Elevating Chicago

Driving Archives

Lies, Damn Lies, and Chicago's Congestion "Problem"

Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

The Texas Transportation Institute's Urban Mobility Report is always good for a few screaming headlines, and this year's release doesn't disappoint. Chicago and Washington, DC tied for the longest commuter delays,* totaling 70 hours per commuter per year in 2009 (the most recent year for data). That's pretty awful, especialy when you compare that to the 64 hours per commuter per year we wasted in 2008.  And since 2009 was a worse year economically, this number certainly won't improve as more people (hopefully) get back to work, many of whom will commute by driving themselves.

Except that TTI's rankings are a crock. When a rough draft of this report came out last year, Chicago's own CEOs for Cities responded: their "Driven Apart" report is the most thorough debunking of TTI's methods I've ever seen.  Briefly, TTI has 2 main ranking systems, and both of them have fundamental flaws.

  1. "Delay Time." Chicago ranks #1 in the nation in total delay hours, but what is a delay? Well, anytime you travel on a highway below 60 mph or on an arterial below 30, you're adding to the delay.  Nevermind that most expressways around here have 55 mph speed limits and arterials are often 25 mph!
  2. "Travel Time Index" This is the one that really rankles, because it produces a score which state DOTs can use like a cudgel to convince politicians to waste taxpayer money on highway capacity increases that never solve congestion problems. I'll let David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington (our brethren at #1) take it away:

Consider two hypothetical cities. In Denseopolis, people live within 2 miles of work on average, but the roads are fairly clogged and drivers can only go about 20 miles per hour. However, it only takes an average of 6 minutes to get to work, which isn't bad.

On the other hand, in Sprawlville, people live about 30 miles from work on average, but there are lots and lots of fast-moving freeways, so people can drive 60 mph. That means it takes 30 minutes to get to work.

Which city is more congested? By TTI's methods, it's Denseopolis. But it's the people of Sprawlville who spend more time commuting, and thus have less time to be with their families and for recreation.

Of course, who needs a hypothetical when there's a perfectly good real-world example of this: according to the report, Chicago and Houston have the same Travel Time Index of 1.25 (which ranks us 5th among very large cities, for the record). However, Chicago drivers only need an average of 13.5 miles to reach work, while Houston's average commute distance is 22.1 miles. We are desneopolis, and that's a good thing.

*Really, Jon Hilkevitch? You're gonna fall for TTI's trap too? I know you saw the CEOs for Cities report back in September--you wrote about it very cogently. So why the regurgitation of TTI's press release now? I'll give you credit for not stooping to repeat TTI's claim that "in the end, there's a need for more capacity" and instead pointing out how much worse it would be if Chicago didn't have good public transportation. But why not mention Driven Apart and say that although TTI is (unfortuantely) the standard, there are serious problems with it? Help make us an informed citizenry and all that, right?

New Monroe St. Crosswalk: thanks for following the law!

Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

Before the weekend sets in, just a tinge of outrage over something that is so close to being perfect.  Blair Kamin writes about the new crosswalk on Monroe between the Art Institute's Modern Wing and Millenium Park.  It's a great compromise between safely getting pedestrians across the street and unnecessarily impeding traffic with a full-on traffic light.

It's very simple: you press a button, wait for the big flashing yellow lights around the pedestrian signs to alert the cars to your presence, (very handy as daylight gets shorter as we head into winter,) and then cross! Cars continue on their way, you enjoy your day, everybody's happy.

monroe st xwalk sign.jpg

Image courtesy Chicago Tribune

But wait, what's that last note there? "Thank the driver"? Yes, even the mechanical voice that accompanies the signs reminds you, "And remember, thank the driver for stopping as you are crossing the roadway."  I'm all in favor of Nice Midwestern interactions, but as of this summer, all cars must stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk.  Yes, that's right, we're now being instructed to thank people for following a simple, straightforward law.  A law which, if drivers follow it, will mildly inconvenience them--if they ignore it, odds are a pedestrian gets hurt or dies.

So much of the rest of this--from process to final product--was executed well, but this kind of auto-centric urban design is absolutely flabbergasting.  Go enjoy your weekend, and be safe in those crosswalks.

Serendipity City

Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

Sometimes my life can be terribly mundane.  Eat, sleep, work, blog, repeat.  Sure, there are some days when work is pretty interesting, or I'll make an amazing dinner (I'm a great chef, just ask me), but most of what I do on a day-to-day basis is something I've done countless times before.

And then there are weekends like the one I just had that reminds me why I choose to live in a city--and why, regardless of the environmental benefits or the aggregation of economic talent, it's the fun and serendipity that makes a dense city so livable.

Saturday morning my friend and I saw the nice weather and decided to put it to good use by mostly staying inside.  I walked over to the farmer's market down the block from me, grabbed some Italian sausage, and rode the bus over to his new apartment; we grilled it, drank some beer, and watched the Germany-Uruguay World Cup consolation match.  One of our college friends was visiting some family in town this weekend, but he joined us after the game and we played Risk.  (You laugh, but drinking and trying to take over the world are incredibly fun. Word of advice though: grab hold of South America early.)


Ultimately, we got tired of wasting time inside.  Fortunately, his new apartment looks out on a park where we saw people out and about, so we dug out a soccer ball and headed over.  We started kicking it around a little, which drew a few strangers over.  In short order, we had an impromptu 4-on-4 barefoot game that kept going until darkness sent us scrambling to the nearest watering hole.

Sunday I rolled over to a pickup roller hockey game with a bunch of people who I know almost exclusively by first names or nicknames.  I almost certainly never would've met them were it not for this game, and we all get along swimmingly, even if we rarely hang out separately from these games.  I played long enough to sweat out Saturday night's shenanigans, but returned home in time to shower and ride my bike over to another friend's place for the Netherlands-Spain final.

As I rode back home I totaled up what I'd done this weekend: I'd had a good time seeing a large chunk of my friends and acquaintances, run around a lot despite almost none of it being organized or sanctioned in any way, drank my fair share, and didn't have to drive once.  Maybe one day my priorities in life will change and I'll want to make it easier to avoid other people, but that day certainly hasn't arrived yet. 

21st Century Mobility for Chicago

Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion on "21st Century Mobility" at the Goethe Institute in Washington, DC.  (Note they actually pronounce it 'Ger-te' there, not the real way of 'Go-thee' like we do.)  David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington and Professor Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech were the speakers, and it was a great way to spend an evening.  They filmed the session, but I haven't yet seen it posted anywhere--I'll update if I find it (let me know if you do!) The discussion mostly focused on activities in DC and throughout Germany, but they touched on a lot of widely applicable ideas.  DC is a mess when it comes to overlapping jurisdictions, and Germany obviously doesn't have the same governmental structure, so only some of them can really be applied to Chicago.

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Eliminating Chicago ... Avenue Exit


I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

Here at Elevating Chicago we rarely talk about the needs of the many divers in Chicago.  It is true that LaHood's definition of a livable city is one where if you don't want a car, you don't need one, but livability also means not having to apologize if you do need to drive.  Not everyone can walk, bike, or use rapid transit to get to work.  Therefore, I think it's time I write a post for drivers, by a driver.

It is true that I ride my bike or walk as much as possible; however, I also have a car and drive regularly.  Like many Chicago drivers, I drive along Lake Shore Drive often.  LSD is usually faster than the Kennedy, but it still has issues of its own in regards to traffic.  The exits along the drive that are near a beach tend to be dangerous, and require keen eyesight to spot the frequently jaywalking beach goers.  However, the worst part about the drive is the stoplight, exit (to the inner drive), and entrance (only for southbound traffic) at Chicago Ave.


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