Highway Traffic

Unforeseen Consequences With These Urban Policies?

I recently visited a class at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. During the class, there was a very interesting discussion on human behaviors and how they are related to policy decisions. One of the topics was the unforeseen behavioral consequences of certain policies, in that people alter their course of action to circumvent any policy or plan.

This got me thinking of some urban policies that have had documented adverse effects after they were implemented, as well as some of my own hypothetical conclusions of newer policies. Some of these are generic, but many of them are specific examples that could be used as proxies for future plans.* For the last three examples, the jury is still out; these are plans that have recently been implemented or announced, but there is no data yet on their effect.

Widening Roads

Effect: Induced demand, one of the most talked about topics in the urbanist community. For decades, the perception has existed that more traffic lanes in urban areas will eliminate traffic, so highways went from four lanes to eight lanes to over a dozen lanes wide. Yet, it has been well-documented that by widening roads, there’s more space to accommodate more cars, thus more drivers choose to drive as a result of the perceived lack of congestion on wider roads. The end result is the same congestion as it was prior to the road-widening due to to more cars on the road. Also, it is well-known that the construction of large highways in cities contributed to the decay of neighborhoods and displacement of the people who lived there.

Interstate 65 Bridge in Louisville

Effect: The $1.3 billion Interstate 65 bridge expansion project in Louisville included the construction of a new span crossing the Ohio River and connecting Indiana with Kentucky. However, drivers don’t want to pay the $1 toll that was implemented to help fund the new bridge. Thus, I-65 bridge crossings have dropped by almost 50% since the new span opened two years ago, as drivers cross the river for free on other bridges. This will inevitably decay the infrastructure of those other bridges at a faster rate due to heavy traffic volumes beyond their design and lead to more costly bridge projects. In addition, there are concerns that the expansion of Interstates 64 and 65 adjacent to the bridge will further divide downtown Louisville from other neighborhoods.

U.S. Streetcars

Effect: Streetcar lines have been laid out and implemented in various city centers nationwide in recent years, intended to boost economic development in those areas. But many (though not all) streetcar lines are struggling for several reasons. One, they don’t connect the city center with other parts of the city (as a well-designed rapid transit system would). Two, despite streetcars’ potential utility, consumers are more inclined to drive to these areas, especially if there is ample parking, which most cities provide, at relatively comparable prices to the streetcar fare. Or even free parking, which also a lot of cities have. Three, because of the existing cars on the roads and lack of adequate rail right-of-ways, streetcars often get stuck in traffic themselves and aren’t conducive for riders to hop on and off. Last, some lack operational efficiency. I addressed my Michigan-based co-workers’ unflattering comments about the Detroit’s Q Line in a previous post, and it appears the same sentiments are felt in other cities. One exception can be the special assessment-funded Kansas City streetcar, which has received praise for complementing a downtown revitalization.

The 606

Effect: Opening to much fanfare, the Bloomingdale Trail (aka the 606) has been broadly adopted by pedestrians and cyclists alike in Chicago. The trail has provided much needed green space to a part of the city that lacked it. However, as the 606 has effectively become a transit way for cyclists as well an attractive destination in general, it has brought more people to the neighborhoods it traverses. That is theoretically a good thing, but on the flip side, housing costs in the adjacent communities have risen sharply, drawing concern from longtime residents who may no longer afford to live there. Recent research shows that this may be due to the fact that the management and construction of the 606 was focused on the trail itself, rather than as part of a cohesive neighborhood plan that factored in broad housing and economic impacts.

Unprotected Bike Lanes

Effect: Many cities across the country are painting bike lanes on their roads, ideally encouraging shared pavement between cars/trucks and bicycles. Thing is, many of these lanes are unprotected. As any cyclist and urban planner would advocate, protected bike lanes have many benefits. Unprotected bike lanes, less so. While bike lanes of any kind are better than nothing on busy urban streets, cyclists in unprotected lanes face the same nuisances as they would on roads without such lanes. Impatient drivers will weave and drive in unprotected lanes to “beat traffic,” delivery cars/vans/trucks will park in the lanes, and cyclists still face the risk of getting doored by a parallel-parked driver. Even The Onion is providing commentary on bike lanes, with satire that I would not be surprised actually became a reality, sadly. While I applaud cities for making the effort to create simple bike lanes, more should be done to make them truly safe for all cyclists.

The Hyperloop to O’Hare Airport

Effect: I addressed this in a previous post (OK, rant) about tech-focused alternatives to existing transit systems. While the proposed efficiencies, speed, and glitz of the 21st century technology are very exciting and appealing, I’ll say it again: People are people! Not everyone acts the same. To get the the Hyperloop to operate at the expected rates that Elon Musk promotes, riders will effectively have to be robots, ready to board as efficiently as possible. In addition, it doesn’t factor in luggage, disabilities, or the minimal capacities of the Hyperloop cars. We’ll see how the plans shake out now that chief advocate, Mayor Rham Emanuel, is not running for reelection. On a side note, it is interesting that a lawsuit forced Musk to scrap plans for a Boring Co. tunnel in Los Angeles. I could see the same happening in Chicago.

Reduced Speed Limit on Ridge Rd.

Effect: This year, the City of Evanston, IL, reduced the speed limit on Ridge Rd. to 25 MPH and put up several radar signs showing drivers their speed. But drivers still exceed the speed limit. This is because Ridge is a poorly designed four-lane road. It is too narrow for its function, with buses hanging outside of the lane, cars getting clipped (including my mother) or nearly t-boned (including me) by aggressive drivers, and drivers unnecessarily speeding because it is essentially the only north-south street in Evanston in which they can do so. It is a significant traffic connector between Chicago’s north suburbs and the city’s north side, but it also lacks the volumes of traffic that justify its width. Other north-south streets, such as Asbury and Dodge actually have higher speed limits at 30 MPH, but they also are two-lane and feature bike lanes, pedestrian crosswalks, and parallel parking, all of which is absent on Ridge. Interestingly, Ridge north of Emerson St. also has a 30 MPH speed limit and yet is two lanes and not nearly chaotic as it is south of Emerson as a four-lane road. To be fair, many drivers on Ridge honor the lower speed limit, but as I constantly see by the flashing speed limit sign, that is more the exception than the rule. The new speed limit helps, but for an overall safer Ridge, the best solution is a road diet.

Rezoning in Minneapolis

Effect: The Minneapolis 2040 plan, which recently passed, has a broad mix of supporters and critics of its rezoning policy. This Curbed article nicely summarizes both sides. I’m no expert on housing by any means, but I agree on the need for density in urban areas with rising housing costs. That said, I feel there will be a number of single-family homeowners who will fight diligently to preserve the character of their neighborhoods from apartment buildings, albeit small ones. If certain neighborhood associations are successful in blocking a developer from building one of these affordable housing dwellings, I feel other such movements can take hold across the city. Then Minneapolis is back to where it is now–having a dearth of affordable housing.

As many experts understand, regardless of all of the modeling and tools at their disposal, it is often hard to precisely predict subsequent behaviors following the implementation of a policy.  What I addressed above is just a minute subset of the hundreds (or thousands) of examples you can pull from an urban setting alone. Organizations and policymakers will go to great effort to implement a change. However, old habits die hard.

* Yes, this is a broad mix of examples off the top of my head. No rhyme or reason for why I chose these examples. After all, this is a personal blog! 

Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash

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