Chicago is a big city with a host of big city problems. But there’s at least one disorder with a common sense cure: traffic congestion. Despite a sagging economy and $4.25/gallon gas, roadway congestion is worsening across the region. The combination of suburban growth, ineffective regional mass transit, and population decline in the city has produced a steady growth in vehicle trips and car ownership. People feel locked into car dependency. Of course, these are the same people who made a decision to live the suburban life, and to shun human-scaled environments. As much as we should, as a society, emphasize the value of a compact, walking and biking oriented lifestyle, and the reduction of our ecological footprint, the role of government is to supply transportation resources wherever they are needed, and not exclusively in the form of roads.
The problem is urgent for Chicago. A recent study, highlighted this week in the Chicago Tribune (“A drop in downtown day-trippers”), shows suburban visits to the center city down 15% from the previous year. Reasons cited by suburbanites included gas prices, congestion, and perceptions of crime following flash mob assaults. Add to the list parking costs and Metra’s off-peak fare increase, and you’ve got a healthy set of deterrents. Better to stay home and grill.
But assuming we’d all like to keep Chicago culturally and economically vibrant, what’s the solution? Typically, a city would respond to decline with an uncoordinated array of enticements for visitors, from museum deals and restaurant weeks to expanded parking. Instead, why not borrow a little car-free philosophy and route some extra subsidy to commuter rail, bike-share, and shuttle service for that all-important connectivity. In the short term, reducing rail fares, adding bike lanes leading to stations, and providing secure bike storage is a sure way to realize modest gains in transit ridership and in trips downtown. In the long term, housing must be clustered near transit and the dead zones that envelop so many suburban train stations (i.e. parking lots, strip malls, 6-lane roads, and general blight) filled in with walkable spaces.
At the end of the day, we live in an automotive culture with a strong psychological attachment to open space and free-ranging development. Since the 40s, we’ve been cultivating an infrastructure that cements the car in daily life, which is difficult to reverse. But cities are showcases of an older, more social order of things, through which great freedoms can be found.