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How Traffic Growth Projections Become a Self-Fulfilling Prophesy

Transportation planners in Austin are in the beginning stages of a pattern just about every community in the U.S. is familiar with.

Image: Carfree Austin

The way to break the traffic projection prophecy is to avoid catering to it in the first place. Image: Carfree Austin

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) says traffic on a local highway — South MoPac — is going to grow a lot. And if Austin doesn’t spend $400 million building new managed lanes, they say, the result will be gridlock.

But Network blog Car-Free Austin says in the past, similar doomsday traffic projections haven’t come to pass. When Austin Public Works wanted to expand the Lamar Bridge in the 1990s, the justification was an impending 28 percent increase in traffic. But the project was rejected, and since then traffic on the bridges has actually declined 27 percent.

If the bridge had been widened, though, the traffic forecast might have been accurate, Car-Free Austin explains:

1.  If you build it, they will come.

Because of a well-established phenomenon known as induced demand, every new lane that gets built will fill up within 5-10 years and congestion will return to its bumper-to-bumper equilibrium.

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Today’s Headlines for Wednesday, November 25

  • Activists Arrested for Blocking Traffic During Laquan McDonald Shooting Protest (Tribune)
  • On 25th Anniversary of ADA, Disability Advocates Say Chicago Still Has Work to Do (Active Trans)
  • Both Uber & Lyft Are Now Allowed to Service Airports, McCormick Place (Tribune)
  • The Itinerant Urbanist Looks at CTA Bus Route Efficiency Issues
  • Blue Island Wins $1.6 Million Federal Grant for a New Bike/Ped Bridge (
  • Developer: Our Project Next to Winnetka Metra Station Needs Tons of Parking (Mass Transit)
  • Some Local Ride-Share Drivers Use James Bond-esque Cars (DNA)
  • Active Trans Seeks Part-Time Intern to Do Communications & Outreach Work

Get national headlines at Streetsblog USA

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El Morro, the Merrier — Join Us for a Party With Moxie on December 3

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El Morro Lounge in Humboldt Park. Image: Google Street View

Join us next Thursday for the second in our series of monthly meet-ups for Streetsblog readers. This one is a festive holiday gathering with our friends from Moxie, a meet-up group for LGBT urban planning and public policy professionals. Here’s the skinny:

Moxie and Streetsblog Chicago Holiday Party
Thursday, December 3, 6-8 p.m.
El Morro Lounge
4247 West Armitage
$10 suggested donation

El Morro is a cozy, LGBT-friendly pub in the heart of Humboldt Park. Naturally, people of all orientations are encouraged to attend this party in support of smart urban planning, as long as you’re not hopelessly auto-erotic.

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Photo: El Morro

The $10 suggested donation will be split between Moxie and Streetsblog. Our share will go towards our effort to raise $80,000 by next April in order to fund our next year of hard-hitting livable streets coverage. Food and beverages will be available for purchase.

We’ll also be holding a raffle featuring items from Armitage Avenue business, as well as great prizes donated by local bike stores and copies of former transportation commissioner Gabe Klein’s new book “Start-Up City.” Raffle tickets will be available for sale for $5 each or four for $15.

Joining us to promote commerce on the Armitage corridor will be 35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who will be making remarks at 7:15. If you live in the ward, this will be a great opportunity to share your thoughts about sustainable transportation with the alderman.

And, since car-centric streets are a drag, the party will conclude with a fun performance by two of El Moro’s talented female impersonators. Steven Vance and I will be hanging out at the bar after the party until at least 9 a.m.

We hope to see you at what promises to be a fabulous soiree. RSVPs are greatly appreciated. Thanks for helping us get a head start on funding next year’s Streetsblog Chicago coverage!



The ‘L’ Reduces Congestion on Highways More Than Widening Would

Blue Line on the Kennedy passing under Austin Ave. pedestrian overpass

A Blue Line train hits 55 mph on the way to O’Hare airport. Photo: Steven Vance

Yesterday, a road construction lobbying group tricked many local publications into promoting their highway expansion agenda.

In what’s become a common strategy for the road-building industry, the American Highway Users Alliance conducted a study called “Unclogging America’s Arteries 2015,” which reported that traffic congestion is really bad and, of course, adding more capacity for cars is the solution. Then they sent out a press release, counting on news outlets to spread the gospel. Since the report found that Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway has the worst bottleneck in the nation, The Tribune, Sun-Times, CBS, and WGN all took the bait and largely regurgitated the press release.

Time Out Chicago, in particular, accepted AHUA’s narrative hook, line, and sinker. Time Out went so far as to blame the CTA Blue Line, which runs down the median of the expressway, for standing in the way of fixing the traffic jam problem:

One immovable feature will force the road to be a bottleneck for the foreseeable future: the Blue Line. It prevents the Kennedy from expanding (the same applies for the Eisenhower Expressway on the West Side), which is a painful result of short-sighted 20th Century urban planning.

Time Out has it backwards. The real myopic urban planning was the decision to bulldoze hundreds of revenue-producing properties, displacing countless residents and businesses, to build the highway. Far from being foolish, the late-Sixties decision by planners and politicians to include a 55 mph rapid transit line in the median of the Kennedy was a savvy use of resources, since it was much cheaper than building a separate subway.

Granted, rapid transit is most useful when stops are located in the center of dense, walkable retail districts, and the middle of a highway isn’t the most pleasant place to wait for a train. But it’s fortunate that the powers that be chose to build new ‘L’ lines in the medians of the Kennedy, the Eisenhower, and the Dan Ryan, rather than not build them at all.

In the modern era, it’s short-sighted to think we can solve the traffic jam problem on urban highways by adding capacity, even though the road lobbyists would like us to believe otherwise. Time Out argued that the $420 million Jane Byrne Interchange expansion project and the $3.4 billion Elgin-O’Hare Expressway extension “will go a long way in reducing traffic on the North Side highway.”

On the contrary, highway expansion projects don’t reduce congestion in the long run. They provide temporary relief, but studies show that the extra capacity tends to encourage more car trips, a phenomenon known as induced demand, so the new lanes are soon filled with vehicles again.

The Blue Line deserves more far credit for fighting congestion than those costly road expansion projects because it provides commuters with an alternative to driving to and from downtown. That’s good for reducing traffic jams, good for the environment, and much healthier than a long, daily car commute.

Update 11/25/15 10:00 a.m.: After we pointed out the absurdity of the original Time Out post, they added the following text:

The Blue Line is a better option than a car for people traveling across the city. Chicago is one of three cities across the country where public transit to the airport is faster than driving. So if you can’t handle any more traffic on the Kennedy, consider trading in your car keys for a Ventra card.

Thanks to Streetsblog Chicago reader “objectathand” for alerting us.

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Norway or the Highway? Oslo’s Car-Free Plan Should Inspire Chicago


Madison Street, part of the Loop Link network, might be a good candidate to be a car-free street. Photo: John Greenfield

[This article also runs in Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

“I think we should look to countries like Denmark, and Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they’ve accomplished,” socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said recently. That statement surely gave the Republicans hives.

One area where U.S. cities like Chicago should definitely look to Scandinavia for inspiration is traffic management. Last month, the newly elected city council of Oslo, Norway, announced that it plans to make the central city free of private cars by 2019. It’s part of a plan to cut greenhouse emissions in half within five years, as compared to 1990 levels.

“We want to make it better for pedestrians and cyclists,” Lan Marie Nguyen Berg from the city’s Green Party told reporters. The party won the September 14 election along with its allies from the Labor and Socialist Left parties. “It will be better for shops and everyone.”

European cities like London and Madrid charge congestion fees to drivers entering their downtowns, and others have car-free days in their city centers, like Paris did last September. But Oslo’s plan is said to be the first total and permanent ban of private cars in the center of a European capital. Streetcars and buses will continue to provide downtown access, and accommodations will be made for deliveries and people with disabilities, the three parties said in a statement.

The politicians hope to reduce overall car traffic in Oslo by twenty percent by 2019, when the next election will be held, and thirty percent by 2030. “In 2030, there will still be people driving cars but they must be zero-emissions,” Nguyen Berg said.

The initiative involves a “massive boost” in transit funding, subsidies for the purchase of electric bicycles, and the construction of at least thirty-seven miles of new bike lanes by 2019. In comparison, Chicago has installed 103 miles of bike lanes over the last four years. But since Oslo has less than a quarter of our population, their goal is the equivalent of the Windy City installing 154 miles of lanes.

While I’m not suggesting that Chicagoans will be swapping Italian beef for lutefisk any time soon, we would do well to consider a similar strategy for reducing congestion and pollution. I’m not proposing that private automobiles be immediately banned from all streets in the entire central business district, or even the Loop proper. But, along with Streetsblog Chicago’s Steven Vance, I’ve brainstormed a few ideas about how car-free and car-lite roadways could make downtown travel safer, more efficient and more pleasant.

Read more…

Streetsblog USA
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Austin’s Emerging Bipartisan Coalition for Walkable Housing

Kathleen Hunker from the conservative think thank Texas Public Policy Foundation supported the "granny flats" legislation, as did some of the most liberal members of Austin's City Council. Photo via Austin on Your Feet

“Granny flats” legislation sponsored by liberal Council Member Greg Casar was also endorsed by Kathleen Hunker (above) from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. Photo via Austin on Your Feet

Last week, the Austin City Council voted to allow “granny flats” — small accessory dwellings — in some areas zoned for single-family housing, and to reduce parking requirements along transit corridors. These types of reforms make housing more affordable and make neighborhoods more walkable and transit-friendly.

Dan Keshet at Austin on Your Feet said the vote highlights new political dynamics in the city. For one, it didn’t break down along party lines:

The granny flat resolution was introduced by Greg Casar, whose main claim to fame before City Council was as a labor rights activist. It was supported by the Republicans on City Council: Zimmerman and Troxclair, as well as Sheri Gallo (who has previously run as a Republican) [edit: I previously listed CM Gallo as a Republican, but now I’m not so sure] and three other Democrats: Adler, Rentería, and Garza. The four democrats who supported are definitely not “conservative” democrats in any meaningful sense. To understand land use politics, it’s best to set aside party labels.

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Today’s Headlines for Tuesday, November 24

  • City Announces Lyft May Service Airports, McCormick Place; No Word on Uber Yet (Sun-Times)
  • Carter: Springfield Paying Its Normal Share of CTA Funding Wouldn’t Be a “Bailout” (Tribune)
  • 2 “Traffic Experts” Say Chicago’s Speed Cam Program Is Bogus, a “Supporter” Says It Isn’t (Tribune)
  • Pawar Thanks the Dozens of People Who Successfully Advocated for Restored #31 & #11 Bus Service
  • 47th Ward Residents Can Conduct Block Audits to Support Requests for Menu Funds (DNA)
  • SUV Driver Who Crashed Into Ambulance in Streamwood Has Died (Tribune)
  • Lawsuit Alleges Officer Ran Red Without Using Lights or Sirens, Causing Fatal Crash (Tribune)
  • How Many Fares Does It Take for Local Buses to Break Even? (WBEZ)
  • Even During the Ribbon Cutting for the Clybourn PBLs, People Were Parking in Them (DNA)
  • The U. of C. Maroon Digs Into Hyde Park Divvy Data
  • What to Do About Shoveling Scofflaws (Active Trans)
  • Good News for XC Skiers: Only a Portion of The 606 Will be Plowed This Winter (DNA)

Get national headlines at Streetsblog USA


Could Longer Rental Times Help Divvy Appeal to More Chicagoans?


Vienna’s CityBike Wien system givers users twice as much rental time as Divvy. Photo: Michael Podgers

Illinois Bicycle Lawyers - Mike Keating logo

While visiting Vienna, Austria, I gave their CityBike Wien bike-share system a spin and found it has a couple of advantages over Chicago’s Divvy system. CityBike Wien is dirt cheap, with a one-time registration fee of only one euro, about a dollar, compared to $9.95 for a Divvy day pass. And the first hour of every ride on CityBike Wien is free, while Divvy users start racking up late fees after the first 30 minutes. That means you can practically ride across the entire city of Vienna without having to re-dock your bike.

My experience with CityBike Wien made me think about what Divvy could do to improve user experience and encourage more ridership. Offering a longer period before late fees kick in might make the system more convenient to use, and there are several other possibilities for making the system more user-friendly.

Bike-share is generally designed for short trips and errands, especially “last-mile trips” between transit stations and other destinations. When Divvy bikes are used this way, 30 minutes is plenty of time. Moreover, customers can take longer rides without accruing late fees by “dock surfing,” briefly checking in the bike at a station every half hour. If you have a membership key, this usually adds only a dozen seconds or so to your trip time.

On the other hand, there are other systems besides Vienna’s that offer a longer free rental period than Divvy. For example, New York’s Citi Bike and Paris’ Vélib’ allow annual members to use bikes for 45 minutes without late fees, although day pass holders can only use them for 30 minutes without extra fees.

So would it make sense to extend the Divvy rental period? Michelle Stenzel, co-leader of the grassroots group Bike Walk Lincoln Park, isn’t convinced that’s necessary.

“Although I don’t want to diminish the needs of users who truly want to ride a Divvy for 45 minutes…I have to ask whether those people have actually tried riding a Divvy for that long,” Stenzel said. “Those bikes are heavy!” She added that she avoids using Divvy for more than 20-25 minutes at a time, but that’s plenty of time for the kind of trips the system is intended for.

However, as the Divvy coverage area grows, customer may wish to take longer rides. This year the network expanded to 476 stations, covering 476 stations and 33 of Chicago’s 50 wards, making it the largest system in North America based on the number of stations and the geographic area served. Next year, Divvy is adding 70 new stations in Chicago, Evanston and Oak Park next year, so the the coverage area will grow significantly.

But Jim Merrell, a campaign director at the Active Transportation Alliance doesn’t think the larger service area will lead to a demand for a longer rental period. “Divvy’s great for the shorter trips, but I have a hard time seeing people using Divvy [for longer trips],” he said. He added that Divvy seems to be most useful for rides within neighborhoods, or when combined with transit. Still, longer rental times could make using Divvy a more relaxing experience by reducing the need to watch the clock and dock surf.

Read more…

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Planning for Less Driving, Not More, Would Lead to Big Savings


Chart: MassPIRG

What if, instead of basing policy around the presumption that people will drive more every year, transportation agencies started making decisions to reduce the volume of driving? And what if they succeed?

A new report from the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group quantifies what would happen in that state if driving rates come in one percentage point lower than the state DOT’s current annual projections. For instance, in a year that the DOT forecasts 0.49 percent growth in driving, MassPIRG hypothesizes a 0.51 percent decrease. MassPIRG estimates that the statewide effect from now until 2030 would add up to about $20 billion in savings and 23 million metric tons of carbon emissions avoided.

The effects grow as the decline compounds over time. In the first year, a one percentage point change in driving rates would save about $167 million in avoided costs of gas, road repairs, and traffic collisions. By 2030, the annual savings would rise to $2.3 billion per year.

Broken down by category, the state would save about $1.9 billion on road repairs over the 15-year period. Drivers would net $3.8 billion in savings on car repairs and another $7.7 billion on gas purchases. And auto collisions would cost $6.7 billion less to society, as people avoid medical expenses, property damage, and lost wages.

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TIGER Restored, Transit Expansion Funds Cut in 2016 Spending Bill

As the House and the Senate get to work on hashing out a multi-year transportation bill in conference committee, Congress is also putting together its annual spending package for transportation. The annual bill decides the fate of several discretionary programs, and earlier this year it looked like US DOT’s TIGER grants, which tend to fund multi-modal projects at the regional or local level, might not survive.

TIGER funding provided $10.5 million to build a network of biking and walking facilities in Lee County, Florida, one of the most dangerous areas for walking and biking. Image: Lee County MPO via Bike Walk Lee

TIGER funding provided $10.5 million to build a network of biking and walking routes in Lee County, Florida. Image: Lee County MPO via Bike Walk Lee

Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America says the final bill keeps TIGER but still represents a step backward for transit:

Good news: the new bill proposes no changes to what kinds of projects can apply for TIGER funding, and increases funding for the program by $100 million this year.

The Senate’s initial bill introduced this summer provided $500 million for TIGER — the same amount as the just-ended fiscal year — and the House version of this bill provided far less at $100 million. It’s encouraging to see the Senate appropriators increase funding for this important program in the newest draft proposal, and that there are no changes to what kinds of projects can apply. This is a hopeful sign that for future House-Senate negotiations on the final transportation spending bill for 2016.

The funding for building new transit service — New Starts, Small Starts and Core Capacity — was increased by more than $300 million from this summer’s Senate THUD bill up to $1.9 billion, just $24 million less than the proposed House levels of $1.92 billion. That sounds like good news, but it’s still represents a $200 million cut from last year for this program.

Amtrak funding was unchanged: $289 million for operating and $1.1B for capital projects, which is slightly more ($39 million) than this year.

Elsewhere on the Streetsblog Network today: Jarrett Walker at Human Transit says transit doesn’t have to be designed to serve a single “downtown” focal point — in fact there are major benefits to having multiple clusters of destinations. Also at Human Transit, a guest author asks whether autonomous cars will lead to a big boost in vehicle miles traveled. And BTA Blog writes that a group of victims’ families is speaking up for safer streets in Oregon.