We believe in small steps, but also in having a clear vision of what success looks like so that we know we’re stepping in the right direction.
We need a plan for growth without congestion: how can we grow Chicago’s population and economy without being overwhelmed by traffic congestion?
The projects listed below are intended to help us all envision a city prepared for growth without congestion—envision it with enough clarity that we can take significant steps toward achieving it.
Envisioning a Congestion-Immune Transit Network
Envisioning a Congestion-Immune
How many of our streets need dedicated transit lanes to give us a citywide network that is immune to congestion? How big does the network need to be?
You can either plan your transit system from the bottom up or from the top down. The bottom-up approach looks at each existing route and asks, “What can we do to make this route better?” The top-down approach looks at the whole system and asks, “What kind of system do we need to have the kind of city we want to live and work in?” Unless you’ve got a Bucket of Free Money, the top-down approach is usually just a fantasy—but not always.
By 2000, traffic congestion in London had reached a crisis, and it was clear the problem would only continue to get worse as the city grew. They knew they couldn’t accommodate growth if every street was configured to encourage people to drive and park wherever they went. They knew they needed to improve the alternatives to driving. They knew they couldn’t afford to build enough new subways to fix the problem, so most new transit ridership was going to have to use city streets.
London took a top-down approach that solved the problem. Instead of asking, “Where is there enough leftover road space for a bus lane?” they asked, “How many bus lanes do we need across the city to make a system that’s immune to congestion?” In 2003 they identified a network of over a hundred miles of bus lanes—and they took them. That forced car drivers into fewer lanes, which were already congested to begin with. Because they couldn’t afford to build out the supply of lanes for driving (which would have only made downtown congestion worse anyway), they decided to manage the demand for the lanes they had: the same year they opened the bus lanes they instituted congestion pricing. They charge a fare for driving into downtown. The fare encourages people who don’t need to drive to take transit instead, keeps traffic moving smoothly for those who do need to drive, and helps fund fast, frequent, and affordable transit service all over the city.
That kind of solution is only possible if you’re willing to look beyond individual parking places and left-turn signals and plan for the economy and quality of life in the city as a whole. This is where it makes sense to make no little plans—where what you really need is a big-ass plan.
The beauty of transit is that it’s so space efficient you only need to prioritize it on a tiny fraction of streets—maybe one out of twenty—to have an uncompromising system. You don’t need to exclude car traffic, just make it second priority on one street out of twenty. The other nineteen streets can still be dominated by car traffic and parking if you want.
We’re working with the Department of Transportation Engineering and Infrastructure Engineering and Management at the Illinois Institute of Technology to develop a network of dedicated transit lanes that could be combined with signal priority and other improvements to form a surface transit system that is immune to congestion.