Chicago’s traffic problem is getting progressively worse, and residents are paying the price in both time and wasted economic opportunity. According to a new report by mobility research firm INRIX, congestion in Chicago was the second-worst in the country in 2019—up from third place in 2018 and fifth place in 2017. Only Boston had worse road congestion than the Windy City last year.
On average, Chicago’s automobile commuters wasted 145 hours sitting in traffic in 2019 the study found. That number is up from the 2018 figure of 138 hours. In terms of lost economic productivity (calculated by hours wasted in traffic multiplied by average wages), road congestion costs drivers $2,146 over a 12-month period.
So why the increase? “Chicago continues to see a fair bit of economic growth, which is a real driver of traffic congestion,” Trevor Reed, the author and analyst of the INRIX report tells Curbed Chicago. Geography also plays a role, and Chicago’s high density next to a lake limits how and where traffic congestion can be diffused across the surrounding area, Reed says.
While the INRIX study doesn’t differentiate between vehicle types and uses, another potential culprit could be the rapid rise of ride-hailing services—which can occur at the expense of existing mass transit systems such as buses and trains. According to separate data released by the city last year, Uber and Lyft trips in Chicago increased 271 percent between 2015 to 2018.
Overall, the INRIX report found that more than half of all car trips (51 percent) in Chicago were less than three miles and 22 percent were less than one mile, which is “higher than typical,” according to Reed. This is partly due to the high concentration of destinations within Chicago’s dense downtown when compared to the more sprawling Sun Belt cities. Seasonal factors such as the Midwest’s wintery weather can also influence drivers when it comes to taking more short-distance trips, he says.
Chicago’s higher percentage of shorter rides suggest that the city could benefit from more dockless bikes and electric scooters as a way to replace automobile trips, micromobility advocates say.
“As Chicago looks to find solutions to our numerous transportation challenges, it’s clear that scooters and bikes are one of the most sustainable and effective ways to unlock congestion,” said Lee Foley of Lime, a company that participated in Chicago’s 2019 scooter pilot program.
Other ways to reduce traffic could involve investing in mass transit to increase its appeal or encouraging a greater number of commuters to work from home—an experience that is becoming more common amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Local officials recently passed legislation to charge ride-hailing companies an extra fee to help pay for transit improvements. And Chicago regional planners have even considered the use of congestion pricing, similar to what’s being adopted in New York, to dissuade people from driving into congested neighborhoods at peak hours.
“I think we are at an inflection point in how cities treat congestion,” adds Reed. “We’re seeing more cities take a holistic approach to traffic, instead of trying to figure out how to push as many cars through an urban area as possible.”