Judging traffic congestion on Kinzie Street

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I created this video in response to comments I was reading on various blogs, newspaper websites, and EveryBlock, where people (claiming to be commuters who drive on or near Kinzie Street, or live near Kinzie Street) alleged that the protected bike lane was causing an increase in congestion or traffic backups. Read why these arguments are illogical and why considering it is obsolete. 

“Paul M.” started a discussion on EveryBlock that eventually reached 62 comments (the conversation stopped August 4). They wrote on July 27, 2011:

I drive in from Oak Park to my River North office and typically take Lake St to Halsted to Kinzie. There are not too many options coming from the West that are not congested in the morning, ie: Grand. After the City put the bike lanes and the outer-parking spots between Halsted and Kinzie, just west of East Bank Club it has increased the traffic exponentially. [comment continues]

The first five commenters all agree with Paul M. that traffic has increased.

If there’s an observed increase in traffic congestion after three months (measured by the time it takes to travel from Desplaines to Wells), I will want something to be done. Increased congestion is not good for anyone – more pollution, unproductive use of time, and stressed drivers. I understand the source of driving commuters’ vexation: the Texas Transportation Institute ranked Chicago #1 in the country for traffic congestion.

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Drivers turn eastbound onto Kinzie Street at Canal Street. 

The partial loss of a de facto of a second lane on Kinzie Street and its re-appropriation as a protected bike lane can give the appearance as a contributing factor to increased travel times on the half-mile stretch of Kinzie Street. Until the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), or an ad-hoc neighbors group, releases a study showing travel times and road capacity before and after the protected bike lane, we’ll never know definitively if congestion increased, decreased, or stayed the same.

But since CDOT is no longer in the game of moving cars, traffic jams matter less. Spokesperson Brian Steele told the Chicago Sun-Times: “The goal behind this is to reduce the amount of vehicle traffic and increase the amount of bike traffic.”

From where I’m rolling, the congestion was there prior to the lane reconfiguration.

I predict that many drivers have and will change their routes to avoid the perceived congestion on Kinzie Street, thus reducing the congestion there. If enough drivers change their routes, they will actually increase the congestion on other routes and reduce Kinzie Street to below previous congestion levels. But over time, it’s likely that drivers will spread themselves amongst all available routes, equalizing the congestion (making congestion equal on all routes*).

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CDOT built it, and they came. When you design road infrastructure around safe bicycling, people respond by using it. Changes at this intersection included a reconfigured right-side bike lane that meets the edge of the intersection, a dedicated left-turn lane, and “through striping” to guide bicyclists to the right place. 

For people bicycling for trips to and from the Loop, conditions are improving on Kinzie Street. In an initial count, CDOT recorded an increase in the number of people bicycling on Kinzie Street, showing that the city’s first protected bike lane is probably meeting one of the goals of this type of facility: increasing the number of trips by bicycle.** Progressive cities agree that this is a more important metric for the city’s livability, economic vitality, and quality of life than automobile throughput.

*This is an ideal view of traffic and assumes that drivers make perfectly rational decisions. It also assumes the lack of construction, traffic collisions, and working signals.

**Without a more comprehensive study (the initial count compared only two dates), it’s not possible to know which trips by bicycle on Kinzie Street are new trips and which are rerouted from other streets. The presence of the protected bike lane will have a heavier influence on stealing trips from parallel streets than it will in encouraging more people to bike. As Mayor Emanuel builds the protected bike lane network, the balance of this facility’s influence will change.

This video was first featured on Chicagoist on August 1, 2011, where Chuck Sudo wrote, “If you take a look to the left of Vance’s bike, you’ll also see how uniform the motorized vehicle traffic has become since the lane went up. That’s a benefit we were expecting on paper, but the cynic in us didn’t expect to see.”

10 thoughts on “Judging traffic congestion on Kinzie Street”

  1. Kinzie was never a two-lane street. Whether or not drivers took advantage of the de facto second lane, as you put it, was simply dependent on the conditions at the time. Before the protected bike lane was installed, drivers would often cram two-wide onto the Kinzie bridge only to have to merge farther east because of a large delivery truck taking up much of the “right lane.” Under those conditions, travel times would have been much higher and the driving conditions more dangerous. From my point of view, removing the false option of a second lane makes traveling on Kinzie safer and smoother for all users. Heck, this morning I didn’t see a line of more than two cars at any point along the protected bike route. Does that prove that the protected bike lane has improved traffic? Not any more than a day of congestion proves that it has made traffic worse.

    1. I think you understand then how conjecture about causes of traffic congestion and claiming it has changed (doesn’t matter up or down) is unavailing.

      Did you watch the video?

      1. Absolutely. As you said, without real data, we wont really know how traffic has been impacted, whether on Kinzie or throughout the entire street system. I guess my point was that whether travel times have improved or worsened, the protected bike lane helps alleviate the de facto second lane ambiguity and with it, unnecessary lane-changes.

  2. considering this, i nominate pulaski road for a protected bike lane. for much of its length (at least the stretch i’m familiar with, between irving park and madison) it’s treated as having a de-facto second lane and is in desperate need of traffic calming.

  3. On the subject of Chicago being the most congested city in the U.S. I’ve noticed that people who are used to driving here for some reason do not see it as a problem to be sitting in traffic for much of their commutes. I learned to drive in the suburbs where the streets are very open and clear and I think that is why I HATE to drive in Chicago and think sitting in traffic and circling around looking for parking as being completely unacceptable.
    My point is it seems those that prefer to drive have been somewhat conditioned in the way that they can’t see how big of a problem it is to continue to drive when the city is this crowded. Is there any way to reverse this mindset or somehow educate the driving public in a way that will be convincing?

  4. I live at this intersection and the traffic is terrible now. There is no question this has SIGNIFICANTLY increased. This project was a utter failure. What a waste of our tax money.

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