Don’t be Late to Class: Congestion Pricing Could be the Solution Commuter Students Need

Sports, pizza, hot dogs. Freezing winters, scorching summers. Glorious architecture, cutthroat politics, and a beautiful, expanse of a lake.

All of these are rallying points that Chicagoans can get behind — no ketchup! — though nothing binds us together more than the infuriating, always-challenging, never-ending struggle with traffic.

Kelly Heidt, a DePaul junior studying business, knows this firsthand. She commutes several times a week to and from Brookfield, a suburb only 13 miles away from Chicago.

“Definitely there are times when it takes an hour to get there instead of twenty-five minutes,” Heidt says. “It depends on the time of day, but the traffic can be bad.”

Heidt’s view isn’t unfounded. In their annual Urban Mobility Report, the Transportation Institute at Texas A&M found that a motorist traveling in or through Chicago will face a yearly delay of 73 hours, wasting an average of 30 gallons of fuel due to congestion.

And with just under 75 percent of motorists in the Chicagoland region commuting to work by driving alone, it’s no surprise that things can get a little backed up — and if you’re trying to get to class on time, traffic can definitely throw a wrench in the works.

“Congestion comes about because when someone drives on the road, they ignore the effects they have on other drivers,” says Ian Savage, a transportation economist and professor at Northwestern University. “Typically, we don’t build that into our decision-making, which is why there are too many people on the road.”

Chris Schafale, a senior at DePaul studying English, chooses to bike, despite owning a car. “It’s hard to find parking,” he says, “so I bike instead.”

Schafale recognizes, though, that not all DePaul students living in Chicago have that option.

“As bike-friendly as this city is, it’s still really dangerous,” he says. “There’s a lot of traffic, and it’s hard to bike around six-lane intersections, and if you’re not on the 606 it can be dangerous for sure.”

And for students commuting from the suburbs, biking could be near impossible. That’s why some students, like DePaul senior Jessica Grekowicz, opt for the Metra as a way to circumvent the gridlock.

“I take the train every Monday and Wednesday, on the SouthWest Service from Orland Park,” Grekowicz says. “I have plenty of friends [at DePaul] who take the train with me because it’s just easier.”

Though with transportation hubs like Chicago’s Union Station deteriorating under the stress of ridership and age, and Metra’s rush hour services at capacity, other transportation solutions are needed to tackle traffic.

Enter: congestion pricing.

Congestion pricing is a system that allows for roadways to decrease traffic by implementing additional tolls based on usage and demand. By doing this, cities are able to break up traffic flows, decrease idling, and allow for road-based public transportation — like the CTA bus service — to become more reliable as a result. 

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) breaks up congestion pricing into four main categories: variably priced lanes, variable tolls on roadways, cordon charges, and area-wide charges.

In a standard system without congestion pricing, there is either a fixed toll to use a highway or no toll at all. Traffic flow and efficiency is widely variable on the volume of motorists, or how many people are driving at a given time, and congestion can occur easily.

Variably priced lanes and variable tolls both depend on usage — that is, how many drivers are using the road at any given time.

While the toll system would see a time-based fee applied to all drivers using a toll road, the lane system only affects drivers choosing the express lane option, with no effect on drivers seeking to use the standard lanes. Instead of having your ride priced differently due to where you’re driving, you’d have it priced based on when — and that can make drivers caught between choosing to shear a couple minutes or a couple bucks off their commutes.

Another option for cities and urban planners is based on where drivers are trying to go. Cordon charge systems implement fees for drivers based on where they’re trying to go, and are typically focused on dense city centers or central business districts. Cities with dense urban centers and subsequent congestion take to this plan, like Singapore’s Electronic Road Pricing system.

Area-wide charges are more experimental, with the most successful cases being two state-wide trial runs in Oregon in 2007 and 2012, with full implementation in 2015. Instead of charging based on entry, an area-wide system would charge drivers based on how much they’ve driven in a certain area. For example, this could mean applying a per-mile fee during peak hours on all inbound highways, which would accommodate drivers only seeking to travel short distances with toll roads.

But how does this help Chicago?

The question isn’t quite how, but where, says Ian Savage.

“In Europe, the congestion is downtown — places like London and Stockholm have gone to charge fees for entering the central business district,” Savage says. “But in most places in the U.S., the issue isn’t circulation downtown. It’s busy in the Loop, but it isn’t exactly where the big problems are. They seem to be on the expressways into the downtown area, or if you live in the suburbs, on the congested, inbound suburban highways.”

But where to start? Savage suggests the Stevenson Expressway, or I-55, due to its heavy use by commuters, preexisting express lanes, and impending expansion.

Based on computer modeling and traffic analysis, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP, determined the same: that taking advantage of new lanes or extensions “tends to pose fewer challenges” because it’s simply augmenting construction instead of overhauling the entire system.

Source: Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning

CMAP’s research found that with a variably priced, “express lane” system, commuters choosing express lanes would slice their commutes by as much as 66 percent — and on the Stevenson, by half.

Other commuters opting for the non-express lanes aren’t left out of the equation, though. General purpose lane drivers would also see a 17 percent decrease in their average travel time, due in part to the redistribution of drivers.

For students, a shorter commute could mean less time in the car and more time with friends, at work, or in the classroom. Congestion pricing also can make commute times more reliable, as Texas A&M found, which would allow for commuter students and workers alike to plan their days more efficiently.

The Stevenson plan mainly affects suburban commuters, though Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposal for a rideshare tax, which would implement additional fees onto single-passenger trips using Uber or Lyft, could help DePaul students commuting within city limits.

While the proposed plan has been criticized as steep — with a $1.25 surcharge citywide for single-passenger trips, and a $3 fee for single-passenger trips downtown — the tax would work to decrease traffic congestion, alleviate gridlock downtown, and allow for the CTA bus service to become more reliable.

“When I’m not biking, I take the bus,” Schafale, who lives in Logan Square, says. He said it was “pretty reliable,” but that he still routinely faces delays. “It would be sweet, though, if it wasn’t the case.”

Opponents to congestion pricing plans like CMAP’s and Lightfoot’s often cite the viability of such systems with low-income riders. Some express lanes created by congestion pricing have been dubbed “Lexus Lanes” due to the motorists who use them — the implication being that high-income drivers are more likely to pay the higher toll.

Uber recently released their proposed tax plan, claiming that Lightfoot would unfairly target the 1.6 million riders who took a trip to the South or West side over the past six months.

“Uber’s proposal is more equitable to Chicago residents who rely on ridesharing because they don’t have access to public transit or taxis,” says the proposal.

Under Lightfoot’s plan, however, the fee for shared rides would actually decrease citywide by seven cents, directly benefiting almost half of riders on the South and West sides.

Revenue from both proposed plans — congestion pricing on the Stevenson and rideshare taxes — could also go back into underserved communities, as well as help the $838 million dollar budget deficit the City of Chicago is facing.

So for a university where 90 percent of the student body is made up of commuters, and in a city where congestion costs just over six billion dollars per year, congestion pricing doesn’t seem like too bad of a solution. CMAP is hopeful that congestion pricing will be implemented by 2040, and with proposed highway construction and the rideshare tax proposal, congestion pricing seems more and more real with every new policy.

Until then, it’s time for Chicagoans to rally around sports, brats, and brews, and brace ourselves for one of our two seasons: winter.

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