Did You Know?

While the Chicago region’s population grew by 18 percent since 1980, the traffic increased by 66 percent in the same period.

Is Chicago rush hour really that bad?

Does Chicago really have the worst rush hour in the nation? The latest Urban Mobility Report hitting the news would have you think so. But another report that came out in September 2010 from CEOs for Cities says we actually waste less time in rush hour than any other major city. How did they come to such opposite conclusions?

The Urban Mobility Report really only deals with travel delays, while ignoring the total amount of travel time. In other words, would you rather spend 10 minutes driving in rush hour at reduced speeds or an hour driving at higher speeds? The Urban Mobility Report favors the longer trip at higher speeds, concluding the shorter trip involves more time in traffic.

Using that approach as a measure of success would have us believe that a sprawling region like Nashville, with one of the longest rush hour commutes in the nation, should be held up as a model for other cities. It implies that the ultimate goal is free-flowing highways and the simplest solution is adding road capacity.

We need to change the conversation. Reducing travel distance and time is more important for creating livable communities. In places where walking, biking and transit are a backbone of the transportation network, daily destinations tend to be within easier reach. That results in shorter trips and less travel time, even for drivers. Our success should be measured by our ability to reduce the need to spend so much time in our cars.

Rather than focus on creating free-flowing highways, Chicagoland needs to build on the strength of its walkable neighborhoods and suburbs, its extensive transit system and its growing bike network. Unfortunately, I think our region often takes those strengths for granted. Take transit, for example. New rail lines are popping up accross the country, even in sprawling regions like Houston, Orlando and Atlanta. Meanwhile, our region is cutting service every few years, struggling to maintain what we have. If we don't want to spend more time in our cars, we need to turn that trend around and start investing in active transportation more seriously.

For more on this topic, check out CEOs for Cities' Driven Apart report.