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The city of Chicago is home to one million registered cars and 64 miles of expressway. If you own a car your share is about four inches of roadway. We all know the scene when everyone wants his four inches. You’re on one of Chicago’s many multilane, terminally straight, irreproachably flat expressways, and traffic’s flowing fine. But then a cloud passes across the sun, the radio station lapses into a 1980s flashback track, and things start to move with the viscosity of molasses. You’re left contemplating the median strip as you know it was never intended to be seen. You mull the pockmarks, the pebbles, the rubber of blown tires–relics of less fortunate souls before you. You stop wondering who are all these people? and realize with a chill they are you.
Handling the situation with all the grace and poise of a five-year-old at the opera house? Console yourself; you are participating in an ancient, well-honed form of urban torture. Leonardo da Vinci, stuck in 15th-century jams on Rome’s narrow streets, lobbied for the construction of a gentlefolk’s “high road” and a commoners’ “low road.” Today, in the 20th century, the study of traffic congestion has stretched beyond the disgruntled artist and spawned a multimillion-dollar subculture to our car culture. Now the gapers have their gapers. Tune in any early-hours program, from WLUP’s antics to WBEZ’s Morning Edition, and you won’t be more than 15 minutes away from an in-depth analysis of conditions on the inbound Eisenhower. Driving at 3 AM? You can get a Shadow report on WLS every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Eighty-six years after the first encounter with the Model T, America’s love affair with the automobile has entered therapy. These engineers, technicians, and theorists have brought the force of scientific analysis to bear on what is an increasingly common condition–you in your car going 55 miles per hour under the speed limit.
T.J. Andrew gets paid to get stuck in traffic. Except that he’s so good he rarely does. “You’ve got to ride with T.J. if you want to learn about traffic,” his boss told me. So at six o’clock on a clear Monday morning, I set out to meet the 34-year-old traffic guru at the Des Plaines oasis on the Northwest Tollway. I got stuck. At 5 AM on a bright Tuesday morning I tried again, and finally arrived overcaffeinated but on time at the sanctuary of the McDonald’s. As the sun rose to a flapping flag and buzzing fast-food neon, brake lights were already lighting up the morning mist on the highway below. Emerging from the haze, an insectlike van with six roof antennae climbed the exit ramp. The large man in the driver’s seat leaned over with a grin to open the door. “It’s not too bad yet,” he said as I got in, “just some piddly toll plaza backups. Might be some mating with the walls today though, people aren’t paying attention.” Moments later we were off into what he called the “fear and dissension” of the morning commute.
T.J. drives with a kind of sixth sense. “The trick,” he tells me, “is to watch the jams without becoming part of them. So when we check out a car fire it’s from the far side of the Edens. Later, without explanation, he pulls off onto an access road. A half-mile later the reason is clear–brake lights and the seeds of a jam. T.J. knows alternate routes to his alternate routes. The Chicagoland road atlas that sits in the backseat with the first-aid kit appears more a decoration than a necessity as we calmly proceed one step ahead of the hapless commuter. But finally the city conspires to trap us behind a “most untimely” coal train, drawing from T.J. the confession, “No question, you definitely get headaches out here.”
At 20 after the hour and then again at 10 to, T.J. calls in to station WABT in that familiar cadence that brooks no punctuation. “Well inbound Edens not so bad gonna take you 25 minutes Lake Cook to the junction 45 all the way to downtown northbound Tri-State devastated by that car fire still getting cleared up two cars stopped in the right lane by the overpass hope we’re not lookin’ at that folks” he says, gently chiding, as we shift into the left lane, southbound. On the hour and half hour T.J. makes the same kind of calls to WCBR. He’s been giving these live reports for Chicago’s Shadow Traffic for 11 of its 15 years. He says they’ve turned traffic reporting into “as exact a science as you can get.”
T.J.’s uncanny ability to surf and observe the traffic without getting stuck in it is not, though it might seem so, due to divine birthright. He’s just well informed. In the “mobile news room” that is his Shadow Traffic van, a continuous cacophony emanates from four radios, one scanner, two pagers, and a cellular phone packed between the two front seats. As he drives T.J. fields my questions and at the same time listens to the nearly constant chatter from these devices–reports from the toll authority, Illinois Department of Transportation, fire, police, Red Cross, disaster services, radio clubs, bus services, and a few stringers he’s lined up. “He’s got dog ears,” says a coworker at Shadow, and every once in a while they seem to twitch as he points to one of the radios to indicate something important. Over the din the standard car radio contributes an old R.E.M. song, but T.J. has already tuned it out.
“You didn’t see that,” he says as we take an illegal back exit from a rest area onto local roads to avoid a jam around the Kennedy construction project. The improvements won’t increase capacity, he tells me; the city would have to buy and raze buildings for that. The new road surface, on and off ramps, and the addition of a fifth lane from Addison to Montrose were all designed to smooth the flow of traffic and improve safety. “Operation Kennedy is engineering genius,” T.J. tells me, “ballast with a four-inch asphalt cushion, epoxy-coated rebar, and 18 inches of concrete. It’s designed for 20 years but I bet it’ll go 30.” Picking up the handset to do another traffic report he adds with a laugh, “I guess I’m kind of a road geek, though.”
“Dialed in” to the mass of technology that’s devoted to monitoring traffic, T.J. comes across as a modern-day Jack Kerouac living a version of On the Road as written by Douglas Coupland. Except that he’s not driving across country looking for the American dream. He’s driving in circles in the American nightmare. The protagonist is modest: “Let’s face it–what I actually do is kind of geeky–I get in a van with a bunch of radios, drive around, and look at traffic.” T.J.’s ascent from the humble beginnings of a radio hobbyist and gas station manager in Glencoe is the story of a man and the road, plus a two-year-old avoiding day care. “When she was a kid I’d strap my daughter Sinead into the backseat for the morning drive. It was a little difficult for some of the radio stations to make the transition from CNN to ‘guy-in-a-van-with-screaming-kid’ reporting on traffic, but they managed.”
The predilection for travel times begs a question: “How much of a disaster is traffic really?” Traffic reports are a distinctly modern craving, driven by a racing metabolism. While fast food gets faster (e.g. Taco Bell express) and an electric superhighway shrinks the world of information, our roads to exurbia carry people increasing distances from home to work. Accustomed to concision, conditioned to accept CNN’s headlines as news and MTV’s cuts as transitions, we have developed a certain impatience. So it’s not surprising that being stuck on the Stevenson in the dog days of summer inhaling the aroma of hot asphalt feels like a jail sentence; we reach out to the omniscient traffic service for deliverance.
Despite this, T.J. explains to me as we pick up coffee and a Sun-Times at a 7-Eleven, most people who listen to traffic reports won’t take alternate routes. “The majority of commuters know the expressways, that’s about it. I don’t think you can take the typical person off the highway. My mom will sit for an hour and a half in gridlock on the Kennedy. I can’t sway her, she just won’t take Elston,” he says wistfully. In the afternoon, when T.J. trades in the van for a desk at Shadow’s control center, he sometimes answers what Shadow calls “Cell-One live-drive” phone calls from distraught commuters. “Most people are comfortable just knowing what is causing the delay. Someone will call and say the Stevenson sucks. I’ll tell them there’s an accident at the overpass and they’ll say, ‘Oh . . . I see, so that’s what it is.'” Robbed of the freedom normally afforded by the automobile, stuck in a situation we have no control over, we’re somehow pacified by the information. Traffic reports are to the commuter what blues are to the luckless–a song of endurance.
Between Shadow and its competitor, Metro Traffic Services, the rush hour now comes in for closer notice than social criticism by Pate Philip: WBBM and WMAQ punctuate their morning newscasts every ten minutes with traffic-and-weather reports. Traffic is like the weather; it’s another guilt-free obsession. Other things in life that infuriate us–things like politics, crime, schools, and taxes–we feel accountable for. But traffic and weather remain comfortably beyond our control. A snowstorm or a ten-mile backup might be avoided, but to change either requires an act of God. And to round out the therapeutic allure, it’s easy to blame the messenger. Weather forecasters are cursed for weeks of rain and T.J. gets honked at if traffic has been slow. “I used to catch hell from the nurse at my daughter’s school.” She’d say, “Route 60 was icy yesterday, there were cars in ditches, and you guys didn’t report anything.”
Here’s the cash flow. Radio stations don’t pay for traffic reports, they just give airtime; Shadow follows each report with a two-line ad from one of its sponsors. Sponsors, such as restaurants and airlines, pay in standard currency, but also contribute “gimmes” that include tickets for free meals or special events. In the spirit of a barter economy, Shadow sometimes trades these to stringers (as it trades ad time to bus and towing companies) in exchange for traffic information. T.J. maintains many of these relationships, which can mean “going down to a police station with a box of doughnuts and explaining why I think they have an obligation to call us if they have an accident on their hands and they’re going to take a couple hours investigating it.” The relationship is actually more symbiotic than the doughnuts would suggest–Shadow reciprocates by notifying the police of accidents and warning motorists of trouble spots.
But radio contacts and a roving van aren’t enough to give you a clear, complete picture of the traffic situation. So says T.J., as I join him on a Friday afternoon in the Shadow Traffic offices on the 94th floor of the Hancock. In the spectrum of traffic tools at their disposal, it turns out the van sits at the low-tech end. Shadow also receives readings from IDOT sensors in the roads and data from as many as two leased helicopters and two leased airplanes. The van is needed mostly around places like O’Hare where air coverage is impossible, but in early 1995 Shadow intends to expand its repertoire by installing remote control cameras near the airport and at expressway junctions. Don’t be surprised if some future cable TV conglomerate offers you a “traffic” channel so you can tune in before heading out.
In the afternoon T.J. works here at headquarters “editing traffic” at a packed control panel. There’s barely room for coffee cups alongside the keyboards, computer screens, radios, and speakers that crowd the small area by a window that looks onto the Hancock’s observation deck. T.J. and two colleagues sit here in a state of heightened sensory awareness, pulling all the information together and entering it into IBM computers. “Poor bastards” mutters one, checking a screen displaying numbers from the sensors on I-90. “EBNWT DEV$>DPO DU 2 ACCI 2LL AT DPO :KENNX>BARR 45,” T.J. types. “JAKED,” he adds, his notation for “extra repulsive traffic.” The shorthand shows up on computer screens in surrounding rooms where reporters read traffic to some 66 local radio stations. Crammed for space at this altitude, Jeanne McClure reports for gospel station WWHN (“And now, with the Lord’s traffic . . . “) from a tiny adjacent kitchen that doubles as a studio. Perched on a patio chair, she leans forward to the mike and translates the scrambled text from the screen. “A mess on the Northwest Tollway eastbound from the Devon toll plaza to the Des Plaines oasis due to an accident with injuries in the two left lanes from the Kennedy to Barrington Road it’s 45 minutes,” she says without a breath.
McClure, one of Shadow’s 50 employees who together read over 5,000 traffic reports each week, takes a spare second to show me the ropes. “Here’s the screen. JAKED, OHGOD, or SUX! is T.J.-ese for jammed. If the times scroll out of view just stall, say ‘If you’re in that area, watch for delays.’ Here’s the phone. Answer it when you can. Microphone’s to the left, ads and schedule to the right, aspirin’s in the first-aid kit by the door.” I opt to sit and watch. Since there are only a few minutes between broadcasts, a theatrical ability to change character is a prerequisite for any traffic reporter. McClure switches from hip prereport banter with a DJ to a 30-second traffic monologue to a shout down the hall because all the phone lines are jammed, all in the course of two minutes. In the narrow hallway, reporters from the other 15 studios that surround the editing desk collide on their way to the next reading. “Reporting’s hectic,” she says, peering out of her studio, “but it’s nothing like this.”
“Editing traffic is not for everyone,” operations manager Rick Sirovatka tells me matter-of-factly. To an outsider, it looks like the perfect invitation to a nervous breakdown. T.J. admits that the chaos often invades his sleep at night, yet he’s always pleasant. Typing continuously, he finds a moment to answer a phone labeled “Please Be Gentle With This” and advise a distressed commuter who called DRIVE67. This time, unfortunately, there are no alternate routes. “Northbound Tri-State not so pretty,” he tells the unlucky commuter. “I don’t know, do you want to get it all over at once or in little bits?” T.J., also in charge of dispatching the van, helicopters, planes, and stringers, keeps the entire traffic picture from Wisconsin to Indiana in his head. He knows how it thickens, how it unwinds, and how it can change at a moment’s notice. “All it takes is a few drops of rain or a guy who won’t drive over a bottle cap and it’s like someone just rewound the whole traffic tape and played it over from the start.” Construction on the Kennedy has shut that expressway’s sensors down, so every couple of minutes someone runs out to the observatory with a telescope to check traffic speeds on “typically trashed” I-90. A piece of paper taped to the wall lists landmarks–it’s two miles from the North Avenue Coke sign to the IHOP at Fullerton. “I feel for those guys,” he says quietly, squinting through the eyepiece. Traffic is going about 15 miles an hour.
While T.J. dedicates his life to keeping commuters informed of the latest traffic malady, IDOT’s Traffic Communications Center has a crack team of engineers, traffic technicians, and “communications specialists” trying to work short-term cures. Another technological testament to our traffic mania, the Communications Center and the accompanying Traffic Systems Center in Oak Park form the nerve center of Chicago’s traffic management. As early as 1962 IDOT had installed ultrasonic detectors along the Eisenhower to monitor traffic flow. Today induction loops, functioning like metal detectors, buried beneath the road surface at half-mile intervals measure traffic density on the Calumet, Dan Ryan, Kennedy, Edens, Stevenson, and Eisenhower expressways. A large map at the Communications Center uses the data to color-code the roads, showing the speed of traffic. What sounds like a surveillance system out of Brave New World, they assure me, is publicly available. Aspiring traffic dorks with a modem can hook up for $600.
A road segment blinks red, indicating a “probable major incident” that’s corroborated by a driver calling *999. A communication specialist dispatches a Minutemen team in a fluorescent truck to clear the accident and assist the driver. Actually, accidents constitute only 10 percent of the traffic events that the Minutemen respond to. Another 75 percent are disabled vehicles, and “oddball” occurrences like a lawyer gathering papers blown out a window make up the remaining 15 percent.
The Minutemen are the self-proclaimed “guardians of the roadway.” The manager I talked to had that smugness you might expect to find in a surgeon. In a sense they are the physicians of the roads–specialists charged with the single task of unclogging the forever hardening urban arteries. The center boasts a 10-to-12-minute response time to road emergencies. The voice of Hunter S. Thompson was loud in my head, urging me to put the claim to the test: to grab a kitchen timer and put on the brakes during rush hour. Nah.
Using the sensors in the roads, IDOT broadcasts estimated travel times in a computer voice that has all the charm of directory information. (Tune in radio frequency 530 AM or telephone 312-DOT-INFO.) Listen sometime when you’re stuck–the report’s reassuring in a clinical sort of way. The sensors control the small traffic signals by 120 of the ramps onto the Kennedy, Edens, Dan Ryan, and Eisenhower expressways. Pioneered in Chicago in 1961, the idea behind “ramp metering” is continuity.
Like a fluid, traffic flows best when it’s least turbulent. Any roadway has an optimum density (about four car lengths of spacing) above which defensive drivers hit the brakes, traffic gets choppy, and flow is reduced. Using the sensors, the Traffic Systems Center sets the signals to regulate the flow of traffic onto the highway, trying to keep it below that critical density.
Congestion in Chicago has been around almost as long as the roads that host it. In 1960 Illinois completed the Edens Expressway, designed to handle up to 1,500 vehicles per lane per hour. In 1961 it was jammed with 2,000. Under the wear and tear of traffic and weather, the typical road surface has a lifetime of 20 years, and facelifts like Operation Kennedy (total cost $450 million) don’t come cheap. In 1990 the Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS) released a report showing that nearly 60 percent of the people working in Chicago commute by car, using some 720,000 cars daily and taking an average of 30 minutes to get to work. Grand total of time spent in those cars each morning: 48 years! Over the last decade the Chicago-area population has increased by 2 percent while miles driven have jumped by 30 percent to 84 million miles a day. In poll after poll the public lists traffic congestion as a major complaint, yet people remain unable or unwilling to get out of their cars.
Although you might think traffic jams are a simple matter of too many cars, too little road, traffic is a well-studied, perhaps overstudied, realm of civil engineering. While T.J. plays the objective observer and the Traffic Communications Center impassively clears the roads, theorists and academics have applied everything from fluid flow to game theory since the 1960s in an attempt to understand the behavior of traffic and how to improve it. A whole branch of theoretical science has developed around the “driver-car-road problem”–as the reference Kinetic Theory of Vehicular Traffic puts it. In Chicago, the University of Illinois’ Urban Transportation Center and Northwestern’s Traffic Institute hold prominent spots in the academy.
Early traffic theory cast individuals on the road as particles in a fluid. It was an approach similar to the early Adam Smith days of economic theory that assumed the market was composed of rational, informed individuals who acted to maximize their own “utility function.” Since “rational” and “informed” are probably the last words you would use to describe the average commuter, attempts to model traffic using the equations of hydrodynamics soon ran aground; while fluid flow successfully described the basic features of merging traffic, it stumbled over complications like the gaper’s delay. Just as economists started to incorporate human nature into their calculations, later traffic-modeling theories, such as Car Following Theory and Queuing Theory, tried to incorporate driver behavior and driver strategy and account for the fact that “how one person drives affects how everyone else drives.” Thus the field moved beyond its early antihumanism, upgrading drivers from unthinking particles to individuals with agendas (and car phones, and tempers, and fast food banquets spread out on the dashboard). Today there is no grand unified theory of traffic, the experts told me, just mathematical mock-ups of human behavior. When you’re out there ask yourself, “Am I a particle or sentient?”
While there’s no consensus on how to model the archetypal driver, experts tend to agree on the causes of traffic jams. Bob Seyfried, an engineer at the Northwestern Traffic Institute, breaks the causes of congestion down into three categories; Geometric Bottlenecks, Incidents, and plain Too Much Traffic. Bottlenecks, such as where the Tri-State, East-West Tollway, and I-290 extension feed the inbound Eisenhower (what some call simply “the bottleneck”), are regular clots in Chicago’s traffic flow. Incidents like last summer’s escaped “panther,” the shutdown of the North-South Tollway to stop a bus police wrongly thought carried a murder suspect, burst water mains, and buckling pavement can bring traffic to a halt for hours at a time. One hot day last June, buckled asphalt blocked lanes on the Calumet, the Stevenson, and the 290 extension, backing up traffic for 20 miles and trapping some commuters for five hours.
But identifying congestion’s causes doesn’t tell the whole story. In the 1960s, using aerial photography to track cars on a highway after an incident, engineers observed mysterious clots moving along the lines of traffic. Now known as “shock waves,” and predicted by Queuing Theory, they explain why congestion can linger like a bad cold even after its source is gone. Nagui Rouphail, a former professor at the University of Illinois, paused from his study of traffic lights at North Carolina State University to explain the phenomenon. “If you have a slowdown or a bottleneck on the road, the situation is exactly like sand in an hourglass. Since the traffic can only pass through that point at a slower rate, the cars, like the sand before the neck of the glass, have to be stored somewhere, so they pile up.” It’s what Rouphail terms a “stopping wave”: “If you imagine that the last car in line behind the incident has a red flag and passes it back to the next car that joins the queue and so on, the speed that the flag moves backwards is the speed of the wave. Depending on the capacity and amount of traffic, it can reach 40 or 50 miles per hour.”
After the incident has been cleared and there is a sudden increase in capacity, a “starting wave” begins. Imagine that as each car gets to the front of the queue and starts to accelerate it passes a green flag to the car behind. The rate at which that flag gets passed back is the velocity of the starting wave. The waves wash back, away from the incident, causing congestion, until the starting wave (the green flag) catches up to the stopping wave (the red flag), which typically isn’t until the stopping wave reaches an open section of road. It explains those odd moments of wonder motorists experience when, after they’ve come to a dead stop, the traffic clears up for no apparent reason.
Because of its human element, traffic is fundamentally fragile, its flow precarious and easily disrupted. In heavy traffic a fender bender can cause a shock wave, adding insult where there is no injury and setting up dangerous traffic conditions that can cause more accidents. T.J. showed me some instances on our tour of the expressways. “What we’re in now is what I call unstable traffic,” he yelled over the squeal of a siren. “All it takes is one person not paying attention. Probably 90 percent of accidents are because of traffic like this.” Traffic reports and programmable highway signs can at best warn of the inclement conditions.
Moving away from the highways to the more complicated local roads, Natacha Thomas, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, runs computer models to simulate traffic flow on Dundee Road. Playing the impish traffic deity, she closes off one lane and studies the emerging traffic conditions. The model (developed by the Federal Highway Administration) uses “car-following theory.” Unlike the fluid models, it tries to reproduce the more complex features of local roads, allowing drivers to change lanes and react to surrounding cars. Playing with the minds of hypothetical drivers, Thomas can tweak “lane changing desire” and “gap acceptance” (the car spacing at which people feel comfortable enough to change lanes) numbers until they yield actual driving data from the area. The research is part of IDOT’s new ADVANCE project, an entry in a new field of study known as IVHS, for intelligent vehicle highway system. ADVANCE, aimed at “dynamic route guidance,” will put a street-savvy computer (radio-linked to a central data base) in your passenger seat chirping directions to keep you away from jams. Thomas hopes her research will identify traffic patterns indicating that an incident has occurred even before it is reported through the usual channels. The computers in the ADVANCE cars, by learning to recognize these early-warning signs, would then be able to reroute the drivers around the trouble.
By 1996 ADVANCE plans to road test 3,000 of its smart cars in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Funded by dozens of sources, from AAA and IDOT to Motorola and Mercedes-Benz, the project’s philosophy is to “make the best use of the roads we have,” manager Joe Ligas explains. Realizing that goal means the car’s on-board computers need up-to-the-minute travel times so they can identify the fastest route. Each car helps with the information gathering by automatically radioing in its own speed to a central data base. The data base combines these reports with information from many of the same sources Shadow Traffic uses to estimate travel times from intersection to intersection called “link times.” Even with all these resources, Ligas points out, it will be impossible to get live link times over the entire 300-square-mile area they plan to cover. What to do when reality fails you? Retreat to theory.
Stan Berka, a University of Illinois postdoc with a PhD in traffic, computer models “route choice” to estimate thousands of link times in the ADVANCE project area. Based on game theory, the model’s single premise is that drivers faced with a choice at an intersection will choose the route with the shorter travel time. The game continues until an “equilibrium solution” is reached where no driver can improve his or her route. Using recent demographic data from the Chicago Area Transportation Study to gauge who wants to go where when, Berka’s computer applies variational calculus to find the equilibrium solutions. After a few days’ work it spits out large tables of link times. For a given time of day, the tables (to be stored on CD-ROM in the cars) will provide the computer with an estimate of how long it takes to get from someplace like Baldwin to West Frontage on Dundee Road. “It works pretty well,” Berka tells me, comparing the model to the little data available. “The hardest thing to model was left turns; we had to import Australian methods for that.”
Trying to get at the psychology of driving, William von Hartz, a bike messenger turned mathematician, just moved to the Chicago area after completing research at the University of California at Santa Cruz applying game theory to traffic flow. He sees driving as a kind of Hobbesian social contract. Getting on the highway, he says, is a game of trusting the other drivers. “It’s like the prisoner’s dilemma,” he explains, citing one of game theory’s classic examples. In the prisoner’s dilemma, you and a friend have committed a crime and been apprehended and placed in separate rooms. The authorities, clever people that they are, cross-examine each of you separately. You can either remain silent or confess. If you both remain silent you both go to jail for a year. If one of you remains silent and the other confesses, the stoolie goes free and the reticent one goes to the slammer for 20 years. If you both confess you share a cell for 5 years. It’s a quandary–the collective good is served by both of you remaining silent, but by remaining silent you risk being screwed if the other person betrays you. It’s the same thing with driving, von Hartz explains. “It requires a certain faith in the system. If everyone drives cooperatively, we all get there in a reasonable time.” Maniac driving and late merging will get one person home faster, but then the system breaks down (the “you go to jail for 20 years, maniac goes free” resolution). “When people drive cooperatively and an uncooperative driver enters, it undermines everyone’s confidence in the highway system.” Quick lane changes, late merging, and gaping at accidents all subjugate the collective good to the individual whim. Where rugged individualism works to optimize utility in the free market, it leads to hell on the roadways.
So where is all this technology and intellectual construction work taking us? Given the problem’s scope, improvements like the $57 million ADVANCE project and the automatic toll-billing system being tested on I-355 may feel more like high-tech Band-Aids than cures. How the average driver will like listening to a computer imitation of a backseat driver also remains to be seen.
Beyond the psychological toll on commuters, traffic jams have their economic, political, and environmental costs. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates the national cost of congestion at $88 billion in lost time and fuel by the year 2005. Chicago’s history books attribute Michael Bilandic’s mayoral defeat in part to heavy snows and driver frustration. The Illinois EPA concludes that vehicle emissions constitute the largest single source of air pollution in the Chicago area (over 490 tons of smog-producing hydrocarbons a day). To date, the environmental cause has brought the most force to bear on the problem. A newly enacted amendment to the 1990 Federal Clean Air Act, the Employee Commute Options (ECO) program will require businesses employing 100 or more people to curtail the number of automobiles workers commute in between the hours of 6 AM and 10 AM. By subsidizing public transit, organizing van pools, and otherwise encouraging alternate modes of transport, companies must reduce by 25 percent the number of cars per employee arriving each morning. Programs to accomplish this must be set up by April 1996. Since Chicago’s ozone level rates as “severe” by EPA standards, the act also requires a flat 15 percent reduction of harmful emissions. The teeth behind the law are sharp; noncompliance can bring a daily penalty of up to $25,000 for an employer and a loss of highway funds for the state.
The debate around ECO follows the same rhetoric as the legal battle over tobacco. Everyone knows traffic congestion is unhealthy, but parties vacillate over how or to what extent change should be legislated. Businesses either refute the pollution estimates as outdated (Chicago’s “severe” classification is based on a study in the early 1980s), or concede the problem but worry that compliance will be difficult and the penalties potentially devastating. While an alternative like a 50-cent gasoline tax might take the onus off the employer, it would sacrifice what is at the heart of the ECO program; its larger vision is to encourage the development of alternative transportations and to modify our behavior so more of us are willing to use them.
All the traffic pundits I talked to praised public transit, despite what they saw as its shortcomings. Compared to the price of a gallon of gas, the $1.50 for a CTA ride can seem excessive; add to it increased travel time and the inconvenience of trains in many areas and you begin to understand why people still brave the highways. John Koziol, a manager at the Traffic Communications Center, told me bluntly, “We had the wrong goal by starting with cars in 1960. We’d be much better off today if we had been thinking about how to get people around and not cars.” Dean Englund, deputy for development at CATS, where much of Chicago’s transportation system has been planned, remarked that more public transit has always been an option: “Alternate forms of transportation are always being investigated, things like high occupancy vehicle [HOV] lanes or more public transit, it’s just that the powers that be haven’t seen fit to implement them.” It’s not that role models are hard to find; cities across the U.S. have instituted HOV lanes, and countries across Western Europe have banned cars in polluted downtown areas, forcing most commuters to switch to buses or trains. If public transit is to take a larger role in Chicago, public officials will have to be willing to take larger risks.
But elected policymakers can only partly be at fault. Other easy targets, like the ADVANCE project that will encourage the use of cars, seem more a symptom than a remedy; in the end, the traffic industry is only responding to a population that views the freedom to drive as if it were part of the Bill of Rights. And while the work of traffic reporters, engineers, and theorists seems a bit like an absurdist commentary on the modern condition, it also stands as a monument to human ingenuity: where game theory won three economists a Nobel Prize this year, traffic cannot be far behind.
Inevitably, some of the responsibility for change lies in the driver’s seat. IVHS, ramp metering, and traffic reporting will all help reduce delays on the expressways, but they won’t change the fact that few people carpool and that more are using the roads. Accustomed to scientific fixes, we have become slow at modifying our behavior. Our tools have made evolution unnecessary and out of fashion.
On the question of behavior, traffic theory offers a final poignant parable. Flip through old issues of the Traffic Research Board Journal or chat with academics and you’ll eventually come across something called Braess’s Paradox. In the classic example, you build an extra road to relieve congestion, but the net effect is longer travel times. As a result of each person striving to better his or her own situation by exploiting the increased capacity, everyone ends up spending more time on the roads. “It’s a mathematical consequence of the model, and so far only exists in theory,” one engineer told me; a Loch Ness monster of sorts, it’s never actually been observed. For now the story is relegated to the land of computer simulations, and no one’s sure if the problem is human or exists only in the model.
After slogging through Chicago’s congestion and witnessing its computer-simulated reincarnations, I asked Shadow Traffic to put me up in one of their helicopters for a final perspective. On the tarmac at Meigs Field, the copter coughed a few times before starting, then carried us up over Shedd Aquarium. As we cut north along the lake the city showed its best face, looking every bit the 1950s notion of human progress. In the postwar American romance with the city we applauded its superhighways and skyscrapers as symbols of industrial might, and flocked to its jobs and security. Now, while the city holds the dissonant sounds of high achievement and urban decay, many retreat to the suburbs. As the helicopter passed to the west, the shimmering buildings of downtown fell away to reveal thousands of small cars crawling along the expressways. Though the city is a world of our own creation, we still struggle with one of its disobedient offspring, the traffic jam.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg; illustration/Dorothy Perry.