Chicago Region Loses Billions Each Year Thanks to Traffic Congestion

A new report from the Metropolitan Planning Council pegs the annual cost of congestion to the Chicago region at $7.3 billion.

Streetsblog reports on a new analysis of traffic impacts on Chicago and its surrounding counties. The data may boost a region-wide effort to curb congestion and provide more transportation choices.

"You know a city is getting serious about congestion mitigation 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 that New York would have received if Albany had 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 cordon.

"'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.'"

Full Story: Congestion Costs Chicago $7.3 Billion Per Year



Traffic congestion isn't the only congestion

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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