Chicago Traffic Is Congested. So What Should We Do About It?

I love the way traffic in Chicago works/doesn't work sometimes
Traffic backs up at North and Ashland, where people are trying to drive onto the Kennedy Expressway at the North Avenue on-ramp.

Chicagoland has a lot of traffic congestion, according to this year’s Urban Mobility Report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute [PDF], yet we continue to build more roads while transit service and walking and biking facilities don’t seem to increase as fast. Meanwhile, gas taxes and other fees on drivers fail to pay for all the roadbuilding, meaning we’re subsidizing a very ineffective, inefficient system. A local campaign to implement congestion pricing holds the promise of easing congestion, reducing road subsides, and increasing investment in transit, biking, and walking — but only if Chicago gets it right.

TTI released its annual Urban Mobility Report earlier this week, and lo and behold, Chicago is once again on the list of the country’s most congested cities, along with New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. This isn’t exactly news. The report, which is based on a flawed methodology and often used to justify highway expansions, says the same thing every year: Congestion exerts a huge toll on our economy — $121 billion in 2011. While the report has its flaws, maybe that dollar figure can be an impetus to reduce traffic on our streets. (Here’s another one, which can’t be so easily misconstrued to support wider roads: Traffic crashes cost our country $300 billion a year.)

A bunch of people on bikes about to turn left
Increasing cycling rates will be harder as long as driving is so heavily subsidized.

The report authors make the standard recommendation to build more stuff, saying, “Projects that provide more road lanes and more public transportation service are part of the congestion solution package in most growing urban regions.” But we know that building more roads doesn’t reduce congestion. In fact, as former NJ DOT executive Gary Toth wrote on Streetsblog Capitol Hill yesterday, the TTI report is great proof that decades of highway building haven’t solved the problem.

TTI’s Chicago-specific report [PDF] shows that road capacity in the region continues to grow, as does the number of trips we make by car and by transit; the population is also slightly increasing. The authors don’t expect biking and walking to grow any faster. Given current conditions, they have a point: Even though Chicago is adding bike lanes at a rapid clip, as long as driving remains heavily subsidized, it’s harder for biking and walking – and transit – to compete.

The highway expansions coming soon to Chicagoland may further tilt the field toward driving. Thankfully, they are at least being tolled. Route 53 will be expanded northward at a cost of $200 million per mile, with a parkway-like design that’s “friendly” to people on foot and riding bikes. The other project is the widening and lengthening of the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway, which would get closer to O’Hare (a western access route is still out of the question for now because of funding drama between the city and airlines). The entire highway will be converted to a toll road.

This conversion, approved by the U.S. DOT but waiting for state approval, has irked the Taxpayers United of America, which calls it “empire building” to “line [the Illinois Tollway’s] pockets, get pay raises, and retire in pension glory.” But tolling is perhaps the only fair way to pay for highways, because gas taxes certainly aren’t doing it. As Streetsblog Capitol Hill recently reported, gas taxes and other fees on driving barely cover half the cost of America’s road spending. The rest comes from general tax dollars.

A toll can also double as an effective long-term fix for traffic jams, if the price increases during times of day when travel demand is highest — i.e. congestion pricing. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which created the GOTO2040 comprehensive regional plan, is campaigning for congestion pricing on five highways, including all lanes of the Route 53 extension. Other projects include adding an congestion-priced lane to I-90/Jane Addams (as opposed to converting an existing lane); congestion pricing all lanes on the Elgin-O’Hare expressway (instead of having a static toll on all lanes); converting a lane to a congestion-priced lane on I-290/Eisenhower (this corridor also has parallel rapid transit and commuter rail); and widening I-55/Stevenson to add a new congestion priced lane (versus converting an existing lane). The last three proposals are in the study phase.

Not all of these proposals would result in less traffic on Chicagoland streets, however. The ones that include additional road lanes are still going to induce more driving and dump more traffic on local streets. Much better are the proposals that put a price on roads without widening them, which can help shift trips from driving to transit, biking, and walking. An even better path forward would be to allocate some of those congestion pricing revenues to transit, bike, and pedestrian investments. That would give a major boost to improving train and bus systems while helping to ensure the region actually reaches the goals – like having bicycling account for 5 percent of trips under five miles in Chicago (currently it’s less than 2 percent) – laid out in bike and pedestrian plans.

  • Like I said in the post you linked to I really think the first step, before building any new highways or adding lanes to existing ones, should be to toll the existing highways that already exist. So for IL-53 they should take the existing freeway portion of it and toll it. I think that would reduce the congestion on that roadway (some people might not make a trip by combining other trips, they might decide to take Metra instead – there are two Metra stations near 53).
    I-94 up near the WI/IL border was recently widened and every time I’ve driven on it there is not nearly enough traffic to fill that road up. Even in the summer (it’s close to six flags).

  • CL

    I think the only solution for Chicago is much better public transit. You can make driving more expensive, but as long as there is a huge difference in total time (plus uncertainty), people are going to drive. Congestion pricing alone might reduce the number of cars on the road, but that will just make it an even more attractive option for the people who can afford it (less traffic!) — and we’ll still be a city where tons of people drive. I think we need to find additional revenue (tolls, increasing the car tax, whatever) and give the money to the CTA, while also converting existing roads to BRT or something similar.

    Just adding more penalties for drivers might result in less driving, but if we don’t spend the money on better options, we will just be making people’s lives worse. I also think that while some “sticks” are necessary in addition to carrots, we should try to focus those sticks on drivers who could be taking the train. Tolling roads that take people downtown would be one way, since public transit downtown is already pretty good. Increasing the cost of driving equally for everyone is necessary to a point, but too much of that becomes a regressive tax that will hurt low-income people who live in areas where public transit is really bad.

  • Congestion pricing by itself is a massive transit improvement program. Think of all the time bus riders currently spend bogged down in traffic. Done the right way, congestion pricing makes surface transit a much more appealing option. In London, the entire bus network saw a 9% speed increase after congestion pricing was implemented:

    And if you can run faster buses, you can also run more buses for the same overall cost. Of course, London also added a lot of bus service before they rolled out the congestion charge, which is a good idea to help cushion the initial shock. But in general, a congestion pricing system that gets cars off local streets is, by default, also a major transit improvement program.

  • Congestion pricing is a win-win for public transportation. Not only do you have less cars on the road slowing down the buses, but you can also use the tolls to fund additional transit.

  • CL

    That’s a good point — that it will improve bus speed. I also think we should make some roads transit only (like BRT or the dream of a trolly on Clark, which won’t happen but would be so awesome). Then instead of encouraging people to sit on a very slow bus for an hour instead of driving, we can replace their driving route with a fast option that people will like.

  • Brian

    More taxes/tolls is not the answer- all that does is line of the pockets of the already inefficient, bloated tollway organization. All of the toll roads should be “freed” and turned over to IDOT. All of this “money” that it “takes” to manage the roads is just funny money. There is no need to have a bureaucratic, inefficient organization like the Illinois Tollway be given any more power or money. That entire organization needs to be abolished.

  • OK, but you need to change behavior. So much traffic exists in part because of the free cost of driving on almost every road (i.e. there is no incentive to not drive on a certain street). I would much rather see the tolls/taxes go to fund things like better transit, which we need in Chicago and the region. And that does require getting rid of the IL Tollway. But that’s not an argument for no tolls at all.

  • Adam Herstein

    Everyone knows traffic gets worse every year. The big hurdle we face is convincing people that building more highways does not ease congestion, and in fact, makes it worse.

  • Anonymous

    You can argue whether the tollway organization is the most efficient organization, or whether it should be handed over do IDOT. The point remains that drivers are not paying for the real cost of maintaining the road they use (see the article referenced the post itself), and that needs to change if we want to effectively battle congestion.

    And to the comment that more taxes and tolls are not the answer: Then what is the answer to battle congestion? Build more roads that we cannot pay for? Accept congestion as a fact of life?

  • Anonymous

    Tell me about it. I take the 8:40 Metra into work. If I don’t catch that one, it’s the 9:40. By the time I take the train (leaving at 8:25 to catch it), which isn’t express, and bike on the other side to River North (biking is by far the fastest way for this last mile) I’ll get in to work about 10:10. That’s an 1:45 commute. If I drive it’s 50 minutes.

    Admitidly the rush hour trains are faster. In that case, it’s about equal with time.

    It is much more expensive to drive, but many many people do. It’s just faster in many cases, and easier.

    The entire city and all it’s public transportation is designed to get people downtown. The solution, in my case, is for Metra to have faster trains and more express trains. Sadly I don’t see that happening.

  • Anonymous

    The correct answer to complaints about ISTHA is:

    Yes, you’re right, ISTHA sucks, let’s abolish it and let IDOT run the tollways.

  • Anonymous

    TTI’s assertions that automobile congestion is a drain on our economy is also without merit. In fact, there’s a statistically meaningful relationship between congestion and per captia GDP. Eric Dumbaugh explains:

  • CL

    Yes — most people are going to choose 50 minutes over 105 minutes all day, even when it’s a lot more expensive. Long commutes just suck your soul.

  • Without tolls, how will the roads be paid for?

  • Anonymous

    Interesting article. It explains congestion as a “by-product” of a high GDP urban center, and as such congestion is sign of a healthy economy.

    But the fact remains that the fuel and time spent in traffic is lost. That time, and the money saved, could be spent otherwise. Whether that would make for more productive time or more free time is another question, but the cost is there.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I mean, there are costs to everything — but to present congestion as purely cost and not discuss it as an indicator of positive economic activity is misleading. The costs in time and fuel are good cases for transit (multi-tasking) and non-motorized (cheap).

  • Where is all the maintenance money going to come from for those roads then? If I’m not mistaken, those roads pay for all or very nearly all of their own costs due to the tolls. We’re not about to raise taxes to make up for not tolling them, so what exactly are you advocating? Abolishing those roads altogether?

  • Mcass777

    To me, if I have to wait or waste time on a commute, i pick a different mode or route. Public transportation comes with a lot of sitting around. Time is money, that is one big reason I bike. My 12 mile commue averages 45 minutes by bike (dry conditions) 45 by car and 1 hour 15 by Metra. Do the math. Add the cost of a monthly C region Metra pass, the time consumed and that commute is not viable.

  • jared.kachelmeyer

    I suppose the same way the non-toll roads are paid for.

  • Mcass777

    Does it get worse every year? That cannot be true. If it was, a 45 minute rush hour commute by car in 1985 should be what today? 2 hours? Expand on that thought with actual data. i cannot beleive it. I bet if you take an apples to apples comparison, (Like the Dan Ryan from 95th) and go back 30 years, the traffic times are amazingly similar.

  • Anonymous

    If you read the original analyses, the *purpose* of London’s congestion charge was to get the buses moving.

    Before implementing the congestion charge, the government of London painted (and enforced) bus lanes in most of London to speed up the buses. This was impossible in the central areas, where the roads are extremely narrow (often two moving lanes and no parking, sometimes only one moving lane). Therefore: the congestion charge.

  • Anonymous

    Borrowing money? Using people’s income taxes? Sales tax? Property tax? No thanks.

  • Anonymous

    “If it was, a 45 minute rush hour commute by car in 1985 should be what today? 2 hours?”

    In several cities, it IS. Dunno about Chicago. Look up average commute times.

  • Mcass777

    I did. US census data from 1980 to 2010 shows an insiginificant change. Some times up some times down. I am looking for more data.

  • Brian

    Try the GCM travel site, you can run travel time stats back to 2004. I’ve looked at routes like the Kennedy expressway, and you will see that average travel times have climbed.

  • mcass777

    Cool! Where is the link? I am not sure I see it.

    I did find that the US Census showed the average Chicago commute in 1990 was 27.9 minutes. In 2000 it was 31 minutes. That is a 7.5% increase in travel time. But you need to factor in a population increase of 6.5% during that time frame. The increase tracks and I am not sure that 3 minutes is a huge increase. Overall, you might not even notice it – some days it would be quicker and some slower. I bet much of the increase in travel time was “reverse” commuting (i.e. suburb bound in the AM, city bound pm) where public transportation was not an option. Did Metra, Pace, and the CTA adjust skeds during the 90s? I think Metra only recently began reverse train routes in rush hours. The point here is that most of us do not “feel” an increase in travel commute. My dad told me his commute back in the 60’s and 70’s to downtown Chicago. It is pretty much the same as mine from the same neighborhood to Chicago. I remember hearing that we would see a reduciton in travel times when the recession hit in 09. I waited for “open roads”. Never happened and I think it’s because this city and country get’s stuff done. It might be as simple as this – If the Dan Ryan looks light today, I am driving so I can get to work earlier, get more done – and not get fired!

    It is pretty cool to go inside the numbers and see where trends take us.

  • Rob

    Cars can’t get off the streets – with or without pricing – if there does not exist a reasonable alternative to driving. People may change routes, or alter time of day for discretionary trips, or even avoid a few trips all together, but will not generally stop driving due to pricing in the absence of suitable alternatives.

    In order for pricing to be effective, it must be implemented in combination with an ambitious transit investment program – that is *not* what is being planned. Token transit investment? Sure. Cultivating transit as a mode of first choice rather than last resort? Nope.

    Pricing combined with cultivation of a 21st century regional transit network is a winner. Pricing combined with added highway capacity and/or conversion of existing lanes to HOT lanes absent ambitious transit investments? Well, that’s just more of the same ol’ thing we’ve been doing for 50 years.

    We all know where that has gotten us.

    Do it right, or don’t do it.

  • Rob

    Dead-on, CL.

    Why is this such a difficult concept for the state and the region to grasp?

    Is every problem is a nail and every solution a hammer?

    Pricing is a great strategy, but not in the absence of an ambitious transit investment program. Do it tight, or don’t do it.

  • Rob

    It can’t be a win-win if unaccompanied by an ambitious transit investment program. Unless the win-win is defined in terms of highway engineers and road builders.

    Pricing, alone, is insufficient to alter driver behavior in meaningful way. If there’s not a viable alternative, people still need to drive . . . and busses will still need to negotiate congestion.

    The level of transit service that exists outside of the Chicago city limits only one transfer beyond CTA and/or Metra rail service is abysmal. Pricing, as currently proposed, ignores that elephant in the room and, as a consequence, is overly optimistic in what it hopes to accomplish.

    Pricing unaccompanied by ambitious transit investment is a failed strategy, if success is defined as reduced congestion, greater regional access, and improved traveler safety.

    Do it right, or don’t do it.

  • Rob

    It’s about alternatives. In many cases the alternatives to driving are either not present or unbearable.

    The current pricing proposal does nothing to address the desperate need to repair, improve, and expand regional transit options. There must be a reasonable alternative to driving if pricing is going to deliver on its potential benefits.

    Note I said potential benefits – not claimed benefits. As presently structured, our region’s pricing proposal attempts to claim benefits that are intuitively inaccessible to what is effectively a purely road-based strategy. Pricing has a lot of genuine potential, but it must be implemented properly . . . which it isn’t under the current proposal.

    There is no revenue sharing. There is no ambitious transit investment plan. There is no concern about how or whether commuters have the ability to choose whether and when to pay the price.

    It is naive to believe that pricing combined with urban add-a-lanes and/or lane conversions to HOT can effectively address regional mobility and accessibility in the absence of an ambitious transit investment program.

    Do it right or don’t do it at all.

  • Rob

    Interesting – London undertook necessary supporting investments *prior* to implementing pricing.

    Ironically – but not really – the places where pricing has demonstrated the greatest returns on investment have been quite proactive in how they positioned transit to be an integral component in the pricing strategy’s success.

  • Rob

    Of course. That does not mean that the strategies we have deployed over the past several decades – the investments that determine how and whether goods and people move about our nation’s most significant centers of economic activity – have been optimized.

    What if, for instance, the Chicago region had a world-class transit network – one that could compete as a first option rather than a last resort? What if such a network were combined with pricing strategies to further induce mode shift while at the same time generating a revenue stream that could be used for both highway and transit, operating and capital? Studies suggest such a strategy could dramatically improve congestion, among other significant – and more important – benefits, including added economic activity around new or improved transit nodes.

    A correlation between congestion and per capita GDP does not validate that congestion is a good thing. Rather, it simply tells us that where congestion exists, it is accompanied by economic activity and that congestion – alone – is generally an insufficient motivator to cause relocation of economic activity. Congestion is, at best, a crude instrument for encouraging mode shift; we have a lot of sharper instruments to work with.

  • Rob

    Implementing pricing in the absence of an ambitious transit investment program is a non-starter.

    It is ludicrous to implement pricing while there exists for many no viable alternative to paying the price. The transit network outside of Chicago city limits must be improved either before pricing is implemented or in conjunction with it. If there’s no alternative to driving, people will still need to drive … it will only cost more to do it.

    Do pricing right, or don’t do it at all.

  • A few dollars per day is ludicrous to drive on a road that costs billions to build and maintain? Investment is a catch-22: Politicians don’t want to build things they can’t pay for, but people want alternatives… which can’t be built without funds raised by tolls.

    So how do you propose paying for those investments?

  • Rob

    Our continued listing at the top of national congestion studies shows that IDOT has done a fabulous job over the past 50 years in solving congestion.


  • Rob

    At least ISHTA implemented open road tolling – they saw a problem and effectively addressed it. Now, if they could see transit as a tool for improving facility performance and make it happen . . .

  • Anonymous

    Multiple overlapping agencies is never the answer. ISTHA should have never been created. Why the hell do we need multiple agencies overseeing state highways?

  • I don’t know… Maybe it had something to do with separating revenues.

  • Transit will be included in the I-90/Jane Addams Memorial Tollway widening project. Pace plans to use the additional managed lane for some bus routes.

  • I think the report’s year-to-year measurement of congestion, road building, and population growth is itself evidence that road building doesn’t have much of an impact on congestion. It fails to measure what impact non-auto modes have on reducing auto congestion.

  • I agree with you about implementing alternatives simultaneously. It’s absolutely necessary. I addressed this in all of my congestion pricing papers for grad school (I think I wrote three).

    London, Singapore, and Stockholm are three great examples where transit was pumped up at the same time a congestion pricing scheme went into effect. The difference between those three cities and the proposals for the tollways in Chicagoland is that they charged for driving within a city whereas the tollways are charging to drive between cities.

  • Anonymous

    Oh come on, Steven, you know how IL government works! It was to create another fiefdom.

  • Rob

    Call me a skeptic. What I’m hearing is a lot of uncertainty around the transit component, but a lot of certainty on the road capacity piece. I guess time will tell what quality of transit alternative is implemented and how long it remains funded. Lack of permanence yields lack of commitment.

    Meanwhile, we add lanes all the way to Rockford – never know when we’ll need that BRT to Marengo . . .

    “Although it has been repeatedly resurfaced and repaired, the pavement is near the end of its useful life.” Sounds like every major highway project we’ve ever done.

    ” . . . by rebuilding and widening 62 miles
    between Rockford and O’Hare with eight lanes from the Kennedy
    Expressway to Randall Road and six lanes from Randall Road to I-39.” Sounds like every highway project we’ve ever done.

    Combining that with language to “accomodate transit”, or not to eliminate the possibility for transit, is hardly the type of multi-modal commitment the region needs.

    That’s simply more of the same ‘ol, same ‘ol – its up to the transit agency to find the money and implement their own project . . . and not with any of the toll revenue, either.

    We all know where that ends up.

  • Rob

    Yet we’re not only expanding highways, but we’re seeking to build new ones, e.g., Prairie Parkway, Illiana Expressway, 62 mile expansion between O’Hare and Rockford, silly partial add-a-lane combined with take-away-a-lane on I-290, and the list goes on, and on. Major transit projects? Hmmmm . . . unfunded Red Line south. Anything else?

    I can’t travel from the Austin neighborhood to Brookfield Zoo by way of transit during the evening rush without having to allow about 2 hours. I can drive there in about 25 minutes during evening peak. As long as transit continues to be held at such a competitivfe disadvantage to driving and transportation advocates are mollified by agency commitments of “support for transit” and “preserving right-of-way for transit”, we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing and getting what we’ve been getting, and that amounts to less than nothin’. How long as I-290 ROW already been preserved for transit? Now it is time to use it for an add-a-lane that can show support for transit by allowing an mixed-traffic bus to use it over its short length?

    What’s wrong with that picture? Wow.

  • Rob

    Here’s one of the most significant technical challenges related to implementing pricing strategies:

    The tools we presently use to analyze the relative merits and drawbacks of transportation investments are unable to comprehensively evaluate the impacts and benefits of pricing on land-use, economic development, and mode choice; they’re also unable model variable rate pricing, which is plainly a horse of another color when compared to fixed rate tolling across all hours of the day and night. To further exacerbate the problem, highway folks are steering the ship when it comes to modifying existing models to enable such analysis. Sort of like the fox being in charge of the hen house . . .

  • Rob

    A Roads to Trails program. Start your horse farm now.

  • Rob

    Pricing road use, for one – existing roads, not new capacity. We can’t know if we need new road capacity until we’ve made efficient use of what we have, which includes having provided attractive options to driving. The revenue has to be made available to both roads and transit, operating and capital, not simply sucked up into the road building industry.

    Our roads are important; however, we have long since built out the best road network on the planet. At the same time, we’ve neglected our transit networks and left them non-competitive.

    Big mistake.

  • Rob

    It’s politically challenging to manage toll systems. In a world where that were not the issue, it may well be that we would have a unified “highway department.”

    A better question is why can’t they all play in the sandbox together – transit, highways, and toll authority? Agency missions and financing mechanisms cultivate sub-optimal outcomes despite legislative actions over time directed toward ensuring multi-modal planning and investment, context sensitive solutions, etc.

    IDOT verses ISHTA? What about something more important: A coordinated vision and investment plan across all modes and agencies?

    Do we really need an ambitious highway expansion plan? Why is it that the lion’s share of our money is directed toward that end? because it’s IDOT’s money, or ISHTA’s money? Because they’re highways and transi is someone else’s problem?


  • That’s is exactly what I already said. Look up a few comments.

  • Rob

    It appears from what you’ve written – and I had already read it all – that you believe that pricing, alone, will cause people to stop using their cars, or that they will choose to use existing alternatives, e.g., METRA instead of IL-53.

    Call me crazy, but I don’t think a majority of IL-53 drivers – a north/south alignment – are going to able to use METRA to support their IL-53 trip, as METRA runs east and west. The same problem exists for *many* work commutes, i.e., there is no suitable alternative to driving; therein lies the basis for my “ludicrous” statement that you latched onto. It is ludicrous to think that implementing pricing without providing viable alternatives to driving is going to generate the anticipated congestion relief benefits.

    I agree that pricing needs to be implemented. I also agree that *variable rate* pricing should be implemented on existing capacity before adding capacity – we can’t know how much capacity we need until we make what we already have as efficient as possible. That written, however, we can’t implement pricing without an ambitious transit investment program. Pricing, alone, can’t deliver on its promises unless there is a viable alternative to driving – an affordable, reliable, and efficient transit network . . . which we do not presently have outside of Chicago city limits. There are even improvement needed within Chicago – bike infrastructure, the potential for ART (maybe real BRT), etc. The point is that we do not have anything that amounts to an affordable, reliable, and efficient regional transit network. We have some decent options for certain commutes, but far too many commutes can’t be reasonably made by transit.

    My message is not anti-pricing, but rather: Do it right, or don’t do it at all. We do not need a new user fee to simply fuel more road building and more congestion. We need a 21st century transportation network. A pricing scheme that does not revenue share with transit, does not consider alternatives to driving important, and simply endeavors to build a war chest for addressing highway design and capacity constraint problems through consecutive add-a-lane projects is not what our region needs. Not at all.

    Catch-22? Not really. It is a question of priorities and accessing available financing mechanisms. Fees collected on a particular facility should be directed back to that facility – and only that facility. They should be used to support both highways and transit in the corridor of travel. Anticipated revenues can be used to guarantee debt to build quality transit amenities. IDOT can flex its highway funding to support transit. We can avoid building add-a-lanes to nowhere and begin to build a 21st century transportation network. It is something we can do. The folks controlling the purse strings that added road capacity is the non-solution.

    Do we really need the last great highway projects of the 20th century, or do we need to begin looking forward – seizing our future? Incidentally, I’ve been advocating for pricing done right in the Chicago area for many years. Perhaps my position wasn’t clear in the ten or so comments I’ve made on this piece.

    I think variable rate pricing is an important tool when properly combined with alternatives to driving.

    Do it right, or don’t do it at all.