Does predicting bad Thanksgiving traffic and airport congestion change people’s behavior?

Each year, INRIX releases a report regarding Thanksgiving congestion. Here are predictions for the Chicago area:

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Along with Chicago, highways in Atlanta, New York City and Los Angeles will be the busiest, according to data analytics firm INRIX. To avoid the worst congestion, INRIX recommends traveling early Wednesday, or before 11 a.m. Thanksgiving Day…

The report predicts almost double the typical traffic along a westbound stretch of Interstate 290 from Chicago’s Near West Side to suburban Hillside, peaking between 3 and 5 p.m. Wednesday. Significant additional congestion is expected Wednesday along the same stretch of eastbound I-290, with an anticipated 84% spike in traffic…

The outlook isn’t much brighter for travelers flying out of the city. Chicago-based United Airlines expects O’Hare to be its busiest airport, with more than 650,000 customers anticipated for the holiday. It reports Sunday, Nov. 27, will be its busiest travel day since before the pandemic, with 460,000 travelers taking to the skies. Nationwide, the airline awaits more than 5.5 million travelers during the Thanksgiving travel period, up 12% from last year and nearly twice as many as in a typical November week…

“Regardless of the transportation you have chosen, expect crowds during your trip and at your destination,” Twidale said. Travelers with flexible schedules should consider off-peak travel times to avoid the biggest rush.

The last paragraph quoted above might be key: given the predicted congestion, will people choose different times and days to travel? And, if enough people do this, will the model be wrong?

Transportation systems can only handle so many travelers. Highways attempt to accommodate rush hour peaks. Airports try to handle the busier days. Yet, the systems can become overwhelmed in unusual circumstances. Accidents. Pandemics. Holiday weekends where lots of people want to go certain places.

If enough people hear of this predicted model, will they change their plans? They may or may not be able to, given work hours, school hours, family plans, pricing, and more. These are the busiest times because they are convenient for a lot of people. If all or most workplaces and schools closed for the whole week, then road and air traffic might be distributed differently.

I would be interested in hearing how many people need to change their behavior to change these models. If more people decide they will leave earlier or later Wednesday, does that mean the bad traffic is spread out all day Wednesday or the predicted doomsday traffic does not happen? How many fliers need to change their flights to Saturday or Monday to make a difference?

If people do change their behavior, perhaps this report is really more of a public service announcement.

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?

America: attend a festival and end with an 8 hour traffic jam

Live by the car, get stuck in traffic with the car:

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The first Burning Man festival after three years of COVID pandemic delays ended rather unceremoniously as exhausted revelers endured an apocalyptic eight-hour traffic jam in the sweltering desert to leave the site. Twitter posts depicting the post-revelry congestion — and a bizarre “Thunderdome”-style fight — are going viral online.

“Exodus wait time is currently around 8 hours,” Burning Man’s official travel account confirmed regarding the bash, which saw 80,000 Burners descend on the Black Rock Desert in Gerlach, Nevada, for nine days ending Monday. “Consider delaying your departure until conditions improve.”…

Meanwhile, one burned-out reveler posted photos depicting 15 lanes of traffic that were clogged bumper to bumper for miles like something out of a classic disaster movie.

At least this traffic jam had different scenery compared to the typical highway landscapes found in metropolitan areas?

The car may be essential to the American way of life – and celebrations of life – but traffic jams are one consequence many would hope to avoid. It offers freedom for individual drivers to go when they want at a pace partly of their own choosing, yet the system of roads and land uses can easily lead to backups and delays that limit such perceived freedoms. The car commercials featuring people enjoying driving on the open road do not typically reference any traffic jams. Or, how many movies or TV shows show the difficulties of traffic congestion? After a period of festival-going, just how frustrating is a long traffic jam?

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.

Can a suburban newspaper call for less driving and two long-term options for minimizing driving in suburbs

The headline to an editorial earlier this week in the suburban Daily Herald said “we need to re-evaluate our relationship with cars”. More from the editorial:

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If drivers have been reluctant to limit their car use and reduce mileage in the past, they now have two headline-making reasons to reconsider: painful prices at the pump and a sobering recent report on climate change.

Meeting both challenges means committing to conservation as individuals — and as a society…

Minimizing driving and maximizing the efficiency of our cars are vital tools in the battles to lower gas bills and protect our planet.

The Daily Herald covers news in the suburbs of Chicago and is based in Arlington Heights, a suburb with a denser downtown roughly 25 miles northwest of Chicago. In other words, they serve an area built on cars and driving. Their headquarters is primarily accessible by cars and is next to a major interstate.

One of the primary features of the American suburbs is that it revolves around driving. Single-family homes with larger lots are made possible by cars. Commuting to other suburbs or large cities is made possible by cars. Fast food is made possible by cars. Big box stores and shopping malls rely on cars. And so on. More broadly, one could argue the American way of life is built around cars.

I do see two longer-term and possible suburban options that could minimize driving:

-Denser suburban developments, downtowns, and communities. In the Chicago area, downtown densification has been a trend for a while as communities seek downtown residents who can then patronize local business. “Surban” communities are of interest. New Urbanists promote residences within walking distances of regular needs.

-More working from home. COVID-19 has accelerated this but technology does make it possible for some workers.

In both cases, suburbanites might not be able to give up cars all together but a household might be able to go from two to one car with less driving. That would reduce pollution, traffic, and parking needs.

However, both of these shifts are significant ones. Denser suburban areas are not necessarily ones with single-family homes on big lots. Denser areas put people in closer proximity to each other. Working from home might be technologically feasible but might not be desirable by corporations and organizations or by communities who relied on commuters and workers. These might be options more available in some communities or some residents rather than to all suburbanites.

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.

The ongoing tactic of social movements blocking roads

I saw news earlier this week about efforts by climate activists in Germany to draw attention to their cause:

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Climate activists on Wednesday blocked roads leading to Germany’s three biggest airports, gluing themselves to the ground before police arrived.

Members of the group Uprising of the Last Generation said they wanted to disrupt cargo and passenger traffic at the airports in Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin.

The group has demanded that the government take measures to end food waste. It argues that throwing away vast amounts of usable food contributes to hunger and climate change.

Past protests involving the blocking of roads and ports have drawn criticism from officials across the political spectrum.

The last sentence in the portion above is telling. This particular technique draws criticism from all sides because it effectively complicates one of the most important assumptions of Western life: drivers should be able to get where they want with minimal disruption.

It may be one thing to have a crowd or protest so large that it takes over streets and roadways. It is another matter to more deliberately block main arteries and highways. Residents depend on these, truckers depend on these, emergency vehicles depend on these. Whether it is Black Lives Matters protestors or truckers in Ottawa, Canada or climate change activists, interrupting the normal flow of people and goods “works.”

I put “works” in quotes because it is less clear that this tactic leads to significant change. It may draw attention and disrupt daily life. If it angers many of the people who might align with the movement, is this helpful? Is media attention the primary focus? If governments find ways to clear roadways – and many communities have guidelines about applying for permits to hold parades/rallies/protests and this includes where these can take place – is this a win in the end?

I would not expect this tactic to go away soon.

If mathematicians addressed traffic problems

How would mathematicians solve traffic? Here are the suggestions from a 2020 book:

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All drivers need to be on the same navigation system. Cars can only be efficiently rerouted if instructions come from one center hub. One navigation system rerouting some drivers does not solve traffic jams.

Parking bans. Many urban roads are too narrow and cannot be physically widened. Traffic-flow models can indicate where parking spots should be turned into lanes.

Green lanes. For cities that want to increase electric car use, special lanes should be created for electric cars, providing an incentive for their use.

Digital twins. Traffic demands and available infrastructure can only be balanced with digital modeling that creates an entire “twin” of existing roadways. The software will be “an extremely useful thought tool in the hands of transport engineers.”

I have not read the book and this description is not long but it seems to depend on both understanding current and possible traffic flows through modeling. Often, Americans typically get more lanes added to roads – which then tend to fill up because there is more capacity and/or populations continue to grow.

I wonder how modeling would fit with other values underlying road and traffic decisions. A few examples:

  1. It might be better to have a centralized traffic and navigation hub. Is this technically feasible, would all car makers want to participate, and would there be privacy concerns?
  2. The politics of providing special lanes, whether for electric cars or high occupancy vehicles or bicycles, can get interesting. Americans often think the roadway should be for all users as opposed to particular users.
  3. The road system we have is the result of not just prioritizing efficiency but a whole host of actors and forces that includes privileging single-family homes (and generally keeping them away from busy roads) and highways in and out of major cities.

The foresight of old railway viaducts

In regions like Chicagoland where there are numerous railroad lines and at-grade railroad crossings, old viaducts exhibit a measure of foresight that benefits today’s residents:

Google Street View image of Vollmer Road viaduct

That factory still operates as Chicago Heights Steel, and the cobblestone portion of Main Street is mostly a driveway leading to it. But just past the factory is a secret passageway of sorts, an ancient viaduct just wide enough to allow one vehicle to pass under the old Elgin, Joliet & Eastern railroad tracks…

There are areas, though, where there are no ways around it, and if you get stopped, you just have to abide. I’ve lived in those areas, but I don’t anymore. The main train line by me is above grade and it’s great. The old Illinois Central tracks, which include what’s now known as the Metra Electric District commuter line, traverse the area atop a big berm as unobstructed motorists cruise underneath through a series of viaducts from Sauk Trail all the way into the heart of Chicago.

According to Metra, the grade separation was a direct result of Chicago hosting the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition — city leaders didn’t want messy train deaths to tarnish the event’s image. In the years after those initial express trains from downtown to Jackson Park for the World’s Fair, commuter trains made their way to the suburbs, with Flossmoor getting service in 1900 and Matteson by 1912. The raised platforms, tracks and viaducts followed with the entire line being above grade by the 1920s…

Viaducts are harder to come by these days than they were in the golden age of railroads, and I only know of a few that have been constructed in my lifetime. Despite the hassles that can come along with them, motorists, and likely train engineers too, are happy we have the ones that are here.

Even as railroad lines help put many suburban communities on the map and still provide access to big cities, many local residents just see them as a hassle for the traffic and noise they create. With the automobile dominating suburban travel, trains are nuisance when they block vehicle flow.

I am familiar with numerous railroad viaducts in suburban communities in addition to the ones mentioned above in the south suburbs of Chicago. They were ahead of their time as they allowed access under the railroad tracks, sometimes even before cars were around. Local leaders and officials they foresaw the problems that might arise between ground-level traffic and trains and therefore separated the two flows to let each move on their own. This helps avoid safety issues that still plague communities today.

At the same time, not all of these viaducts have been treated well. As the article notes elsewhere, they can have drainage issues. Their original size is often an issue as today’s vehicles and/or traffic flow is larger, meaning that old viaducts need to be expanded. Letting one car through at a time is better than nothing but many communities would benefit from two lanes each way being able to go under the tracks. Foresight in infrastructure is helpful but it needs consistent attention to keep up with repairs and expanded suburban populations.

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?