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 And in 2012, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its approval of the right of way.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.

What routes would Waze recommend that drivers would turn down?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a 32% grade Los Angeles street to which Waze routes drivers:

But residents along Baxter Street in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood—reportedly one of the steepest streets in America (comprising two major hills)—are now banding together to try to change local traffic patterns. Neighbors have contacted city officials and Waze’s parent company, Google, to try to mitigate the problem…

The street, which dates back to 1872, has a 32-percent grade—more than double what current city law allows for today.

In 2003, the Times described the street this way: “Unsuspecting motorists gasp when they reach the crest and discover the roadway in front of them has dropped out of sight and there is nothing but empty space in front of their car’s hood.”

A decade later, Los Angeles magazine noted:

Baxter later became a proving ground for automobiles, as manufacturers staged elaborate stunts to demonstrate their vehicles’ power. In one such event in 1916, a four-wheel-drive truck loaded with 4,300 pounds of baled hay groaned its way up the grade, pausing twice for newspaper cameras. Nearly 100 years later, Baxter Street continues to bewilder uncertain drivers and confound elongated vehicles.

The appeal of apps like Waze is that drivers can avoid traffic by taking lesser-known routes. While residents may not like this, the more interesting question is how far drivers would let Waze take them. The apocryphal stories of drivers turning into lakes may make more sense when the story begins with a driver frustrated with the ridiculous or unpredictable traffic in many major American metropolitan areas. Would they drive through standing water? (The regular stories of drivers getting stuck on flooded roads suggest yes.) Would they be willing to go off pavement? Would they navigate through extremely tight places? Take a road with a severe and unblocked drop-off? Are there as willing to go through higher-crime areas? Apparently, a 32% grade is not enough so perhaps 40% would be too much?

I know this would not help Waze’s cause but I could imagine the company issuing some sort of award or recognition to users who are most willing to do something unusual to get around traffic.

Forget smart cars; we should at least have smart traffic lights everywhere

Getting to the point where most or all American drivers have safe and reliable driverless cars will take time. In the meantime, why don’t we have smart traffic lights or at least every traffic light operating with sensors?

There are several intersections near my house and work that clearly do not have sensors. You pull up in your vehicle and regardless of time of day or how many others want to go the same way as you do, you will wait a full light cycle. Some of these lights are one to one and a half minutes long. Sometimes this makes sense: one road clearly has more cars. Yet, often this full period passes with few to no cars going through the light.

But, let’s go further. I’ve also run into situations where the sensors might just be too sensitive. This occurs particularly between 9 PM and 5 AM when traffic is light on major roads. A single vehicle wanting to turn onto the major road can stop traffic. If you have a few of these on a single trip, this can be frustrating. Why not have coordinated light signals along major corridors? Cities and suburbs do not necessarily have to go to full-blown smart systems that hope to coordinate all traffic; even just doing this on a few main roads with significant amounts of traffic could help ease congestion.

Perhaps one issue is cost: what municipalities or other governments (depending on who has jurisdiction over the road) want to spend money on sensors and devices? One of the supposed benefits of driverless cars is that they will allow for more flowing traffic through coordination across vehicles. However, in that scenario the cost of less congestion is pushed to the car owners who have to purchase such a vehicle. Sensors at major intersections or at all intersections would not require anything or much from drivers. Yet, I bet you could make an argument that putting money into better intersections will be a cost savings in the long run with less time spent in traffic.

How can a city reduce driving by 45%? Sustained effort over decades

Paris has significantly reduced traffic since 1990 but this was not an easy or quick task. This article suggests sustained effort from the city’s mayors was critical:

  • Jacques Chirac, Paris’ famously conservative (and public fund-embezzling) mayor from 1977 to 1995, helped encourage pedestrianism by increasing the number of bollards to prevent illegal sidewalk parking, Héran writes. Chirac also rehabilitated the Champs-Elysees into a true public promenade, with widened sidewalks, street parking eliminations, and refreshed green spaces.
  • Chirac’s chosen successor, Jean Tibéri, came under fire for not cracking down hard enough on Paris’ air quality problems (and was accused of election fraud!), but he does get credit for banning cars in the Place de la Concorde. In an effort to reduce traffic, he also introduced the city’s first bike plan in 1996, which established paths along the city’s main arteries and lower-speed neighborhood zones, Héran notes.
  • Elected Paris’ first openly gay mayor in 2001, the socialist Bertrand Delanoë “vowed that automobile interests would no longer dominate the city and he would focus on improving public spaces,” wrote Stephane Kirkland for the Project for Public Spaces in 2014. Delanoë made good on those promises during his 13-year tenure (while largely avoiding scandal): A number of streets were reconfigured to accommodate dedicated bus lanes. Some 400 miles of bicycle lanes were created. The banks of the Seine began to close to traffic in the summertime to make way for public “beaches.”And in 2007, the city introduced its bikeshare program, Vélib, now arguably the largest and most used such system in the West.
  • Delanoë’s protégé and current Mayor Anne Hidalgo is an outspoken environmentalist responsible for “some of the most systematically anti-car policies of any major world city,” CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan wrote last year. Hidalgo has implemented a ban on older cars on roads during weekdays, and has pedestrianized the lower quays of the Seine. “Car space is being slashed in many major squares, while car-free days have been introduced annually as a form of publicity campaign for a future without automobiles,” O’Sullivan wrote. (Furthermore, recent trip data from city hall do not support the claim by some motorists that Mayor Hidalgo’s car-free policies have made congestion worse. There’s been a sharp decline in the kilometers-traveled within the city, but only a small dip in kilometers-per-hour.)
  • Paris’ commitment to public transport far surpasses that of any city in the U.S., where it has been more than 30 decades since any new system opened. RATP, the public transport operator for the Île-de-France region, has increased its reach with new bus rapid-transit lines and a steadily growing suburban tram network whose first line opened in the early 1990s. New routes have been accompanied by sidewalk improvements, bike paths, and a variety of traffic calming measures. The lines are frequent and fast. Some are even driven autonomously.

Three quick thoughts regarding this brief history of Paris:

  1. Sustained effort across mayors and local government officials is not easy to do. This article covers 25+ years where different actors from different perspectives contributed to a desirable outcome. The amount of emphasis on reducing traffic probably differed quite a bit across administrations yet the small and big steps added up over time. Significant social change in large cities does not often happen quickly.
  2. The reasons for pursuing less car traffic are varied. Some might decry the environmental issues. Others might want more space for bicycling. More public space might motivate others. I wonder if any of these one reasons would have been enough to motivate these actions and push forward big changes. But, put together multiple reasons and people with different interests might be more likely to come together and promote fewer cars.
  3. How much easier is it to pursue such plans in a European city versus an American city? Additionally, this is Paris, a tourist hot-spot where people want to walk around and experience charming sights and neighborhoods. American cities may also desire less traffic – who wants to be delayed? – yet this is difficult to reconcile with American desires for individual transportation. At the same time, a chart in the article suggests London and Berlin are more like New York City in terms of driving.

Towns that restrict road access to app users only address the symptoms and not the bigger issue

The decision in a New Jersey suburb to fight back against drivers directed to their streets by apps raises all sorts of questions:

In mid-January, the borough’s police force will close 60 streets to all drivers aside from residents and people employed in the borough during the morning and afternoon rush periods, effectively taking most of the town out of circulation for the popular traffic apps — and for everyone else, for that matter…

But Leonia is not alone. From Medford, Mass. to Fremont, Calif., communities are grappling with the local gridlock caused by well-intentioned traffic apps like Waze, which was purchased by Google in 2013 for $1.15 billion.

Since Waze uses crowd sourcing to update its information, some people — frustrated at the influx of outside traffic — have taken to fabricating reports of traffic accidents in their communities to try to deter the app from sending motorists their way. One suburb of Tel Aviv has even sued Waze, which was developed by an Israeli company….

“It’s a slippery slope,” said Samuel I. Schwartz, the former traffic engineer for New York City known as Gridlock Sam, and the author of the early 1990s book “Shadow Traffic’s New York Shortcuts and Traffic Tips.” “Waze and other services are upsetting the apple cart in a lot of communities. But these are public streets, so where do you draw the line?”

See an earlier post about a Los Angeles neighborhood that raised similar objections.

I can see the reasoning by small communities: the roads are partly or mostly paid for through local tax dollars and thus they should primarily be reserved for the use of locals. These sorts of situations can become big deals in suburbs where residents are often resentful of ways that their local tax monies serve others.

At the same time, this hints at a larger issue: efforts like this by single communities could end up having deleterious effects on the region as a whole. What if every suburb or community employed such tactics? Traffic would only be worse. This then suggests a metropolitan approach is needed to tackle these congestion issues. This might be difficult to do considering how local residents like to hold onto their own monies but drivers across the region might be too mad at that point to care if there are no alternative routes. The best way to tackle this issue may be to lobby for more mass transit and decreased reliance on cars in the New Jersey suburbs.

Study suggests traffic would flow much faster if we kept the proper distance between cars

The science of traffic once again suggests we all could be driving faster if we followed a simple rule:

But a new study in IEEE Transactions on Intelligent Transportation Systems mathematically models the implications of the larger problem: You’re not keeping the right distance from the car behind you.

That may seem counterintuitive, since you don’t have much control over how far you are from the car behind you—especially when that person is a tailgater. But the math says that if everyone kept an equal distance between the cars ahead and behind, all spaced out in a more orderly fashion, traffic would move almost twice as quickly. Now sure, you’re probably not going to convince everyone on the road to do that. Still, the finding could be a simple yet powerful way to optimize semi-autonomous cars long before the fully self-driving car of tomorrow arrives.

Traffic is perhaps the world’s most infuriating example of what’s known as an emergent property. Meaning, lots of individual things forming together to create something more complex. Emergent properties are usually quite astounding. You’ve probably seen video of starlings forming a murmuration, a great shifting blob of thousands upon thousands of birds.

But it feels so much better to let that pokey driver ahead know you are there by following closely!

For an earlier blog post about how science could improve traffic, read about zipper merges and other individual actions drivers can take.