Chicago commuters lost more hours to congestion in 2022 than drivers in any other major U.S. city, report shows

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Chicago-area expressway traffic continued to bounce back with a vengeance from early pandemic lows in 2022, as the region’s commuters lost more hours to congestion than drivers in any other major U.S. city studied in a new report.

It’s the second year in a row the area’s commuters have earned the dubious distinction from mobility analytics firm Inrix. But last year, the firm found drivers spent even more hours stuck in traffic than in 2021 or pre-pandemic. And the upticks likely had little to do with an increasing number of people driving to downtown offices, as trips to the city center remained comparable with the year before, according to the Inrix report.

The report found the average Chicago-area driver spent 155 hours sitting in traffic along major commuting routes in 2022. That was up from 104 hours in 2021, and about 7% higher than pre-pandemic.

Globally, among the cities studied, only drivers in London lost more hours to traffic, Inrix found.

The firm reached the conclusion by analyzing its own data collected from sources like mobile apps, anonymous GPS probes and trucking fleets to look at travel times along major commuting routes at night, when traffic flows freely, compared with travel times during peak periods. The firm analyzed routes to and from areas like the South Side, Naperville, Arlington Heights and other locations.

The delays cost drivers in lost time and fuel expenses. Using federal guidelines on the value of time, Inrix estimated travel delays cost the Chicago area about $9.5 billion in lost time in 2022.

The report also weighted the findings by the size of the city, and by those measurements determined Chicago was the most congested major area in the country. But comparisons between cities can be difficult to gauge.

For example, the report doesn’t factor in that Chicago has a network of local roads, many of which can serve as easy alternate routes for drivers looking to avoid expressway traffic, said Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. The report also looks at travel to major employment centers, but doesn’t measure travel along other routes, he said.

Within the Chicago area, the upticks could partly be a sign of public transit ridership that remains below pre-pandemic levels, said Bob Pishue, the Inrix transportation analyst who wrote the report. Average weekday ridership on Metra in November was 44% of 2019 levels, and weekday ridership on CTA buses and trains in October was at about 56%.

Increasing travel delays could also be tied to the return of afternoon commute congestion, and likely reflect increased driving outside downtown, Pishue said.

Trips to downtown Chicago increased just 1% in 2022 from 2021, according to Inrix. In New York, trips to downtown were up 17% and in Houston they were up 11%, while trips to downtown Los Angeles fell 1%.

Trips into downtown Chicago had already rebounded somewhat in 2021, leaving less room to grow last year than in cities that saw longer lags, Pishue said.

“Downtowns have been the last to recover, and depending on what downtown, it’s different,” he said.

Even as people shift away from public transit ridership, they are driving more to destinations outside downtown, Schwieterman said. As more people work from home, they are compensating by driving to other activities, he said.

The design of Chicago’s expressways are also partly to blame, as they funnel traffic into downtown.

“The design of our expressway system has hurt traffic flow for generations,” Schwieterman said.

Still, fixes could help alleviate traffic and entice riders back to public transit, he said. High-occupancy vehicle lanes on expressways could encourage more carpooling, and bus lanes and peak-period tolling could incentivize drivers to turn away from their cars.

The recent completion of the Jane Byrne Interchange near downtown, after nine years of construction, should also help, he said.

The increasing traffic is particularly unwelcome because it can’t be attributed to a population boom, as upticks perhaps could be in cities like Miami, he said.

“This is an unwanted distinction, considering our population is growing so slowly,” he said.

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