Longer freight trains in the United States

Astute observers at crossings for freight trains might have noticed this over the last decade: on average, freight trains have become longer.

Freight trains have grown in length by about 25% since 2008, with trains on some railroads averaging 1.2 to 1.4 miles in 2017, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office…

Seven major railroads operating in the U.S. are running longer than average trains on specific routes, although some indicated that’s just a small percentage of total traffic. “One railroad said it runs a 3-mile-long train twice week,” the GOA noted.

With the government asking drivers to report long waits at crossings, perhaps the length of trains could change or they might move faster:

The agency recently launched the website www.fra.dot.gov/blockedcrossings with the intent of capturing data on blocked crossings to help identify chronic situations where trains cause traffic jams and hamstring first-responders for long stretches of time…

But will knowledge equal power? The hope is communities that experience the worst train-generated gridlock could lobby for federal dollars to build grade separations or use the knowledge to pressure railroads to offer operational fixes.

This is just made for the Chicago region where numerous at-grade crossings and a railroad bottleneck can lead to frustration or safety concerns.

But, this data does not seem that surprising. There are now more people living in the United States and so why wouldn’t there be more stuff shipped around the country? Presumably, a longer train is more efficient than running more trains. As the recent radio ads from the pipeline industry suggest, would drivers and residents prefer more trucks on the road to ship items than freight trains?

The long-term solution would seem to be the slow work of converting high-traffic at-grade crossings to bridges or underpasses or at least making this an option in some communities so that a slow, long, or stopped train is not a huge impediment. These projects can be costly and disruptive to nearby properties, particularly if located in downtowns. Additionally, intermodal facilities can be located further out in populated regions so as to keep long trains away from more populated areas. (The intermodal facilities can lead to their own problems.)

Finally, if the government wanted to solve the problem, why rely on drivers to report the data? This seems more likely to collect information from (1) certain people (perhaps more technologically savvy, perhaps those who can organize a campaign) and (2) certain locations that are problems. Is this a case where the squeaky (car) wheels will win out and see change?

The widest highway in the world: 26 lanes in Houston

I recently ran into a discussion of the widest highways and a 2018 Houston Chronicle article claims the 26 lane stretch in Houston leads the world:

For what it’s worth, we can lay claim to the world’s widest freeway: The Katy Freeway at Beltway 8 is 26 lanes across.

Here’s how that breaks down: 12 main lanes (six in each direction), eight feeder lanes and six managed lanes. The managed lanes carry mass transit and high-occupancy vehicles during peak hours and are made available to single-occupancy vehicles for a toll fee during off-peak periods…

A few other contenders come close to the title but don’t quite make it, Voigt said, noting that the discussion had come up at the institute when the Katy widening project was completed in late 2008.

“Off the top of my head, the 401 in Toronto is 22 lanes at the widest and I think a part of the NJ (New Jersey) Turnpike is 18 lanes at one point,” Voigt’s email said.

That is a lot of lanes to maintain and I imagine the highway takes up quite a bit of space (and woe to those located right next to this stretch of road). Driving here must be an interesting experience, particularly if the driver is used to narrower highways.

Is it a surprise that this is in Texas, where everything is bigger and people like to drive, and in Houston, the quintessential sprawling and growing city with no zoning regulations?

It would be interesting to get a more in-depth history of this particular stretch of road. How many lanes did the highway initially have? Who approved the construction of so many lanes? Is there consensus that this was a positive move for traffic? How much money has been spent on this stretch (and that could have been spent on other transportation options)?

 

Limiting suburban through traffic by putting up gates during rush hour

Some neighborhoods and communities are fed up with people cutting through on their streets. A Denver suburb considers putting up gates:

The town of about 800 is now proposing gates at two main entrance/exit points, blocking access during the morning and evening rush…

“The traffic has become increasingly problematic both in volume and speeding. The Town does not have sidewalks and it is dangerous for residents to walk,” said Lisa Jones, mayor of the Town of Foxfield.

While two gate locations are recommended, there are still about a half dozen other entrances to Foxfield that would not be gated. The gates will be paid for by the Town of Foxfield.

I can imagine a driving landscape in a decade or so where only certain vehicles are allowed down certain streets. Imagine a large city banning Uber and/or Lyft during certain hours of the day. A wealthy suburb restricting access to delivery trucks in the early morning. Another community not wanting commuters to go through residential neighborhoods. A neighborhood not allowing certain size vehicles (like oversized pickup trucks).

All of these might help local residents feel better but they fail to help with the bigger problem: traffic is a regional issue. Communities should be working together on these issues, not walling themselves off. Creating more private space will only serve to make the problem worse for everyone.

I am not sure who exactly would have any sway in these matters. In the case above, it sounds like other communities could lodge objections and emergency services could require that the gates allow them access. Should state transportation agencies look into this? Can a legislature suggest restrictions cannot be put on public roads? Could a coalition of local and regional governments make a pact not to do this to each other? Perhaps this is not needed yet as few communities have gone too far down this road. But, it might come sooner than we think.

The expansion of warehouses in sprawling locations

While the example here is from Georgia, this describes a lot of development in the United States today:

An announcement this week says that the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company will anchor a new industrial park being developed on the property. The company will occupy 1.5 million square feet of warehouse space, in what the Atlanta Business Chronicle calls the “largest build-to-suit industrial space under construction in metro Atlanta.” Goodyear is expected to employ about 150 Georgians in the facility.

Individually, headlines like this represent wins. Jobs are created, and local tax bases are fortified. Warehouses, in particular, tend to bring in significantly more in property taxes than the businesses that occupy them demand in county services such as public safety. Their byproduct, however, is traffic. Specifically, truck traffic…

The middle stage of both manufacturing and distribution requires warehouses, and Georgia’s geographic position and our ports and airport logistics hubs make the warehousing industry a logical fit for the state. This extends from the Port of Savannah all the way down I-16, up I-75 into metro Atlanta, and all the way around the metro area and into North Georgia. It’s truly a statewide issue.

And much like the projected cascade of new residents, new warehouses are coming. There is a proposal to build out 1,400 acres with 18 million square feet of warehouse space in Butts county, about half way between Atlanta and Macon. Seven hundred acres adjacent to the Budweiser brewery in Cartersville, northwest of Atlanta, have also been sold to be developed as warehouse space.

To make a world of Amazons, Walmarts, and Walgreens possible, trucks are needed. Lots of trucks. The warehouses need to be in strategic locations near growing populations so that the time between warehouse and store or delivery is reduced. To make one or two day delivery possible or have real-time inventory, there need to be locations that have a lot of goods ready to go. Black Friday or the Christmas retail season cannot happen as easily without warehouses.

As noted above, warehouses provide jobs and property taxes. They are not often aesthetically pleasing as the primary goal is to store goods, not interact with the public. They often occupy key sites in and around intersections and highways. They contribute truck traffic. I would guess few people would want to live right next to one given the noise and lights involved.

All of this connects to sprawling development in the United States. American communities tend to be spread out as people seek out single-family homes of a certain size and with enough distance from communities they might find problematic. Decades of sprawl fueled by the American Dream, the federal government, and numerous other actors means that warehouses are a common part of the landscape. Outside any major metropolitan area, there are rows upon rows of warehouses.

For another example of how this all plays out, see the rise of intermodal facilities (and the negative effects these can have on communities).

Collectively addressing traffic rather than individual drivers looking for the best route for them

As Waze and other apps route drivers all over the place in order to find the shortest route, one writer argues we need to consider how traffic and congestion is a collective issue:

Road traffic is a great example: absent other incentives, I’m always going to choose the fastest route home that is available to me, even though taking a longer, more circuitous route would help spread out traffic and ease congestion for other drivers across my city. Traffic engineers have long assumed that the Nash equilibrium describes real-world rush hours pretty well.

In fact, mathematical studies and behavioral experiments dating back to the 1960s have shown that the collective delay is almost always worse in the Nash equilibrium, a.k.a. “user-optimized” driving scenario, compared to a world where drivers worked as a team for smoother traffic overall. Imagine a centralized transportation planner who assigned commuters their routes based on what was going to most benefit everybody. That god-like figure could impel some drivers to protract their journeys in order to improve the overall flow and decrease the cumulative time spent in traffic.

In this “system-optimized” equilibrium, our trips would be less harried on average: One widely cited 2001 paper by computer scientists at Cornell found that a network of “user-optimized” drivers can experience travel times equivalent to what a network of “system-optimized” drivers would experience with twice as many cars. Transport engineers call the difference between selfish and social equilibria the “price of anarchy.”

And the proposed solution:

Perhaps the best approach to the future of traffic starts with redefining the problem we’re trying to solve. For most of the 20th century, the principal concern of transportation economists was to reduce travel time across a given distance. But getting as many people as possible to and from work, school, and shopping—period—might be the more important task. If the goal is reframed as increasing access, rather than increasing speed, then the answer involves more than traffic apps and vehicle transponders. Land use patterns would have to be rethought so that people can live closer to the destinations they care about. People should be able to walk as much as they want to, and use bikes, scooters, buses, and trains. Autonomous vehicles, if they come, ought to be carefully folded into the mix with care so as not to double down on congestion and carbon emissions.

The solution hints that this is a much larger issue than apps and whether they should be held responsible by the public. The underlying issue may be this: are Americans generally willing to set aside their own personal priorities in favor of societal arrangements that can benefit more people on the whole?

Americans like to drive and it is baked into the American way of life. One of the reasons Americans like their own vehicles is that it offers independence and control. Rather than relying on a set schedule or having or riding with other people or supporting big systems, Americans like the idea that they can get into their vehicle at any time and go wherever they want. They may not actually do this much – hence, we get fairly predictable rush hours when everyone is trying to go places at the same time – but individual vehicles provide options in a way that mass transit does not.

Making the switch over to systems rather than individual options – including mass transit – requires submitting parts of life to a collective that cares less about individuals and more about the whole. This same debate is playing out in other arenas such as how healthcare should be organized or whether wealth inequality should be addressed. If the favored outcome is individual choice, it is hard to move people toward collective approaches. Even if thinking of traffic and transportation as a larger system means that more people might be stuck less in traffic, the individual participant may not gain that much or may lose the feel of control. Access for all is a hard sell when many like their individual choices (even as they bemoan congestion).

It might take decades or generations before a significant shift away from individual drivers might occur. Indeed, more than just apps can continue to promote individual approaches to driving: ride-sharing still is largely an individual act and the private nature of self-driving cars might just make the choice to drive even easier for some.

Connecting residential segregation, highways, mass transit, and congestion

Historian Kevin Kruse suggests the traffic congestion in today’s big cities is connected to segregation:

This intertwined history of infrastructure and racial inequality extended into the 1950s and 1960s with the creation of the Interstate highway system. The federal government shouldered nine-tenths of the cost of the new Interstate highways, but local officials often had a say in selecting the path. As in most American cities in the decades after the Second World War, the new highways in Atlanta — local expressways at first, then Interstates — were steered along routes that bulldozed “blighted” neighborhoods that housed its poorest residents, almost always racial minorities. This was a common practice not just in Southern cities like Jacksonville, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Richmond and Tampa, but in countless metropolises across the country, including Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Syracuse and Washington.

While Interstates were regularly used to destroy black neighborhoods, they were also used to keep black and white neighborhoods apart. Today, major roads and highways serve as stark dividing lines between black and white sections in cities like Buffalo, Hartford, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. In Atlanta, the intent to segregate was crystal clear. Interstate 20, the east-west corridor that connects with I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta’s center, was deliberately plotted along a winding route in the late 1950s to serve, in the words of Mayor Bill Hartsfield, as “the boundary between the white and Negro communities” on the west side of town. Black neighborhoods, he hoped, would be hemmed in on one side of the new expressway, while white neighborhoods on the other side of it would be protected. Racial residential patterns have long since changed, of course, but the awkward path of I-20 remains in place…

[S]uburbanites waged a sustained campaign against the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) from its inception. Residents of the nearly all-white Cobb County resoundingly rejected the system in a 1965 vote. In 1971, Gwinnett and Clayton Counties, which were then also overwhelmingly white, followed suit, voting down a proposal to join MARTA by nearly 4-1 margins, and keeping MARTA out became the default position of many local politicians. (Emmett Burton, a Cobb County commissioner, won praise for promising to “stock the Chattahoochee with piranha” if that were needed to keep MARTA away.) David Chesnut, the white chairman of MARTA, insisted in 1987 that suburban opposition to mass transit had been “90 percent a racial issue.” Because of that resistance, MARTA became a city-only service that did little to relieve commuter traffic. By the mid-1980s, white racists were joking that MARTA, with its heavily black ridership, stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”…

Earlier this year, Gwinnett County voted MARTA down for a third time. Proponents had hoped that changes in the county’s racial composition, which was becoming less white, might make a difference. But the March initiative still failed by an eight-point margin. Officials discovered that some nonwhite suburbanites shared the isolationist instincts of earlier white suburbanites. One white property manager in her late 50s told a reporter that she voted against mass transit because it was used by poorer residents and immigrants, whom she called “illegals.” “Why should we pay for it?” she asked. “Why subsidize people who can’t manage their money and save up a dime to buy a car?”

Translation: decisions about transportation were both a consequence of a national inclination toward racial and ethnic segregation and an ongoing contributor toward racial and ethnic segregation. In a country that is relatively sprawling and prefers cars, determining who has access to transportation and what kind of transportation is available can be part of who can get ahead.

While the root cause of all of this may be racial issues, it is interesting to consider this as a congestion issue. Would the public be convinced to change transportation infrastructure because they dislike sitting in traffic? The evidence from Atlanta as well as numerous other American cities (such as developing a regional transportation effort in the Chicago region) suggests this is not a strong argument. Wealthier residents are hesitant to ride buses, trains may be tolerable, but driving is still preferred even when so many hours per year are devoted to it. Suburban Americans like cars and they like the ability to exclude and I would argue the second is the master priority when push comes to shove.

Buying and demolishing expensive suburban homes to expand I-294

Acquiring property for right-of-ways for highways and other uses can get expensive. Here are a few examples of the Illinois Tollway purchasing homes in Elmhurst and Hinsdale:

A two-story, 3,145-square-foot house in Elmhurst that was built in 2005 and that the Illinois Tollway bought for $710,000 has a date with a wrecking ball later this year. It’s one of the more unusual aspects of the upcoming $4 billion widening of Interstate Highway 294…

The house due to be razed, at 505 E. Crescent Ave. in Elmhurst, abuts a noise wall that parallels a ramp linking Interstate Highway 290 to I-294. The Illinois Toll Highway Authority needs the house’s 0.3-acre parcel to provide room for an interchange ramp, said tollway spokesman Dan Rozek. It’s the only house in Elmhurst that the toll authority intends to acquire…

While the tollway’s plans call for just that one house acquisition in Elmhurst, the tollway intends to acquire and demolish some 11 homes farther south in Hinsdale for the project, many of which are on Harding Road and Mills Street. In a reflection of the relatively high cost of homes in Hinsdale, the tollway paid even more for two Hinsdale homes than it did for the Elmhurst acquisition, shelling out $870,000 for a house at 621 Harding Road and $825,000 for a home at 645 Harding Road.

However, most of those pending Hinsdale demolitions are of homes that are much older than the one in Elmhurst. Of the Hinsdale acquisitions, the house that was most recently built is a four-bedroom, 2,346-square-foot, neo-eclectic-style house at 417 Mills Street, which was built in 1996. The tollway acquired that house in December for $700,000.

Suburban areas have lots of homes adjacent to highways and relatively few meet this fate. And such homes can be worth quite a bit even with all that noise if located in the right community and with the right features (such as plenty of square footage and a recent build).

This is a reminder that perhaps the best lesson to take from all of this is for leaders and planners to do these sorts of things earlier rather than later to save money. If the plan is always to add lanes – which probably just encourages traffic rather than relieving congestion – then do it earlier. These more recent homes might never have been built and communities could plan earlier for such major changes to residential areas.