Chicago is home to worst traffic bottleneck in U.S.: study

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Traffic on the Kennedy Expressway

A new study says the Kennedy Expessway is the top traffic chokepoint in the nation. | Getty Images


Chicago came in tops in the nation again Monday — but not for anything its residents want to brag about.

A new study identified a 12-mile stretch of mostly the Kennedy Expressway — from Nagle through the Edens Junction past the Jane Byrne Interchange to Roosevelt Road — as the worst bottleneck in the nation.

And that’s worst not only in hours of delay — estimated at 16.9 million over a year of weekdays in 2014— but in terms of the length of the clog. The delays equate to $418 million in lost time, the study found.

Weekday drivers face 12 miles of severe congestion along this stretch, with the heaviest traffic between Irving Park Road and roughly Montrose Avenue, according to the study by the American Highway Users Alliance titled “Unclogging America’s Arteries.”


A 12-mile section of mostly the Kennedy Expressway was identified as the biggest and longest bottleneck in the U.S., according to an American Highway Users Alliance Study.

More than 6.3 million gallons of fuel is wasted each year on this section of highway while cars idle or crawl in traffic, the Alliance estimated.

“When you ‘beat’ Los Angeles and New York for having the worst stretch of road, that is quite an achievement,’ said Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

The Jane Byrne Interchange itself has long been identified as one of the nation’s worst bottlenecks. A Federal Highway Administration study released in 2011 named it the worst freight congestion point in the U.S.

The American Highway Users Alliance study looked at sections of roadways with at least 30,000 hours of delays per mile per day, and measured the length of those delays until the traffic eased up, said Greg Cohen, Alliance CEO and president.

That analysis showed that the longest bottleneck in the 12-mile stretch of congestion was far north of the Byrne Interchange, the site of an ongoing $475 million overhaul that will smooth the connection between the Dan Ryan and Eisenhower expressways.

“It looks like they are definitely not done with whatever needs to be done,” Cohen said.

Frequent drivers on the Kennedy between O’Hare and downtown may well nod their heads as they read the Alliance report.

During one trip into Chicago via O’Hare International Airport, Cohen said, he tried the CTA Blue Line and “that took forever, so I said, ‘I’ll go back by cab’ and that was a nightmare too. I don’t know how Chicagoans deal with it.”

The section of the Kennedy spotlighted in the study was last reconstructed in the early 1990s and “continues to function using a design from the 1950s and 1960s,” Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell said.

Completion of the Byrne Interchange work, scheduled for 2019, should improve traffic flow on all major expressways, including the Kennedy, he said.

“While we continue to plan and research,” Tridgell said, “we currently have no major capacity upgrades planned just for the Kennedy Expressway at this time.”

Gov. Bruce Rauner is committed to “strengthening Illinois’ position as the transportation hub of North America” and reducing Kennedy congestion “is certainly one piece of that puzzle,” Tridgell said.

Two other Chicago bottlenecks made the top 50 list: No. 23 was a 1.2-mile stretch of the Dan Ryan between the Stevenson Expressway and Pershing Road. No. 46 was a 0.3-mile section of the Edens Expressway between the Kennedy Expressway and Elston Avenue.

While Chicago racked up the worst and longest bottleneck, Los Angeles had the most big-time chokepoints, producing six of the top 10, according to the Alliance study.

The study mentioned several possible solutions to national bottleneck problems. That included congestion pricing, high occupancy lanes that are only available to vehicles with multiple riders during peak traffic hours, dynamic use of paved shoulders during rush hours, ramp metering that staggers freeway access, and better traffic information communication with motorists.

Jacky Grimshaw, head of the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Transit Future campaign to expand mass transit in the Chicago area, said extending the CTA Blue line northward to Schaumburg could convert some Kennedy drivers into transit riders and bring some relief.

“The answer is not roadways, it’s alternative ways of transportation,” Grimshaw said.

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