More and wider roads cause more congestion, not less, report says

Author:Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune

A proposal for expansion of Interstate 55, shown outbound from Damen Avenue, would add “managed” lanes, open both to Pace buses and cars willing to pay a toll.

A proposal for expansion of Interstate 55, shown outbound from Damen Avenue, would add “managed” lanes, open both to Pace buses and cars willing to pay a toll. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

Conventional wisdom holds that if you build a road, or widen one, traffic will improve.

But what if that’s wrong? A new report by an advocacy group for biking, walking and transit says that adding new roads and highway lanes encourages more people to drive instead of taking the train or other means of getting around, thus creating more congestion.

The study issued Monday by the Active Transportation Alliance finds that roadway expansion has spurred an explosion in driving since 1980, worsening area traffic and leading to more crashes and pollution.

“We have to rethink this decadeslong strategy of relying on cars to take us everywhere on wider and wider roads to bigger and bigger parking lots,” said Ron Burke, executive director of the alliance. “We don’t think it’s an effective strategy to address congestion. We also don’t think it’s the future in urban areas.”

Burke said that widening roads and making driving easier and faster leads some people to take more car trips than they otherwise would, and to live farther from work and other destinations, while some companies will choose to locate farther afield and away from transit.

Instead of more and wider roads, the region should instead invest in transit and making it easier to bike and walk, the alliance said. The report comes just before the Tuesday close of the public comment period for “On to 2050,” the new draft plan by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP, which sets the agenda for transportation funding for the region and determines which projects are eligible for federal funding.

CMAP has designated some major highway expansions — including the widening of Interstates 294 and 290, and portions of Interstates 55 and 80 — as “regionally significant” and deserving of money. CMAP also favors transit projects like extending the CTA’s Red Line south to 130th Street.

The Active Transportation Alliance wants highway expansions off CMAP’s list and a moratorium on highway expansion in the Chicago area.

“We don’t think they’re a good investment,” said Burke. He noted that the estimated price tag of planned expansions of I-294, I-290 and I-55 is $7.4 billion, while just $12 million was spent on Chicago’s 100 miles of new bike ways from 2011 to 2015.

In a written response, CMAP defended its support for planned highway rebuilding and expansion.

“The plan’s goal is a region with a well-balanced, multimodal transportation network,” CMAP Executive Director Joseph Szabo wrote in an email. “Given the region’s limited resources, the plan takes a ‘fix-it first’ approach while advancing ambitious strategies for increasing transit ridership and walkable communities.”

The Illinois Department of Transportation also is reviewing the report, and responded in a statement that the department “takes into consideration all modes of travel when planning projects, in urban areas, in particular.”

Michael Sturino, president and CEO of the Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association, scoffed at the Active Transportation Alliance’s report, saying it ignores the reality that people enjoy the freedom automobiles give them. He also said the alliance is unrealistic, thinking it can convert a sprawling area where most people need cars to get around into something more like Europe.

“They don’t like the internal combustion engine. They don’t like cars,” said Sturino of the alliance. He said that people will drive anyway, and when highways are too crowded, drivers simply go on local streets, moving congestion there.

The alliance report uses numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau and its American Community Survey, along with data from CMAP, IDOT and Texas A&M University’s Urban Mobility Report.

The study found that between 1980 and 2016, the percentage of people walking, biking and taking public transit to work fell from 24 percent to 17.1 percent. During the same period, the number of miles vehicles traveled grew in the region by almost 69.2 percent, while the population grew at the much lower rate of 18 percent.

The alliance report said that though 1,000 miles of new expressways and arterial lane-miles have been added in the region between 1996 and 2015, congestion keeps getting worse. In 2014, Chicagoans spent 61 hours stuck in traffic, compared to 31 hours in 1982.

Meanwhile, the number of bus and train commuters in the suburbs fell from 9.3 percent to 6.1 percent and in the city from 32.4 percent to 28.2 percent between 1980 and 2016, the study said.

Despite Chicago’s high number of transit options, including the “L” and Metra systems, walking, biking and transit use in Chicago is lower than in other big cities, according to the study. Just over a third of Chicago commuters, or 36.5 percent, get to work by walking, biking and transit, compared to 67.7 percent in New York City and 54.3 percent in Washington, D.C., the report found. In traffic-choked Los Angeles, the percentage is 13.7 percent.

The study also noted that Chicago’s share of bike commuters increased from just 0.18 percent to 1.7 percent in the last four decades, despite the city’s population loss.

Among those favoring new thinking about road construction is Hawthorn Woods Mayor Joseph Mancino, who opposes the long-discussed proposal to extend Illinois Route 53. Supporters of the project believe it will relieve congestion in Lake County, where the population is growing, but opponents fear it will increase traffic and hurt the environment. The extension is not part of CMAP’s priority list for new projects.

“New roads are not always the answer,” Mancino said. He said less expensive traffic fixes like creating a railroad grade crossing and improving existing roads would be a better way of alleviating congestion in Lake County, saving billions of dollars and preserving natural areas.

Some proposed highway projects include a transit piece. The plans for expansion of I-55 and I-290, for example, would add “managed” lanes, open both to Pace buses and cars willing to pay a toll.

The Illinois Tollway created a “flex lane” for Pace buses and emergency responders when it expanded the Jane Addams Tollway. Planners working on a redesign of North Lake Shore Drive are also considering a managed bus and tolled lane — either by adding a lane in each direction or replacing a current lane of traffic.

The Active Transportation Alliance and the Metropolitan Planning Council, a policy research group, both support converting an existing lane of Lake Shore Drive traffic into a bus lane, instead of adding a new lane. But Sturino said this would just cause more problems.

“If you take a car lane away, where will those cars go?” said Sturino. “They’re going to surge into all the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Induced Demand

Latent demand has been recognised by road traffic professionals for many decades, and was initially referred to as “traffic generation“. In the simplest terms, latent demand is demand that exists, but, for any number of reasons, most having to do with human psychology, is suppressed by the inability of the system to handle it. Once additional capacity is added to the network, the demand that had been latent materializes as actual usage.[2]

The effect was recognized as early as 1930, when an executive of a St. Louis, Missouri electric railway company told a Transportation Survey Commission that widening streets simply produces more traffic, and heavier congestion.[3] In New York, it was clearly seen in the highway-building program of Robert Moses, the “master builder” of the New York City area. As described by Moses’ biographer, Robert Caro, in The Power Broker:


The war against cars will ultimately be won and that’s good for everyone. Cities around the world are taking on the automobile.

Author Mikael Colville-Andersen /

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is among a number of city leaders around the world who are fighting back against the dominance of automobiles in order to make urban space better serve its residents. The French capital has struggled to get its high pollution levels under control for years — air pollution kills 48,000 people in France annually — and instead of taking symbolic measures, Hidalgo wants to transform the city to improve quality of life for everyone.

The mayor’s plan is ambitious and has faced backlash from automotive groups. She plans to double the number of bike paths in the city to reach 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) by 2020, ban all gas-powered cars by 2030, redesign major intersections to favor pedestrians, expand the city’s public transportation system — including a 200-kilometre (125-mile) expansion to Paris’ world-class metro system — and the closure of certain streets to vehicle traffic. It’s on that last point where the city recently experienced a setback.

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How The Humble Bicycle Can Save Our Cities

Mikael Colville-Andersen rides his bike everywhere in Copenhagen, but he would never introduce himself as a cyclist. “I’m just one of the 400,000 people riding a bike in this city because it makes our daily lives more effective,” he tells Fast Company.

The founder of Copenhagenize, a design studio that specializes in bike infrastructure, as well as several blogs about urban cycling, Colville-Andersen is well-versed in what makes a city good for cycling, and cycling good for cities. His new book, Copenhagenize: The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism, “is a way to bring it all together,” he says.

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SMART to Solano County

A new California State Rail Plan specifies just that, with Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit making its way from Novato to Fairfield-Suisun or near Vallejo then hooking into Capitol Corridor service. The 170-mile Capitol Corridor extends to Auburn and San Jose and links into other transit lines.

“At the state level they are now looking at SMART as a way for connecting communities and they are looking at how to connect SMART to the Capitol Corridor,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager. “They see SMART as part of an entire state system. That’s the significant part of this.”

In part, the state report reads: “Evaluate expansion of rail service from San Rafael, Sonoma, and Napa Counties to Solano County, considering rail service primarily on existing rail alignments with potential connections to the statewide network at Fairfield-Suisun or near Vallejo.”

SMART owns roughly 25 miles of track eastward adjacent to Highway 37 which would help make the connection referenced by the state. Trains would go east from the Ignacio Wye in Novato near Highway 37.

“Going east presents an interesting opportunity,” said Bill Gamlen, SMART’s chief engineer, who would be tasked with figuring out how to get it done.

The rail agency is not sitting idle. SMART has applied for an $836,000 state planning grant to look at the feasibility of sending trains eastward.

“We are very excited to go north, but also start looking to connect east,” Mansourian said. “We see this as a tremendous opportunity that the state has provided us.”

The line wouldn’t be built for some time. It would be 2040 before the connection from Marin and Napa counties to the state network at a Solano County hub would be built.

The plan also calls for half-hourly peak and hourly off peak service between Cloverdale and Larkspur corridor with express bus connections from San Rafael to San Francisco and Richmond by 2040.

Plans to go east could be upset by sea level rise. The report notes SMART’s line San Rafael to Petaluma and its line parallel to Highway 37 are at risk.

The rail plan assesses funding and notes the new state gas tax — which went into place last week — as a funding source along with California’s Cap-and-Trade program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Locally, Marin and Bay Area residents will likely be asked to approve a toll hike for state-owned bridges, including the Richmond-San Rafael, in 2018. If approved, it could provide money for rail in the region. If the toll increase — known as Regional Measure 3 — gets on the June 2018 ballot and is approved, a $3 toll increase would raise $381 million annually. A toll increase could also be phased.

The rail report sees a bright future for trains in the state.

“The creation of a railroad network in California in the 19th century connected us to the rest of the nation with what was then the highest-speed form of transportation,” the report says. “Continued rail investments in the 20th century helped California’s rapid economic development. For the 21st century, California is again poised to put ‘high speed’ back in rail.

“By 2040, Californians will have access to an integrated, state-of-the-art rail system that will revolutionize personal mobility and enhance quality of life.”

Reach the author at or follow Mark on Twitter: @MarkPradoIJ.