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?

Trying to keep up with growth in housing and jobs, Dallas edition

A report on the growing numbers of housing and jobs in the Dallas metropolitan area over the last decades highlights the connection between the two:

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From 2010-2020 the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area added 438,000 new housing units, increasing the housing stock by 18%. Dallas’s growth in new housing ranks No. 9 fastest among the nation’s 100 largest metros, Zillow’s stats show.

Over the same period, Dallas added 802,000 new jobs, an increase of 29%. A healthy housing market should add a new housing unit for every 1-2 new jobs as the local economy grows, according to the Zillow report and industry rule of thumb

.In Dallas-Fort Worth, 1.8 jobs have been added for every new housing unit, indicating that the area is building enough new housing to keep pace with demand, according to Zillow, although many realtors, homebuilders, and would-be buyers argue that’s not the case, at least right now.

Many American communities would like to have this problem: more residents and more jobs. Growth is good. Yet, growth in one area that outpaces the ability for other areas to keep up could become a problem.

In this case, the issue is housing. A flood of new workers could lead to higher demand for housing, driving up prices and increasing competition. In the long run, this could be discouraging both to new workers as well as long-term residents who find themselves in a different housing market.

I could imagine other issues in the Dallas area and elsewhere where growth happens. Take schools. This often comes up in booming suburbs where new residences are plentiful. This puts a strain on local schools and construction has to take place rather quickly to avoid having a lot of students in temporary settings. But, at some point, population growth will slow down and then there might be too much education infrastructure and costs that are difficult for the community to sustain.

Another example could be traffic and congestion. Adding all these jobs and housing units means many more people have to travel between them. Can the current roads and mass transit (roads in the case of most American metropolitan areas) handle all of this? New lanes can be added but putting in additional roads or highways is expensive and time-consuming. And studies show that adding road capacity just leads to more driving and more traffic.

The Dallas area might be fine in the long-run with roughly 1.8 new jobs per new residence but it will take some time to catch up with and settle in to the growth.

Driving down, traffic deaths up in Illinois and across the US

Usually traffic deaths decrease when people drive less. This has not been the case in Illinois or the United States as a whole in the last year:

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About 1,166 people died in motor vehicle crashes in Illinois in 2020, a nearly 16% increase over 2019, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. That’s a provisional number, said IDOT spokesperson Guy Tridgell, since it takes the state agency 12-18 months to finalize annual data…

Speeding and traffic fatalities typically go down during recessions, according to an October study published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Illinois, for example, deaths dipped sharply in 2008 and 2009 according to state data, though they’ve been up slightly since…

About 28,190 people died in crashes from January to September 2020, more than a thousand more fatalities than in the same period in 2019, the federal agency estimated. A full annual report is expected to be released in the late fall…

What’s more, traffic deaths nationally were down from March to May, but jumped back up after states began reopening in June, according to the agency’s estimates.

This suggests safety is not solely a function of the number of miles driven or trips taken. How people drive and the conditions matter quite a bit. In this case, the article hints at multiple possible reasons for this jump. This includes speeding, more impaired drivers, and less seat belt use among those hurt.

I wonder if there are several other factors at play. With many public and private locations shut down, did driving become an even more important escape for some Americans? With limited places to go, driving and doing so dangerously could be a kind of release not available elsewhere.

Second, is there a safety feature to a certain level of traffic? With fewer people out, does this encourage riskier driving compared to having to navigate more vehicles on the road? Too many cars likely leads to more accidents but what about too few compared to typical conditions?

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.

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  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.