Reality check: You can’t solve congestion by widening roads – invest in transit instead

The Montrose Blue Line station and evening rush hour traffic on the Kennedy Expressway. Photo: John Greenfield
The Montrose Blue Line station and evening rush hour traffic on the Kennedy Expressway. Photo: John Greenfield

On Monday the Chicago Tribune looked at the plight of local drivers stuck in some of the nation’s worst commute traffic, based on the latest congestion study by the transportation analytics firm Inrix.

Streetsblog USA has previously noted that these annual Inrix traffic reports have been marred by multiple flaws. Issues have included an unrealistic definition of congestion that implies that roads aren’t functioning properly unless it’s easy for motorists to drive at illegal speeds; exaggerated estimates of the “cost” of congestion to travelers; and a bias against against compact cities with short average travel distances.

But there’s no question that Chicagoland has nightmarish traffic, and choosing to drive to work here when you don’t have to is a masochistic endeavor. According to the new Inrix report, local drivers wasted over four days sitting in commute traffic in 2021, the most of any other major U.S. metro region. Assuming that statistic is anywhere near accurate, all that time in a person’s limited lifetime squandered is indeed a depressing thought.

The study found that some of the worst corridors in the area during the morning rush are the northbound Dan Ryan Expressway heading toward the Jane Byrne Interchange, and eastbound Irving Park Road from the Kennedy Expressway to Ashland Avenue. During the afternoon commute, the worst spots are the outbound Stevenson Expressway between the Ryan and Cicero Avenue, and the Eisenhower Expressway heading east to Harlem Avenue.

The Tribune article stated that potential “solution to alleviating traffic” include the Illinois Department of Transportation’s plan to spend $2.7 billion to reconstruct and widen the Ike between Racine Avenue in Chicago and Wolf Road in west-suburban Hillside. IDOT is also planning to add two lanes to the Stevenson from the Tri-State Tollway to downtown Chicago. Money from Illinois’ projected $17 billion in federal infrastructure bill funds would be used for these projects.

But history tells us that adding lanes to highways has no impact on traffic congestion since it encourages additional driving. “Roadway widenings are known to induce more vehicle miles traveled, which will result in negative climate impacts,” Metropolitan Planning Council Transportation director Audrey Wennink recently told Streetsblog. She noted that a team of environmental organizations and academics created an induced demand calculator to demonstrate this principal.

And completely absent from the Tribune discussion of “solutions” to the congestion problem was any mention of proven strategies to make it easier to get to work, while reducing crashes and greenhouse emissions. That is, investing in fast, frequent, and reliable transit and other sustainable modes, so that far fewer people need to drive.

We weren’t the only ones who noticed this absurd omission. Here’s a sample of comments on Twitter:

  • “Take the train. Live near work, ride your bike. Widening highways has never ever, and will never, fix the problem.”
  • “What the hell is wrong with IDOT? Why isn’t building more Metra or CTA rail services being considered? We’re not going to solve 2020s-era traffic congestion with 1950s-era solutions.”
  • “Toll Interstates and charge vehicles congestion fees to enter crowded areas. Use the revenue to fund transit and bike paths. Build a 15 minute city.”
  • “Here’s a problem caused by too many cars, that only be solved by adding more cars.”

Perhaps influenced by all this ridicule, today the Tribune ran an editorial calling for “big new ideas” to address congestion, including public transportation initiatives. While I appreciate the paper finally acknowledging that transit exists, this opinion piece is still kind of stupid overall.

To their credit, the editorial writers sensibly ask, “Why do the reconstruction plans for DuSable Lake Shore Drive not include light rail or some other form of transit, despite the obvious need for such a line on both North and South sides?” There are also some good points about the need for better suburb-to-suburb transit; more frequent off-peak Metra schedules; and smoother Metra-CTA transfers. The piece also questions the wisdom of the state paying $6.5 billion to subsidize a dubious “transit hub” at the proposed One Central development.

But among the many inane statements in the new Tribune piece is the suggestion that reserving lanes on the Eisenhower for bus riders and car-poolers wouldn’t do anything to address congestion, while in reality it could help take cars off the road. (However, according to IDOT spokesperson Maria Castaneda, the department has also proposed letting solo drivers who pay a toll use these lanes, which would likely prevent there from being a major time-savings for transit riders and car-poolers.)

The Tribune article also implies that “people who want to improve things for drivers” and “activists who want to motivate people to get out of their cars and onto transit or a bike” have equally valid POVs. In reality only the latter approach is going to take us where we need to go in terms of reducing congestion, crashes, and emissions. The editorial also complains that building protected bike lanes “costs traffic lanes,” when they’re really an example of reallocating part of the roadway from a traffic-clogging mode to a space-efficient one.

The piece goes on to call for spending lots of money to build a redundant train to O’Hare for elites (didn’t Chicago already decide that was a foolish idea?), and reviving the Crosstown Expressway, a destructive highway boondoggle proposal from the 1970s. The writers also rail against, uh, articulated buses. Pretty silly stuff overall.

But the Tribune certainly didn’t corner the market on asinine statements about transportation this week. Here’s Governor J.B. Pritzker (who, in fairness, generally has a decent record in this department) boasting on Twitter that “Illinois is a leader in the fight for a green planet,” and then going on a few hours later to celebrate the expansion of a highway by 50 percent, which will induce more driving and worsen the climate situation.

Fortunately, others have been making more rational statements this week about what Chicago needs to do to address traffic jams. “It’s been shown time and time again that highway expansion fails to provide long-term congestion relief,” said Active Transportation Alliance spokesperson Kyle Whitehead. “It just leads to more emissions that harm the climate and neighborhood air quality while further isolating people who can’t afford or aren’t physically able to drive.”

“Increased investment in fast, reliable public transit is clearly a more effective, sustainable, and equitable solution,” Whitehead added. “Congestion pricing, such as charging drivers a toll for entering the Central Business District during peak hours, should also be considered if officials are truly interested in long-term, sustainable solutions.”

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Another Tall Tale About Congestion From the Texas Transportation Institute

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Crossposted from City Observatory. Everything is bigger in Texas — which must be why, for the past 30 years, the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) has basically cornered the market for telling whoppers about the supposed toll that traffic congestion takes on the nation’s economy. Today, they’re back with a new report, “The Urban Mobility Scorecard,” which purports to […]