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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Chicago Traffic: 2nd-Worst in the Nation

I am not a driver.

I just had to get that out of the way, so you know that the rest of this post is going to be only pure facts from the article I read, or pure opinion that should be taken with a grain of salt. Last time I was behind the wheel of a car was 2001, and that was just getting some practice hours in before thinking about going for my driver's license, which I obviously never bothered to get. Of course, that's because I moved here to Chicago, under the impression that I would never need a car here - thanks to the public transportation system.

In retrospect, maybe it wasn't all that horrible of a decision. For all the guff my friends give me about not owning a car or being able to drive, and how crappy the CTA runs here in the city - I can at least rub their noses back in the fact that in comparison, I think the vehicular congestion and waste of resources is a much crappier system to be a part of. Plus, I moved here to Chicago from the city of Los Angeles - so I technically upgraded. While Chicago is #2 or #3 worst in a lot of these categories of horrible driving conditions, at least L.A. stays put at #1, though not by a huge margin.

According to the study results that were done on traffic conditions and congestion and delays and whatnot - every year, the average Chicago motorist loses 46 hours of time stuck in traffic during peak hours. Back in 1995, they only lost 33 hours per year, so you can see that the incline keeps going. Every year, more than an entire average WORKWEEK is lost just because of peak-hour traffic, per driver. The amount of fuel that adds up to, per driver, is 32 gallons. The total cost is $906, just due to traffic alone. When you account for the fact that there are millions of drivers out there, it's a total of over 203 million hours lost and costs over $4 billion annually.

The 203 million hours lost puts Chicago smack dab in 3rd place, with New York losing 384 million hours a year and Los Angeles taking the cake with 491 million hours lost. But the real shame brought to Chicago is that it is #2 in the category of Time Indexes. A Time Index is how to calculate how much time you should prepare in advance to make a trip due to delays. Chicago has a Time Index of 1.47, which means that for every 20-minute drive you take, it's going to really take 29.4 minutes. Only Los Angeles has a higher Time Index, and it's only higher by .03 - meaning it'll take a full 30 minutes for that 20-minute trip in the City of Angels.

Of course, I don't put much stock in the Time Index system, after taking a look at it. I mean, it's a great idea in theory, but it's that base-time calculation that befuddles me. Were these trips timed at 20 minutes based simply on drives taken during non-peak hours? Is that 9pm? Midnight? 3am on a Sunday? There's no way to get a "lab test" or any real scientific control done on a commute, so it's very difficult to predict what your base time for any drive would be, meaning that any calculation using a Time Index is going to be rather fruitless.

Here's something that I thought interesting: judging by the numbers, the study shows that the city of Chicago has over 4.4 million drivers on the road. That's the number they used to multiply the 46 hours and $906 lost annually per driver to get those astronomical numbers for the city itself. So what about the third number that they calculated? If every driver is wasting 32 gallons of gasoline per year, then that means that every year over 142 million gallons of gas are being wasted.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill only lost about 11 million gallons of crude oil. Every year, Chicago is wasting more gasoline than almost 13 Exxon Valdez spills.

And people still give me grief about taking city transportation? I'd rather deal with "slow zones" than this mess. Losing $906 a year, on top of whatever it costs to run and maintain a car and keep it filled with gas, let alone parking in the city? No thanks. $906 could buy more than twelve 30-day CTA passes, so I could pay for a year's worth of transportation with the EXTRA WASTED money that a Chicago driver loses in that year.

Every now and then, with all of the muck and mire that the CTA gets dragged through, there are still things that make me appreciate it just enough to keep following and using it. Aside from the colorful cast of characters you meet on buses and trains, there are a few nice things about using public transportation - even if it means relying on the frequently-unreliable. And there's the financial benefit. Something tells me that buses aren't going to fare anywhere near cars when you consider the traffic and time-loss implications (they're in the same traffic, plus making stops along the way) - but the trains make up for it all, even when you take into consideration all of the "slow zones" that commuters seem bogged down with.

Maybe it really is faster than driving. It's certainly cheaper, for now. But then again, I guess you get what you pay for.

(A version of the article printed in the RedEye)
(A pretty graph of some of these numbers)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The CTA does not save you any money. Every year they hike up the price, now it's $80.00 a month, plus PACE now doesn't honor CTA passes so you have to pay for a PACE bus pass if your coming from the suburbs. When I use public transportation, I have to leave 2 hours ahead of time. If I drive, it takes me 45 minutes. Plus gas is $30.00 cheaper a month unless your driving a hummer.