Chicago’s traffic is literally infamous. Congestion in Chicago has been rated as the third-worst in the country, just behind Boston. Last year, drivers wasted an average of 145 hours in traffic. In terms of lost productivity, that adds up to about $2,100 per year for every driver on the road.
Not only is traffic congestion causing a loss of time and productivity — accidents and injuries are also on the rise. In 2020, Chicago saw an 11% increase in fatal accidents from the year before. Worse still, 2020’s numbers are a 45% jump in traffic fatalities from the year before. Chicago’s traffic injury and fatality record is much worse than the national average.
The COVID-19 pandemic has played a major part in these numbers. There was a documented increase in drivers exceeding the speed limit during the pandemic, as the fact there were fewer drivers on the road led to less congestion, and, ironically, more accidents. Another reason for the spike in traffic incidents is the increased amount of cycling. Chicago residents replacing walking with cycling as a form of socially distanced transportation led to a 125% increase in bicycle-related traffic accidents.
Another unexpected source of traffic congestion are ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. While they’re a popular choice for residents trying to get around, ride-sharing drivers are notorious for double-parking or sitting in front of traffic awaiting passengers. Granted, this was already something of an issue with delivery drivers and traditional cabs, but many believe the ride-sharing is making matters worse. In addition to the safety hazard it poses, this phenomenon also slows down traffic even further. Some have suggested ride-share pickup zones as a solution to this issue, though there’s been no real forward movement on the idea.
There are even wider-ranging consequences to the ongoing problem of traffic congestion — in Chicago and many major urban areas. Heavy traffic increases air pollution, which not only has an effect on physical health, but also sends emissions into the air that accelerate the effects of climate change. Heavy traffic can also cause stress, which is not only harmful to mental health but can lead to phenomena like road rage, potentially making bad traffic situations even worse. And, beyond even the individual financial impact of spending hours in traffic, congestion can cause much wider-ranging financial issues as well: slow traffic can mean delayed deliveries, increased fuel consumption, and wear and tear on vehicles, both everyday vehicles and delivery vehicles. And slow deliveries (as we’ve all found out during the pandemic) can cause widespread supply chain problems.
Heavy traffic also increases the risk factor of driving, not just for the most dangerous intersections in Chicago, but financial impacts like higher insurance premiums because those areas are high-risk — which could send drivers scrambling to find cheap car insurance in Illinois.
While it’s not directly related, traffic issues can fold into a wider negative impact on a city’s reputation, of which Chicago’s is already troubled. Even though, statistically, Chicago is not near the top of the list for homicides, it still has a reputation as one of the most violent cities in America (deserved or not), and rage-inducing traffic congestion surely does nothing to help that perception.
So what can be done about Chicago’s traffic problems?
Some cities are already instituting ideas like congestion pricing, which are essentially taxes to discourage people from driving in certain areas during peak times. This would create express toll lanes that would charge drivers based on the current traffic situation. Vehicles like buses and registered carpools could have access to these faster lanes for a reduced cost or even for free. The money generated by congestion prices would be funneled back into improving Chicago’s transportation system and infrastructure.
There are also some high-tech solutions to traffic problems that may become mainstream in the near future, such as autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars, though currently not without some issues, could address traffic congestion in a couple of ways. First, autonomous cars can follow more closely than human-driven cars, and also don’t require as wide a lane as traditional cars do. Each of these features can literally double the capacity in the driving environment, leading to a four-fold increase in freeway vehicle capacity.
Of course, another factor that may have a positive effect on traffic congestion in the long run: remote work. Since the changes wrought by the pandemic, employers have become far more friendly to the idea of remote work, and having far fewer cars on the road could mean less traffic, less pollution, and much less strain on both the environment and Chicago’s traffic.
Getting around a major city always has been, and always will be, an ongoing problem requiring new and inventive solutions. The problems may never quite go away, but new tools are being developed that could make life in the Windy City that much easier.