What’s the Fastest Way Around Chicago? That Depends, Says New Map

Wicker Park in green will get you there
Wicker Park, in green, is one starting point where much of the city is fastest to reach by bicycle.

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab published an interactive map this week that shows a new way to measure access across Chicago via different transportation modes. Instead of assessing how far one can travel by a certain mode, like a previous online map has shown, or showing the cost of travel, this map looks solely at relative travel time across four modes.

Click on any census block group within city limits, and the map will show you what mode would be the fastest way to every other part of the city, and uses shading to show how long that mode will take. The map uses data from Google Maps’s Directions service.

Walking is only the fastest way to get anywhere within the block group you choose, while bicycling is the fastest transportation mode to any place up to two miles away. Most places in Chicago are reached quickest by driving: In a 227-square-mile city like Chicago, most of the city’s area is going to be more than two miles away. Also, dozens of square miles of the city are not particularly useful or easy to reach, like Wolf Lake or the runways at O’Hare airport. 

But in many relatively central neighborhoods, bicycling can be the quickest way to access a good chunk of the city.

Start in Wicker Park, and you’ll find that bicycling is the fastest way to reach 10.1 percent of Chicago, an area spanning from the Gold Coast to Ravenswood to the edge of Austin. Start in Lakeview, and that drops down to 5.9 percent, in part because Lake Michigan means that half of the bikeable area is underwater.

Altgeld Gardens
The map shows the fastest modes from Altgeld Gardens.

It appears, though, that the corner of Chicago which wins the prize for having the most bike-accessible area is tucked away on the southwest side. Two different areas — an industrial part of Bridgeport, and the area around Marie Curie high school — can reach 11.3 percent of the city fastest by bicycle. This is perhaps because, from those points, public transit is the fastest option to nowhere.

Chicago’s breadth relative to other cities becomes very apparent when comparing these bikesheds. For one patch of the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, D.C., bicycling is the fastest way to reach 62.7 percent of the city. D.C.’s much smaller size (63 square miles) and square shape puts much more of the city within that two-mile radius.

Surprisingly, even from the core of downtown near Willis Tower, driving is the fastest way to reach 95.1 percent of the city, while transit wins for only 1.3 percent of the city, walking for 0.2 percent, and bicycling for 3.4 percent. This might be because it’s surrounded by so many high-speed streets and highways that driving, especially without considering traffic, appears to be fast.

How far can you go by transit from Willis Tower and still get there faster than if you drove? Within the city, one spot shows up at 95th Street in Beverly, where Metra’s Rock Island District route is the quickest way downtown. Even though Beverly’s  also adjacent to interstate I-57, the train still gets you there faster.

Move out to the edges of the city, and driving becomes the default fastest mode of travel. From Altgeld Gardens, the city’s furthest south neighborhood, large parts of the city are deep red, indicating that even with a car it would take well more than half an hour to travel there, and sometimes an entire hour. The secluded neighborhood entirely lacks other transportation options: Its 3,000 residents use a packed bus route, and don’t even have sidewalks or bike lanes to get to bus stops along high-speed 130th Street — much less to reach even adjacent neighborhoods. A forthcoming extension of the Red Line would significantly reduce transit travel times from Altgeld.

When the map calculates driving times, it adds a buffer for parking and walking time, but not for traffic congestion. In a future version, researchers will add more factors that contribute to the total cost of a trip, including pollution, fuel, and vehicle costs.

  • HJ

    So the driving times are calculated by using the distance and speed limits, not accounting for stop signs, stop lights, rail crossings, or traffic congestion… which basically makes any comparison useless. Of course driving would be faster without real world variables.

  • Google Maps’s Directions service, which you use on http://maps.google.com, has a developer-accessible version for computation like this.

    The results are identical, and consider congestion (but only when a time of day is asked for), and all other things that penalize a trip’s duration (like intersections and how that intersection is controlled).

    The biking and walking times are calculated the same way, but also with an average biking speed between delay points.

  • Ryan Lakes

    So cool.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    I’m struck by the enormous growth potential for increasing the bicycling mode share in several of the large cities. The fastest way to get somewhere is a key determinate of the mode of transportation that people will use. There are large swaths of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington D.C. where the bicycle has a larger percentage of the fastest way to get there than any part of Portland–which has a 6% bicycle commuting mode share.

    Washington D.C. had a 4.1% bicycle commuting mode share in 2012 and the lowest mode share for bicycling as the fastest way to get there in any section of the city that I could find was 11.7%. This city should easily catch up to the bicycle commuting mode share of Portland within a hand full of years.

    Although Chicago has a lower percentage of trips where the bicycle is the fastest way to get there than the cities I mentioned above, it still has a lot of potential for growth in the mode share for bicycling.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Los Angeles has a similar fastest way to get there percentages as Chicago does. Los Angeles is more spread out geographically compared to Chicago, but its major job centers are also and it has the worst traffic congestion of any U.S. city.

  • One aspect of the researchers’ method in making this map I’m insure of is if they considered that public transit vehicles are most often not at the stop or station when the passenger is ready to board.

  • Chicago has bad traffic congestion, too, but is this ranking for highways or for all roads?

    Chicago, the city, really only has one job center so this is important to consider when looking at this data and comparing to other cities.

    Another part to look at is block groups on the edges. The ones with land on all sides have a higher bike shed (where bikes are faster) than block groups that have edges on “three” sides (with Lake Michigan being the fourth side). This is interesting because these neighborhoods along Lake Michigan have a higher bike-to-work-rate than other edge neighborhoods.

    What you should consist next, though, is that we lack data on non-work trips. Oh, here I go again, discussing the lack of a certain kind of data that would help us make better analyses.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    The ranking for traffic congestion that I found is broken down into categories such as congestion, morning peak, evening peak and highways:


    The bikeways traffic engineers in Los Angeles have put bike lanes wherever they would fit without making a large negative impact on motor vehicle traffic. Now, because of existing environmental impact laws in California, they must hold public meetings to install bike lanes where they would require the removal of motor vehicle lanes which would create intersections that cannot the volume of traffic through each green light phase.

    The first protected bike lane installed in Los Angeles will be on South Figueroa St. This section of street runs from USC to just south of downtown. The anticipated delays post installation are on page 18 of this pdf:


    The anticipated delays listed are the total for all streets that run through the intersection. Washington Blvd for South Figueroa St is listed for a delay of almost 8-minutes in the AM peak hours! Four other intersections on South Figueroa St have delays that were calculated to be at least 4-minutes in the AM peak hours.

    This draft EIR report gives a general picture of how much congestion there is on some of the busiest streets in Los Angeles.

    New York City installed 150 miles of bike lanes in fiscal years 2007-2009. Since both Chicago and Los Angeles started doing a similar large increase in bike lanes starting in 2011, this NYC report gives a quick overview of how the increased bikeway installations closely paralleled increased ridership:


    If you compare those results to the ACS figures compiled by the League of American cyclists you will find that the percentage of increase in bicycling closely matches the bicycle commuting mode share increases (this also holds true for Portland):


  • madopal

    I dunno if it’s using the new Google Maps route data, but that might be broken then. I was trying to do something simple…get it to tell me to ride Milwaukee. It would always take me off somewhere around Addison. I am not sure what is up with their data. I’d encourage others to pick two points on Milwaukee and see what it does.

    It also appears that buses don’t exist to this model. I was picking NW side locations, and it gave plenty of “0.0%” for public trans. I know it sucks up here, but there are quite a few bus routes.

  • Pete

    It’s because those bus routes are inconvenient in terms of location, timing and traffic. In many cases I’ve found riding the bus to take about the same amount of time as walking somewhere once I include the time spent waiting for the bus, the time it takes the bus to stop every block, waiting for traffic, etc.

  • Pete

    What this tells us is that the CTA is slow and inconvenient unless you’re going to/from the Loop.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    The Los Angeles area also has a higher bicycle commuting mode share where there is a large mass of water on one of the four sides. Venice beach (city of Los Angeles) and the neighboring city of Santa Monica have the highest mode commuting mode shares of any communities in the county. Part of the reason for that is the bike paths that run along the beach and also along Ballona Creek.

    How much of that is due to these being beach communities or the easy to reach bike paths is hard to determine.

    ACS data that will probably be of interest to other cities in the next few years will be the effects on the bicycling commuting mode share after Los Angeles installed bike lanes into a tightly knit network in the community of Wilmington over the last three years.

    Wilmington is a community 9.14 square miles that has a population of about 55,000, and is located just north of the Los Angeles port.

    In 2010, there were two streets that had bike lanes and a one small bike path. Now, there are eighteen streets with bike lanes and more to come soon.

    If you look on this map of the bikeways in LA and scroll down following the 110 Harbor Frwy, you will come across a very closely knit group of red lines–that’s the community of Wilmington (dark red lines are bike lanes installed, lighter red lines are future bike lanes that are on the 2010 bike plan):


    What sets this apart from most other locations in the country is that the majority of the bike lanes were installed in very close proximity to each other. This makes it much more convenient to access the bikeways compared to having bike lanes/paths/cycle tracks that are spaced a quarter or half a mile apart.

    How much and how quickly it will have an effect on the bicycle commuting mode share is what can be tracked using ACS data. Its an experiment that is being done by shear coincidence. Most of these bike lanes were not in the 2010 bike plan. However, the majority of these streets were wide enough to accommodate bike lanes without taking away a motor vehicle lane and so the DOT took advantage of the opportunity to install more bike lanes.

  • C Monroe

    Being stuck on the Dan Ryan for 2 hours and watching train after train pass you on the red line really makes you think this study didn’t take congestion into account.

  • In many of the other cities, you can find lots of places where transit corridors light up parts of the map with blue — even in Brooklyn, Cambridge, Philadelphia, and Washington (never mind Manhattan), there are tracts where ~20% of the city is most quickly reached by transit. The best score in Chicago? 2%: even from downtown, transit isn’t the fastest way.

  • Because they’re not counting congestion. If you could input congestion data and take an accurate snapshot of, say, a given evening rush weekday, heck yeah the train corridors are by far the fastest way to get lots of places.

  • Anne A

    Right. This definitely is NOT counting congested times. On some highways and streets, that can be most hours of the day.

  • BlueFairlane

    I’ve never been stuck on the Dan Ryan for 2 hours. It took me an hour once on a Friday before a holiday weekend, but that’s about the longest it’s ever took me. Also, there are faster ways to drive to the south side than the Ryan.

  • Anne A

    To offer a comparison from my location in Beverly to the middle of the Loop on a weekday at rush hour…

    Metra: walk to train 10 min or bike to train 2 min + 1 min to lock up. Train time to Loop: 25 min + a few min buffer time to avoid missing train. Walk time to work: 10 min. Total time (walk/train): ~50 min

    CTA: 95th St. bus to 95th St. red line – 5 min walking time, ? min waiting time, 20 min riding time (about 25 min from front door to red line). Red line from 95th to Loop: about 30 min. Red line to office: about 1 min. Total time: ~51 min + wait/connection time.

    As you all know, sometimes wait/connection times are short and sometimes they’re infuriatingly long. At rush hour it’s sometimes been as fast 1 min + 1 min. At times I’ve had a 20 min wait (if bus was delayed by a freight train) or a 20-30 minute connection time at 95th St. station.

    Bike: approx. 1 hr 15 min, riding ~14-18 mph in less congested areas (south of 55th), ~12-14 mph in areas w/more congestion/bad pavement/frequent stoplights. (about 14 mi depending on exact route)

    Car: ??? You couldn’t get me to try that at rush hour for all the money in the world.

  • As MIT Media Lab adds more cities I hope they add more insights into how they’re slicing and dicing the data. Google, on the other hand, will remain elusive.

  • C Monroe

    That was probably the worse I seen it, but I have spent a few one hour drives on it. It was so bad that I never drove into the city again, but always hoped on the South Shore Line in Michigan City instead. I live in Michigan and am a frequent visitor to Chicago. After the long wait, I decided to get off on 95th street and take the old highway(US12) back to Michigan.

  • It drives me nuts the way various GPSes and direction-giving programs presume that on any given street the car will proceed at the legal speed limit indefinitely, regardless of things like stop signs (fixed and easily accountable for), stoplights, congestion, or anything else. My old GPS would continually try to reroute me onto a slower parallel street (presumably it was coded ‘faster’ in its database somehow) that contained fewer traffic lanes than the arterial I personally preferred to take.

  • The same could be said for all of the other cities, so that doesn’t change my point: the CTA runs slower trains than its peers.

  • jared

    So how fast do they assume people cycle?

  • Anne A

    A few times, I’ve been a passenger in a car where the driver was using a navigation system and it suggested things like turning left from a side street onto a busy street that had no traffic controls – in a location where there were other safer, faster options available by making a different turn 1 or 2 streets earlier. In an area I know well, I usually ask the driver to turn off the navigation system because I’ll get us there faster with fewer hair raising moments.

  • Anne A

    The Milwaukee Ave. bus can be a good example of this, mostly due to traffic congestion.

  • Anne A

    I’ve often been on the Rock Island or red line looking at those traffic jams, very grateful to be on the train instead of stuck in a car.

  • Anne A

    More often than not, we use local streets instead of the Ryan to get from 95th St. to points north.


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