Congestion Costs Chicago $7.3 Billion Per Year

chicago_congestion.jpgYou know a city is getting serious about tackling traffic when a new report comes out measuring how much gridlock costs the region.

In New York, it was the 2006 release of Growth or Gridlock, which pegged the annual price of traffic at $13 billion, that set off a public debate about congestion pricing that continues to this day. In London, the business group London First issued a similar report spurring Mayor Ken Livingstone to adopt a congestion charge. Now Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council has released "Moving at the Speed of Congestion" [PDF], which estimates that excess traffic costs the region $7.3 billion per year.

Chicago is already in the process of implementing performance parking and launching its first BRT routes (using federal funds New York would have received had Albany approved congestion pricing). The new report indicates
that local policy makers will be urged to go further, perhaps in the
direction of congestion pricing, though not necessarily a London-style

"The report shows that if we do look at pricing it has to be with a
regional focus, not just in the city," says Mandy Burrell of the
MPC. "There needs to be a menu of solutions that work collectively
across the region."

at the Speed of Congestion" eschews specific proposals, but the authors
do note that an effective solution to the region’s congestion problems
won’t be limited to tolling highways:

Congestion mitigation strategies that focus
solely on increasing expressway speeds, perhaps by increasing expressway prices, could inadvertently divert traffic to
arterials. Instead, a coordinated strategy to increase travelers’ transportation options, while reducing traffic levels and
increasing speeds on both expressways and arterials, will be

What sort of traffic mitigation ideas might surface following the release of the report? For now, the MPC is focused on improving Illinois’s capital plan, an omnibus spending package that has not been renewed since 2004. The state legislature is currently debating a new plan, including funding for Chicago’s bevy of local and regional transportation agencies.

Historically, the capital plan has diverted big chunks of money to a mishmash of member items and pork. The result? Two thousand miles of new lanes have been added to the region’s highways and arterial roads over the last 20 years, while average rush-hour commute times have doubled.

The MPC wants future spending to be based on set criteria, like curbing the amount of money people have to spend at the pump, and the length of time they spend sitting in traffic. "We should be prioritizing transportation
projects that reduce commutes and connect job centers," says Burrell. "Too often the projects that end up in the plan
aren’t the ones that reduce congestion, because the plan doesn’t have
stated goals."

The report suggests that one such goal should be to provide Chicagoans with more transportation options:

While some would say congestion is the result of people
choosing to drive, it is equally accurate to view congestion
as the result of a lack of choice. A prime example is a mass
transit network that more efficiently moves people to and
from home, work, stores, schools, and other transportation
hubs to give people more choice in how to get around.

Photo: Metropolitan Planning Council

  • People ask, “who will pay for free public transit?” Answer: it pays for itself.

  • The economics of parking revenue and fines will change drastically in the future and a private contract might lock the City into an outmoded technology. For example, the whole curb parking system could be wireless and have real-time recording of status of every parking space. Information about available spaces and the current curb price would be accessible to drivers in vehicles via cell phones, and estimated on a daily and hourly basis. Information about vehicles parked with expired parking times would be available for manual or automatic electronic ticketing.

    See example from San Francisco:

  • mrod305

    no. As a professional in this field, I can tell you this is not the case. In fact, there is no transit system in the country (and extremely few in the world) that pay for themselves. Farebox revenues only recover somewhere between 40-60% of the total costs of a system. The recovery ration depends on the system. In Chicago, it ranges somewhere between 45-55%, depending on the year, and whether it is CTA or Metra. So keep in mind that your farebox recovery does not cover your cost.

    Food for thought. Does that matter? That is to say, society at large benefits from a transit rider. That transit rider has reduced congestion by not taking a private vehicle trip. He has also contributed less carbon emissions for his trip. In economics, we say there is a positive externality associated with mass transit. Thus, while it receives “subsidies,” those subsidies may be offset by the (often intangible) benefits of the transit system being there.

    But from an accounting perspective, no, fare box recovery ratios are never 100%.
    I agree that this is a problem. My issue with such reports about traffic congestion is that they only look at one part of the urban mobility system: roads. They are measuring the difference of the time on a congested road, against an ideal without congestion, and then assigning a value to that time. That is the cost. What about other modes?

    That is to say, the urban mobility system is multimodal. People move on mass transit as well, which includes trains. Freight moves on trains as well. We understand that traffic delays cost the road-based transit system (i.e. buses). But the other mode (rail) is left out of the equation.

    In larger cities, such as Chicago, there is an actual congestion and delay in rail. Trains are often delayed or not on time due to construction issues. Sometimes they are over-capacity (such as the Red-line after a Cubs game). Or pehaps the headways are not running as quickly as they could (maybe due to budget constraints). This is a delay cost to the commuter as well. In this case, the commuter is facing a longer headway, and perhaps a longer travel time and average speed, than he otherwise would if the system was given more capacity. Or perhaps if the rail system was improved with new infrastructure and technology that increases average speed. These differences in transit times, against an ideal, are costs just like a congested road against its ideal.

    Looking at a urban mobility system-wide analysis would allow us to think of solutions that consider all parts of how people and stuff move. This report about traffic congestion tempts us towards the solution of “lets reduce traffic congestion by fixing and improving roads.” Or perhaps improving transit, but only insamuch as it reduces congestion.

    If we look at the cost of movement delays (which would include all modes), we can consider solutions that use a systems perspective. We would think of improving the train system not only because it reduces congestion but because it redcues transit travel times. Of course, it all is an intergrated system. We need to look at how people move, and their delays and times, in all modes. What matters is how long it takes for people (and stuff) to move from point to point. No matter which mode. Period.


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