Addressing more Chicago traffic when fewer people take mass transit

With COVID-19, few may be willing to ride mass transit even as everyday life slowly returns to some normalcy. This has consequences for traffic:

man standing beside train

Photo by Trace Hudson on Pexels.com

World Business Chicago, a public-private nonprofit agency that promotes the city, estimates that on a given workday there about 406,000 office workers in downtown Chicago, making it the country’s second-biggest central business district after Manhattan.

Many of those people arrive by trains and buses, with the CTA and Metra providing almost 1.9 million rides combined on an average, pre-coronavirus weekday. That includes 1.6 million total one-way CTA rides and 263,000 Metra trips…

Riders’ hesitation may come in part from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation in May that people drive to work alone. That guidance rankled public transportation advocates and created concerns of major traffic and environmental impacts in densely populated cities…

“We’re hearing stories from New York and (Washington) D.C. about employers saying if you’ve taken public transportation you can’t come in the building,” Lavin said. “We want to be sure there’s nothing against public transportation here. In order to do that, we need to have a dialogue.”

Chicago has heavy traffic even with mass transit use because it is a transportation center with plenty of highways and intermodal facilities.

As noted in an earlier blog post, this does present an opportunity to reduce traffic long-term or make a choice to continue to rely on a sprawling landscape full of drivers in their own private vehicles. There are multiple options to pursue:

1. More people working from home. This would reduce traffic on major roads.

2. Stagger work times more so that “rush hour” is more spread out.

3. Find ways to make sure mass transit is safe and/or people feel confident riding it. This might require more resources or better PR or new ideas.

4. Pushing for more people to be able to work closer to their workplaces (meaning more housing options throughout a metropolitan region).

5. Pushing for denser areas in the city or suburbs. (This might be a hard sell right at the moment due to concerns about COVID-19.)

6. Providing more incentives for fleets of vehicles (electric or otherwise) so that not every household has so many cars.

Any one of these or several of them could be pursued at multiple levels with actions from individuals, local groups and municipalities, states, regions, and the federal government.

Returning to a traffic-filled world – or moving to reduce traffic in the future

With activity picking back up, traffic and driving is trending up. Will people go back to accepting the typical commute at just over 27 minutes one way? Or, will people get behind options that might reduce traffic?

Here are a few alternatives:

  1. More working from home would reduce traffic. This seems popular and limits the need for commuting. (Bonus: no one is changing roadways like some of the below options.)
  2. Closing streets to allow more space in cities could extend further. Indeed, cities have already tried this in small doses before COVID-19.
  3. Road diets try to limit the lanes available to drivers. Fewer lanes means more congestion which could discourage driving.
  4. Continuing to close major highways in urban areas (like Seoul and Seattle) and instead devoting the land to pedestrians, bicyclists, and local users.
  5. Promoting more mass transit options and/or coverage throughout regions.
  6. Providing more opportunities for pedestrians and bicyclists – or at least trying to keep them safe.
  7. Providing more housing close to jobs so that commutes do not have to be so long.

Americans like driving yet COVID-19 does provide an opportunity to rethink how much driving Americans do on a daily basis. Is this the system people want or is it more of what happened given American interests in suburbs and single-family homes?

When a billboard with a basketball player slowed down Chicago traffic

Along one of the most congested stretches of highway in the United States, a mural of NBA player Dennis Rodman led to even more traffic in early 1996:

In March 1996, men’s clothier Bigsby & Kruthers painted an image of Rodman on the side of a building just off the Kennedy Expressway. The 32-foot-high mural stared eastbound traffic in the eye, causing gapers delays in both directions that snarled traffic as badly as road construction.

An operations manager for a traffic-data company said the larger-than-life image added 20 to 30 minutes to morning commutes on the Kennedy and the Edens Expressway. And that was before Rodman’s hair was even on it.

“The 75-foot-wide advertisement included a color image of Michael Jordan looking down on traffic,” a March 26, 1996, Tribune story read. “But it’s the oversize Rodman who has taken the rush out of rush hour. His power glower is punctuated with three earrings and a nose ring; his arms are crossed, and his natty suit has the sleeves ripped out to reveal his collection of tattoos. He is even leaning forward, as if he just might want to butt heads.”

Standing just before the North Avenue exit, the painting was wider and taller than billboard laws normally would have allowed. But because the building was being used as a Bigsby & Kruthers warehouse, the advertising was not limited in size.

While most of the mural was black and white, the hair was in color — and changed as Rodman’s dye did, only adding to the traffic headaches.

Alas, the mural didn’t last. Bigsby & Kruthers covered it up a little more than two weeks after it first appeared in response to the concern of traffic officials.

A few quick thoughts:

  1. Cities have regular spots that come up on traffic reports and the Kennedy is typically on the list in Chicago (“from O’Hare to downtown”). These spots can be on the list for a variety of reasons: a chokepoint for traffic, an odd curve or different road design (such as narrowing of lanes), and/or regular accidents. Billboards probably are not common contributors to this.
  2. At the same time, certain billboards or advertisements can be become part of the urban highway experience. As commuters travel regular routes, they get used to seeing particular signs. New signs can also garner attention if they are a significant change or unusual. The other sports one that comes to mind from the Chicago region involved a series of Brian Urlacher balding treatment billboards along I-294 that popped up several years ago. I’m not sure if it caused any delays but it certainly caught people’s eyes as one of the city’s most recognizable recent sports stars suddenly had hair.
  3. The particular Rodman billboard came as part of a perfect storm. Take a regularly congested stretch of highway plus an incredible basketball team that set the record that year for most wins in a season plus a truly unique player on the billboard (and not one who fit the typical Chicago image). The billboard did not last long but it left a mark.

Less traffic, faster driving

Reports suggest more drivers are going fast on emptier roads:

Despite there being far fewer vehicles on the road due to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, state highway safety officials across the country are seeing a severe spike in speeding. Many states have reported alarming speed increases, with some noting a significant surge in vehicles clocked at 100 mph or more.

Being a safe driver should always be a priority, but during the coronavirus pandemic, traffic safety experts at the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) say it is more important than ever. “While COVID-19 is clearly our national priority, our traffic safety laws cannot be ignored,” said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins. “Law enforcement officials have the same mission as health care providers — to save lives. If you must drive, buckle up, follow the posted speed limit and look out for pedestrians and bicyclists. Emergency rooms in many areas of the country are at capacity, and the last thing they need is additional strain from traffic crash victims.”

During the past month, pedestrian and bicycle traffic are reported to have increased exponentially, while motor vehicle traffic is down. Adkins noted that GHSA is encouraged to see so many communities across the country making roadways more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists. To keep roads safe for everyone, traffic safety officials nationwide are pleading with motorists to slow down and respect traffic safety laws…

A 2019 report on speeding by GHSA, “Speeding Away from Zero: Rethinking a Forgotten Traffic Safety Challenge,” highlights excessive vehicle speed as a persistent factor in nearly one-third of all motor vehicle-related fatalities, while a 2020 GHSA report on pedestrian fatalities, published in February, finds that pedestrians now account for 17% of all traffic-related fatalities.

In many metropolitan regions, traffic is pretty constant throughout the day. COVID-19 has reduced the number of daily work trips plus some of the other reasons for cars and trucks on the road.

With more open road, perhaps it is “natural” for drivers to feel they can go faster. I am reminded of the argument by New Urbanists that narrower roads lined with parked cars and trees close to the street push drivers to slow down. The illusion is that with fewer potential obstacles on the road, a driver can be safe even while going faster. Of course, going faster reduces the time drivers have to correct and avoid things in their path.

It would be interesting to note how much local police forces are responding to speeders now. Is it worth stopping them if there is a risk of transmitting COVID-19? Are police resources needed more elsewhere? At this point, what other options do officials have in reducing speeds on less crowded roads?

A way to fight app directed through traffic: cul-de-sacs

The suburbs are full of of cul-de-sacs. Homeowners might prefer them because of the quiet and the space that they allow for kids and vehicles. They can help developers and builders fit more houses into spaces.

At the same time, cul-de-sacs may be the bane of New Urbanism as neighborhoods with many of them do not have a consistent street grid and they are primarily lined by private single-family homes. One video promoting New Urbanism put it this way: The greatest threat to our planet is…

CuldeSacsfromBuilttoLast

Yet, cul-de-sacs do provide one additional advantage in today’s world. They can limit the effectiveness of Waze and other traffic or mapping apps: cars and traffic cannot cut through cul-de-sacs. I saw this argument recently in a 2001 newspaper article where a suburban leader said they had restricted commercial development to main roads and highways and the high percentage cul-de-sacs and loops among the residential roads kept neighborhoods quiet. With more cul-de-sacs, more traffic is routed to arterial roads, streets that can usually accommodate more volume. Cul-de-sacs help make residential neighborhoods harder to navigate; I can think of several residential neighborhoods in my area that make it very difficult to find your way through if you are not familiar with it because of the winding roads and dead ends.

New Urbanists would argue that this is not ideal: more cars on arterial roads is going to lead to more congestion (as opposed to a grid system that provides drivers lots of options), arterial roads may be less friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists, and we should be working to reduce driving anyhow rather than planning communities around cul-de-sacs that depend on cars.

Speed bumps, roadside speed monitors, and other devices might not be enough to stop through traffic in residential neighborhoods. Permanent cul-de-sacs could do the trick – but at a cost to the overall fabric of the neighborhood and community.

Calculating the costs of commuting versus benefits of living further from work

INRIX recently published data on traffic and congestion in major American cities with Boston leading the way. Here is one of the data tables:

INRIXcongestion2020

When put in these terms, it looks like commuters lose a lot of hours and money by sitting in traffic. In addition to the time it should take to commute by car, drivers in Boston lose over 6 days to congestion and over $2,000 dollars. The cost for the city/region is huge when all the drivers are added together. In New York City, $11 billion lost!

On the other hand, people keep commuting. Why would they do this in light of these costs? The pull of the suburbs and locations away from their work is strong. Perhaps workers should be able to live near their work but a good number choose or are pushed to locations far from their jobs. And they might be willing to put up with these costs because the places where they live offer other good things (and measurable benefits). In American life, suburbs offer single-family homes, places for family life, and more. Losing 100+ hours in traffic each year in the biggest cities could be tolerable if it comes with a bigger, cheaper home in a well-regarded community.

In an ideal world, workplaces and communities that people want to live in and would thrive in would be located near each other. Sometimes they are but often they are not. In a country where Americans and their government have prioritized certain things – driving over mass transit throughout metropolitan regions, for example – even the hassles of commuting make some sense.

More major American cities closing major roads to cars

San Francisco recently moved to restrict vehicles on Market Street, following actions and plans in other major cities:

A few weeks ago, there was a dramatic shift when San Francisco banned private cars on the busiest section of Market Street. Suddenly most automobiles were gone — Ubers, Lyfts, and tourists in rental cars banished. Historic streetcars and electric trolley buses glided along. Cyclists and electric scooter-riding commuters celebrated their new freedom…

Alarmed by rising traffic deaths and painful gridlock on downtown streets, New York City, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Toronto and other cities have instituted restrictions — forcing vehicles to share fewer lanes, ending curbside parking during rush hour or banning virtually all cars from signature boulevards in favor of mass transit.

Los Angeles is considering its own bold step: dramatically reducing the number of lanes for traffic along Hollywood Boulevard…

City officials nationwide talk of “Vision Zero,” a goal of eliminating all traffic deaths, and “complete streets,” which value safety not only for cars but pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders.

This is a small shift away from prioritizing vehicular traffic over other uses for streets, including pedestrians, bicyclists, mass transit, and street life. Closing major streets to vehicles, even for just part of the day, signals that cars and trucks should not necessarily have priority.

Yet, even with these changes, significant challenges are still ahead:

1. Such closures can help make these streets more attractive to other users. However, does it deal with the issue of driving more broadly? Making moves such as this without adding mass transit options throughout the region or discouraging driving in other ways may not do much beyond make particular streets better off. Hopefully, these road closures are part of comprehensive plans to address driving and congestion in the big picture.

2. Once there are fewer cars, how can the city return the roadways and sidewalks to a more pedestrian and social scale? Take Market Street. It is a wide roadway. It is lined with tall buildings. Retailers have struggled to stay in business. Simply reducing traffic does not necessarily turn it into a lively streetscape.

3. It is worth watching how these closures affect traffic elsewhere. Generally, going on road diets should help reduce car usage. If people cannot drive down Market, will they clog up other roads or switch to other forms of transit? San Francisco and the other major cities cited above are all known for traffic and congestion; what if more traffic moves to residential areas? While they are not an organized force, the thousands of drivers each day in major cities can make their voices heard in various ways (and know ride-sharing companies can represent some of that population).

Using helicopters to avoid driving in traffic

Highways and major roads in and around big cities can be full of traffic. For those with resources, traveling by helicopter can be much quicker:

But the use of commuter helicopters in the greater Los Angeles area is probably second only to New York City, said Kurt Deetz, who ferried Bryant from 2014 to 2016 as a former pilot for the charter service Island Express Holding Corp.

The customer base skews rich, famous and traffic-averse. In 1997, for instance, Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs got permission from officials in Richmond, Calif., to build a heliport that was only a short drive from his office at Pixar Animation Studios.

“It’s about time and money,” Deetz said. “If you were to go from Orange County to Los Angeles on a Friday at 4 p.m., how long would that take you? It’s convenience.”…

The choppers are used by “everyone from celebrities to actors to investment guys and simply people with a lot of money,” Deetz said. “It’s not a poor man’s way of transportation.”

Perhaps this information would fit into a class-based system of daily transportation in the United States (in broad strokes): poor and working-class with more reliance on mass transit where available, people of most classes looking to drive themselves if they have the resources, and then the wealthy seeking alternatives (ranging from having drivers or using helicopters and planes). Driving regularly signals a level of independence and status that many Americans want – unless they have so much money that they can get around everyone else who wants to drive.

The article mentions expanding opportunities for helicopter transport in Los Angeles as well as the possibility of flying cars or vehicles that can vertically land and take off. Would there be a point where there are so many trips by those vehicles that the advantage of going by air is decreased?

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)?