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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  • Daniel Comeaux

    The same report had a particularly clueless look at the expansion of the Katy Freeway in Houston – it cited a report from 2012 saying that traffic times had decreased, while ignoring the fact that since then, traffic has (of course) become even worse than it was before.

  • I think the same was figured out after a $1 billion highway expansion in Los Angeles recently.

    http://www.laweekly.com/news/11-billion-and-five-years-later-the-405-congestion-relief-project-is-a-fail-5415772

  • objectathand

    You’re being a little tough on TimeOut, unless their post had been edited since you posted yours. The author shortly thereafter acknowledged that “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.”

  • johnaustingreenfield

    That is the case. We should have taken a screen shot of the original article, but they added all that language after we first pointed out the absurdity of their original article. Thanks for pointing that out. We’ll add an update to our post.

  • I was hoping that you would cite some numbers like the el removes x number of cars from the expressway or if every rider on the el took a car then rush hour would extend x minutes more or the percentage of congested time for the expressway would grow from x to y.

    I get that assumptions have to be made to generate those numbers and that an elastic reality usually comes out differently.

  • I’m so glad that you always dig through information like this and correct other publications when necessary (which is often). Thank you for standing up for an alternate voice.

  • BlueFairlane

    One simplified way to look at it is that Wikipedia says the Kennedy carries 187,000 cars per day. A Crain’s article from last year quotes the CTA as saying that 80,000 people used the Blue Line O’Hare Branch every day. (There’s probably a more official place to find that number.) If you assume that none of these people would car pool–a reasonable assumption, based on what I see through the train window whenever I ride the Blue Line–then eliminating the Blue Line would increase traffic on the Kennedy by 47%. You’d have to add three lanes in both directions to accommodate that traffic while maintaining current levels of congestion.

  • I don’t think the relationship even remotely approaches a perfect correlation.

    I take the Blue Line downtown most days of the week – if there were no Blue Line, I would have chosen a different place to live altogether. Or look at the other direction – for people who work at O’Hare (and there are tens of
    thousands of them) living on the Blue Line is a great fit.
    No Blue Line would mean they’d look at their housing options and
    transportation tradeoffs completely differently.

    So while traffic would likely increase in the absence of the Blue Line to some degree, you’d want to factor in those who either can’t afford or don’t want the hassle of a car (not to mention parking costs downtown/at O’Hare).

    One way your assumption could be better explored is to simply conduct road use surveying when the Blue Line periodically closes for repairs. That would still have some limitations as people might be willing to temporarily drive who on a longer term basis would simply move, but at least you’d be controlling one variable beyond a doubt.

  • BlueFairlane

    I don’t think the relationship even remotely approaches a perfect correlation.

    Of course it doesn’t. That’s why I described it as “simplified.” Yes, the absence of the Blue Line would significantly change Chicago’s living patterns, and a large number of the people who currently live in that direction would choose to live somewhere else. But really, there’s no concrete way to measure the true effect, so there’s no harm in looking at how much pavement it would take for automobiles to carry all the traffic that currently moves along that corridor. The theory implied by the original Time Out was that the space currently devoted to the Blue Line would be better utilized by extra lanes. My back-of-the-napkin simplified calculation shows it most definitely would not, because it’s about 60 feet too narrow.

  • I wouldn’t even give the Time Out foolishness the dignity of a stripped down response, but that’s just me.

    Regardless, we could definitely do a more substantive comparison, but it would take some planning and effort.

    I’d be a fan of looking at this in the other direction – let’s take an existing car lane and dedicate it to BRT, or carpooling, or the long-bandied-about concept of an O’Hare express.

  • Bernard Finucane

    The author of the Timeout article says he “has an overwhelming love for tzatziki sauce and bicycles”.

  • JacobEPeters

    btw the number of people who use the Blue Line O’Hare Branch every day is +90k now
    http://www.transitchicago.com/assets/1/ridership_reports/2015-08.pdf
    but we would be better to assume that the new cars on the road would average 1.3 persons per car, since that is the rough average nationwide. Additionally many trips to/from stations that are not adjacent to the Kennedy wouldn’t likely use the highway even if the Blue Line median service didn’t exist. Still even with all of those asterisks, there are 46k trips generated from stations within the median of the Blue Line (38.5k vehicles w/ 1.3 passengers) which would require not only as much space as the Blue Line occupies on the Kennedy, but would require expanding every highway and street that leads to destinations that are not on this small section of the highway. Not to mention the huge drop in investment, population, and property taxes that Carter points out would occur if the CTA was not an amenity to the surrounding housing and commercial developments.

  • FlyGuyMike

    Spent three years in Houston post-Katy expansion and that is 100% correct, initially traffic times went down, but as the areas surrounding the freeway and new developments sprung up, traffic became an issue yet again.

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