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November , 2018
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Data shows Chicago region is growing more car dependent amid failed attempts to relieve congestion by building and expanding roads

Chicago, IL— For decades, regional planning leaders have urged cities and villages across metropolitan Chicago to build communities in ways that reduce driving and increase walking, bicycling and public transit ridership. But a new analysis by the Active Transportation Alliance shows that the region has only grown more car dependent.

The analysis demonstrates the region’s inability to build its way out of traffic congestion. Between 1996 and 2015 alone, the region spent billions of dollars to add more than 1,000 miles of new roadway that was purported to reduce congestion. The data is consistent with research showing that roadway expansion in urban areas only exacerbates traffic congestion in the long run by inducing more driving that over time fills in the additional roadway space, with congestion rebuilding to previous levels.

For these reasons, Active Trans is calling for a moratorium on expressway expansion.

“The region should stop wasting money on roads that don’t relieve congestion beyond the short-term and spend the money instead on effective strategies like walking, biking and transit that are also healthier and more sustainable,” said Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance. “Shared-use and autonomous vehicles will largely replace the inefficient and deadly practice of relying on 3,000-pound single occupancy vehicles to move people in urban areas, so we need to plan for how to repurpose roads and parking spaces, not expand them.”

Despite relatively slow population growth and the construction of new roads, traffic congestion in metro Chicago has become much worse. According to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the average Chicagoland commuter lost 31 hours per year to traffic congestion in 1982 and 61 hours in 2014.

A larger percentage of Chicagoland residents are driving to work today compared to 1980, and the total amount of driving in the region has grown approximately four times faster than the population since 1980. While the region’s population grew by 18 percent since 1980, the traffic increased by 66 percent in the same period.

This rapid growth in driving has led to comparatively more traffic congestion, crashes, injuries and fatalities, as well as more air pollution, flooding and chronic disease due to physical inactivity. It also has made it more difficult for people to access jobs and other destinations without a car, worsening economic hardship for low-income residents.

The Active Transportation Alliance’s 2018 Regional Mode Share Report analyzes commuting trends in the city and suburbs, breaking down the data by transportation mode, county and demographics.

For suburban residents, the percentage of work trips by car increased from 84 percent in 1980 to 86 percent in 2016, while the percentage of suburban work trips by walking, biking and transit decreased from 14.1 to 8.1 percent over the same period. In the city of Chicago, 58 percent of residents drove to work in 1980. The number increased to 65 percent in 2000 before falling back to 58 percent in 2016.  Walking, biking and transit accounted for 40.4 percent of Chicago work trips in 1980 and 36.5 percent in 2016.

Another problem with building a region that requires a car to get around is the hardship it creates for people who cannot physically drive or cannot afford a car.

“The region’s continued investment in car-dependency and underfunding of other travel modes discriminates against the poor and people who cannot physically drive by making it difficult to reach jobs and other destinations without a car,” said Burke.

Active Trans sent a letter to the region’s planning agency, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and the Illinois Tollway Authority (ITA) calling for the exclusion of expressway expansion projects in the new comprehensive regional plan called “ON TO 2050” and in IDOT’s and ITA’s roadway plans.

Active Trans asked each agency to adopt a policy acknowledging that expressway expansion leads to more driving that offsets congestion relief. The regional advocacy group is also urging the state and region to instead prioritize lasting, cost-effective congestion relief strategies like better public transportation and rush-hour demand management such as converting travel lanes to carpool lanes during rush hour.

While more two-income households have contributed to the growth in driving, the analysis finds that the main cause is that most people don’t have an effective way to get to work and other destinations without a car, especially in the suburbs.

Active Trans notes that, even if roads are expanded with car pool lanes or tolled lanes as proposed by the Illinois Department of Transportation for I-55 and I-290, the result would be more driving and cars, not less.

Investments in transit, biking and walking carry greater long-term benefits at a much lower cost. The planned expansions of I-294, I-290 and I-55 would cost a combined $7.4 billion. In comparison, Chicago added 100 miles of new bikeways from 2011 to 2015 for $12 million, and converting expressway lanes to carpool lanes is inexpensive.

The Active Transportation Alliance is partnering with peer advocates and community-based organizations across the region to fight for these changes in the development of the regional plan and beyond. Active Trans’ Walk and Roll the Vote campaign will highlight these issues by educating voters and candidates in the upcoming 2018 statewide elections and 2019 municipal elections.

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