Traffic: Chicago's most congested expressway

November 16, 2011

(Flickr/Erik Allix Rogers)
For many commuters, the Stevenson expressway rarely looks this free and open.

Over the years, the Texas Transportation Institute has become one of the nation's the best-known authorities on transporation gridlock.  They're the group that frequently measures and ranks those metropolitan areas with the longest commute times and worst congestion. 

Their studies typically get a blip of national and local media coverage, and when they do, they seem to evoke feelings not of remorse or relief in most Chicagoans, but of competition and affirmation.  There's something sadistic, it seems, knowing our commutes are truly as awful as we think they are. 

By the same token, there's something unsettling - unjust, in fact - when the data suggests they are not.  Like architecture, hot dogs, cold weather and political corruption, we Chicagoans feel the need to dominate the 'bad commutes' category too.

So it was more than a bit disappointing to learn this week that, according to the institute, Chicago's expressways don't even crack the top 10 when it comes to congestion

What? Have they ever been on the Kennedy on a Friday afternoon?  The Stevenson on a Monday morning?  The Ike on a Saturday at Noon? 

The Texas Transporation Institute's latest report on congestion times measured and ranked 328 of the most congested stretches of highway in the nation in terms of time lost, dollars wasted, and fuel spent. 

It turns out that seven of the top 10 worst stretches for congestion are found in, yes, Los Angeles.

But look beyond the national comparisons and another, more interesting picture begins to emerge. According to the data, the Stevenson Expressway (Interstate 55) is - hands down - the most congested expressway in the region. 

That's right:  The roadway named for the twice-nominated, but never elected Democratic presidential candidate far outpaces the Ike, the Kennedy, and the Reagan (among others).


Overall Congestion

The study breaks down congestion into categories, but a stretch of the Stevenson was the only Chicago expressway to crack the nation's Top 40 congested highways overall.

The TTI reports that commuters on this stretch waste a combined 414-thousand hours, 1.2 million gallons of fuel, and $55 million dollars sitting in traffic here each year. 

If you've ever traveled it, you'll know what they're talking about:

Outbound State St (Exit 293C) to Pulaski Rd (Exit 287)
Miles: 5.7
Rank: 39
Hours wasted: 414,000
Gallons wasted: 1,249,000


 

Rush Hour

For rush hour commuters in Chicago, the Stevenson is also the single worst expressway.  In the morning, this is the stretch to avoid:

Inbound US-20/US-45/US-12 (Exit 279A) to Pulaski Rd (Exit 287)
Miles: 8.9
Rank: 28
Hours wasted: 140,000
Gallons wasted: 670,000

And in the afternoon, the toll looks like this:

Outbound State St (Exit 293C) to Pulaski Rd (Exit 287)
Miles: 5.7
Rank: 23
Hours wasted: 300,000
Gallons wasted: 888,000


 

Reliably Unreliable

Among the categories used to rank congested highways is one dubbed "Reliably Unreliable", which refers to roads that are not only congested, but unpredictably so - meaning commuters find wildly gyrating travel times that can swing from bad to worse with little predictability. 

The key measurement here is something the TTI calls the "Buffer Index", a measure of trip reliability that measures the amount of extra time one should budget in order to be on-time for the vast majority of trips.  For example, according to TTI, "a Buffer Index of 150 means that for a trip that takes 30 minutes on average, 45 extra minutes should be planned (30 minutes x 150% = 45 minutes)."

Two stretches of the Stevenson made the Top 40 on this list, each of which require you to plan more than 50% of the normal unimpeded travel time:

Inbound IL-53 (Exit 267) to IL-83/Kingery Hwy (Exit 274)
Miles: 8.9
Rank: 20
Buffer Index: 155

Outbound Harlem Avenue (Exit 283) to County Line Rd (Exit 276A)
Miles: 7.3
Rank: 24
Buffer Index: 150

 

Now if the rest of you are feeling left out, we should note that the Eisenhower also made a few of the Top 40 lists (that stretch around Harlem Ave is a nightmare, as is the connection to I-88).  And the Ike was ranked the worst of Chicago's expressways on weekends, which explains why so many on the Ike find themselves asking the same question:  Why in the !#*@ am I stuck in traffic at 10 on a Saturday morning?!

The upshot?  Avoid the Ike on the weekends.  And stay off the Stevenson at all times. 

If only it were that easy.