

Opponents organized and sued. The highway’s patron, former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Plano, was accused of profiting from land buys near the proposed highway. And in 2012, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its approval of the right of way. It was only in March that IDOT canceled the corridor.

I have always thought the STAR Line was a clever idea in multiple ways:

  1. It would provide needed railroad links throughout the region so that not all riders have to go into Chicago before making transfers. The spoke model in the Chicago region is good for getting to downtown but the biggest number of trips these days are suburb to suburb.
  2. It made use of existing tracks. Although they likely needed more capacity to run regular passenger service and new tracks would be needed along I-90, some of the infrastructure was already there. This is not something to look past in an era when acquiring land can be expensive and time-consuming.
  3. It had the potential to spur transit-oriented suburban development in a number of communities. This is a hot topic in many suburban downtowns and it could have opened up new commuting, residential, and business opportunities.

Yet, the plan was scuttled by several factors:

  1. A lack of money. This project has been around since the 1990s but it was unclear who would fund it.
  2. Control of the EJ&E tracks.
  3. Likely concerns from neighbors to these tracks. When CN purchased these tracks and added freight trains, multiple communities pushed back.

The Prairie Parkway may have not offered as much opportunity to remove cars from roads but could have spurred development on some of the edges of the Chicago region and offered a shorter drive time in these areas. Building belt-line highways like this require some foresight: if they are constructed after too much development has occurred, they can be much more expensive to build. Also, neighbors can object to the plans, such as with the Illiana Expressway which also has not gotten off the ground.

Pneumatic road tubes to count traffic, check speed

Here are the secrets of “those weird black tubes in the road”:

Here’s a good description of the actual operation of the tube setup from the U.S. Department of Transportation:

“Pneumatic road tube sensors send a burst of air pressure along a rubber tube when a vehicle’s tires pass over the tube. The pressure pulse closes an air switch, producing an electrical signal that is transmitted to a counter or analysis software. The pneumatic road tube sensor is portable, using lead-acid, gel, or other rechargeable batteries as a power source.”…

A single pneumatic road tube is most commonly used to simply count the number of cars on the road, as well as time the gaps between individual vehicles.

If two pneumatic road tubes are set up spaced slightly apart, the counter can track the number of axles a vehicle has to better determine each individual vehicle’s class, the direction of traffic and the speed at which vehicles are moving.

A relatively simple device to figure out how many vehicles are on the road. These traffic counts are then very helpful for additional decisions like traffic control, widening or adding to roads, and even thinking about new roadways.