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Is there a way to get through Chicago traffic, sanity intact?
September 10, 2009

Dear Cecil:

Any tips on getting through Chicago, sanity intact?

First, I'd like to say I am absolutely not trying to bash Chicago. From what I hear it's a wonderful town. I just HATE HATE HATE driving through it.

I'll be driving through on Thursday morning. I just need to get from the NE side to the SW side. Coming in on 94 south, leaving on 80 going west. Last time I did this I found myself in stop-and-go traffic for about three hours.

But about a month ago, I was coming in on 80 and leaving more west than north. I was planning on heading up 295, but I stopped at the oasis to try to find an address. I talked to the lady at the counter and she said 295 was a mess and I should take 355 (I think). Turns out she was right and I breezed through.

So, are there any reliable, up-to-the-minute traffic guides out there? Something I can check before heading out on Thursday?

— Brewha, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

Sorry we weren't able to help you out last Thursday, Brewha — actually, two Thursdays ago, now that I look at my dates. We got stuck in traffic. Also, you might want to get your route numbers straightened out. I-295 is on the east coast; the road you want here (or more often, don't want) is I-294. But I hear you in re: driving conditions in Chicago. The Trib reported the other day that Chicago ranks 4th among major U.S. cities on IBM's Commuter Pain Index. (L.A., D.C., and Miami are 1-2-3.) Admittedly that's just a survey, which a cynic might interpret to mean traffic here isn't necessarily all that bad; we just moan about it more. But never mind that. You're not looking for sympathy; you want action. Specifically, you want to enlist the tools of science to dodge the Chicago traffic trap. (Well, that's what I think you want, and I'm writing the column.) You're thinking this shouldn't be that tough. We live, after all, in an amazing age. We possess vast computational resources, with global positioning satellites circling the planet. We have, thanks to Google, the ability to get an up-close-and-personal view of seemingly every spot on earth. Surely it shouldn't be difficult to noodle out the fastest route from Point A to Point B.

That's what you'd think, all right. However, having done a little research, all I can tell you is, a few bugs remain to be worked out.

Just so we're clear, the point isn't merely to plot a route. Google Maps and MapQuest, as everyone knows, will do that perfectly well. (OK, not perfectly. Google occasionally wants me to send me on ridiculously circuitous excursions involving everything but donuts in the parking lot.)  The idea is to get the fastest route, based on current traffic conditions.

Not having any preconceived notions about the best source for information of this type, I googled "traffic conditions in Chicago," and in a matter of nanoseconds was looking at a Web site calling itself Navteq traffic.com, "the #1 U.S. traffic-only website for online and mobile traffic information." The page featured a map of the streets and highways in the metropolitan area, with different road segments depicted in green, yellow, and red to indicate congestion. At the top of the page were boxes to type in the addresses of, literally, Point A and Point B, accompanied by the note, "Get your fastest drive now and directions." Huh, I thought. Looks like the future has arrived.

Things began well. I typed in my street address. The site ruminated a bit, then displayed a map of my neighborhood. Next, not having any particular destination in mind, I typed in "State and Madison," thinking this wouldn't be much of a stumper. True, I didn't enter "State and Madison, Chicago," but that hadn't fazed traffic.com when I told it my street address. Now, however, the site chugged quite awhile. Finally it returned the message, "We're sorry but we were not able to find: State and Madison," followed by a list of candidate localities such as Madison, Wisconsin; Madison, Florida; and Madison Lake, Minnesota.

One doesn't wish to be persnickety. One appreciates the extraordinary confluence of of sweat and ingenuity required to inform me there was a Madison Lake in Minnesota, even though that wasn't something I wanted to know. I decided to be more specific. I typed in "State and Madison, Chicago." More chugging, then another "we're sorry" message, plus a list of ballpark destinations ranging from 29 E. Madison to 4925 W. Madison.

I don't mean to make invidious comparisons, but come on. If you enter "State and Madison, Chicago," into Google Maps, you're taken instantly to a map of that intersection, accompanied by a gaggle of arrow-balloons indicating nearby businesses, no doubt put there because they'd slipped Google a few bucks. But at least you've learned what you need to know.

Back to our quest. I decided to have traffic.com figure the fastest way to a destination I occasionally visit in Elk Grove Village. My usual route takes me out the Kennedy through the O'Hare interchange to the Jane Addams tollway. This is one of the more hellish drives in metropolitan Chicago — I've been caught in traffic jams on the outbound Kennedy at midnight. I was prepared to accept that most days there wasn't a faster route not involving helicopters or teleportation. But at least I'd know how bad things were.

I typed in the destination street address, city, and, leaving nothing to chance, the state. Traffic.com obligingly returned a map plus two boxes offering alternative routes. The first was entitled "Fastest Now!" and the second "Direct Drive," which I took to mean the shortest route ignoring traffic. This was an admirable approach. However, there were two problems. First, the estimated length of the trip using either route was 24 minutes — this at 9:20 a.m. I'm sorry, that's not possible.  The previous day it had taken me 45 minutes, and conditions then weren't especially bad. Second, both versions of the route had me getting off the tollway one exit sooner than I usually do, then heading out Touhy Avenue for a couple miles. Why, I have no idea. True, the drive was slightly shorter that way, but the speed limit is higher on the tollway. There were no obstructions or congestion that I could detect. When I checked back the following day, traffic.com had me getting off at my usual exit. I can only conclude an element of randomness is programmed into the computers, and that day traffic.com wanted me to see the sights.

Another problem arose when I considered the practical end of things. I'd been doing all this while sitting in front of a computer at home; I was more likely to need traffic consultation on the road. I decided to see what it was like accessing traffic.com using an iPhone. After 20 frustrating minutes I established that:

  1. You could get little useful information using the mobile version of traffic.com unless you'd first created an account on the home version.

  2. Even if you did that, you couldn't enter a destination directly into the mobile version. Instead, you had to plot a route at home, save it to "my traffic," then call it up on your iPhone.

  3. The travel time estimates obtained in this way were even more wildly off than those I'd gotten from the home version. I was informed that the trip from my house to Elk Grove Village would take 10 minutes. That's only possible if you make a considerable fraction of the journey at the speed of light.

Still, I'll say this for the folks at traffic.com: at least they're trying. I spent a fair amount of time browsing the Web and searching in the iPhone app store, and there's not a lot else out there. That's not to knock what there is. Google Maps, as all who have used it will attest, is a miracle of technology, and notwithstanding the occasional bum steer does an admirable job of plotting routes. When I set it the task of generating directions to my location in Elk Grove Village, it produced the correct route, and in addition came considerably closer than traffic.com to estimating the actual travel time — 32 minutes with what I presume is no traffic, 45 minutes if there is. What's more, it offers a color-coded view of  current congestion. But that's as far as it goes. It makes no attempt to plot different routes based on conditions, or to estimate how long the trip would take right now.

Another problem is that Google Maps is intended for viewing on a full-size display, not a mobile device. I did find something adapted to the latter purpose, though — a free app in the iPhone store called Inrix Traffic! This provides information of a fairly basic sort. It can show color-coded traffic conditions on major roads near your current location (in my case, the Kennedy, Edens, and Lake Shore Drive); alternatively, you can enter a place name or a ZIP code. There's no way to figure routes, nor can you determine the current travel time between two points. (Evidently there's a thirty-buck-a-year version that can handle the latter task, but this has been a grim year financially for the Straight Dope research and entertainment fund, and besides, haven't these guys heard of Free?)   

I'll concede there's some value in looking at a color-coded map of highway conditions. Inrix Traffic! also sprinkles its displays with symbols showing construction, accidents, and events such as concerts having an impact on traffic. Plus — this is a feature you might find helpful when trying to decide between 355 and 294, Brewha — there's a forecast feature that projects road conditions up to an hour into the future. Still, while Inrix may be handy for someone having minimal familiarity with area highways, it's likely to be of limited utility for locals. OK, it's 5 p.m. and there's a jam at the inbound O'Hare interchange. I don't need a mobile device to tell me that.

In sum, this is a technology that has yet to be perfected. I checked just now with traffic.com to see what it says about the drive back to my house from Elk Grove Village. It's telling me that as of 6 p.m. (I'm doing this on a Friday) the direct route is a 50-minute trip, which is plausible. But get a load of this: it also offers a "fastest now" route solely via arterial streets, mostly Irving Park Road. Claimed travel time: 27 minutes. No disrespect, but somebody's on drugs.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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