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Monday, June 18, 2007

City congestion takes toll on common sense

Instead of forcing the public to pay for downtown's density dilemma, maybe Chicago should stop bribing businesses to set up shop there

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

There's something appealing about taxing cars and trucks that traverse the Loop, as Ald. Edward Burke (14th) suggests: It would tap suburban and other drivers who supposedly don't pay for those city streets.

It would satisfy Chicagoans who believe suburbanites are moochers, enjoying the city's benefits and amenities without paying for them. Burke himself suggested as much when he pointed out that suburbanites don't pay for the city's vehicle sticker.

If nicking suburbanites for the costs of clogged downtown streets is the real purpose of Burke's proposed ordinance, why not go all the way: Impose a whopping toll or fine only on anyone who drives into downtown without a City of Chicago sticker? That way Burke would get the huge revenue stream he wants for the money-sucking CTA, and Chicagoans themselves would get to enjoy a less congested downtown, without having to pay a toll. Except that such a scheme probably would be illegal, because (A) public streets by law are equally public, and (B) the taxes of every motorist in Illinois help pay for city streets.

But there's something appealing about a downtown vehicle toll: The people -- whether Chicagoans or suburbanites -- who are creating the problems (congestion, pollution) would be paying for the privilege. It's not dumping the costs of those streets on the rest of us who infrequently or never drive downtown. It's the same idea as the Illinois toll roads: The folks who use them have to cough up.

Of course, downtown interests fear that a downtown toll could hurt their businesses. For them, congestion isn't such a bad thing. In fact, when you think about it, what's so bad about downtown the way it is? Downtown, with its attractiveness and vitality, eclipses just about any other big-city downtown in America. In fact, the hustle and bustle is part of the attraction of downtown. Remember what State Street was like when it became a mall? There were no cars on it, and few shoppers. So, perhaps we should just learn to live with the congestion, as most people have.

Maybe a vehicle congestion tax isn't such a good idea after all. If congestion is the real problem with downtown, then maybe we should rethink what downtowns should look like.

Today's downtown is a hand-me-down from the late 19th Century, when technology forced people into more face-to-face communications. You could use the telegraph (assuming you wanted to wait for the messenger) or a novelty called a telephone, which wasn't so grand because the person you wanted to speak with didn't always have one. Sellers, buyers, suppliers, traders, lawyers, clerks -- they all had to communicate with each other, and that meant they had to be near each other, if not face-to-face. Also, people couldn't commute long distances; they could live no farther than the end of the horse-drawn streetcar line. Thus, skyscrapers and high downtown densities.

But those densities might be obsolete thanks to the telecommunications revolution. You can go through an entire day at the office without actually seeing a seller, buyer, supplier, trader or lawyer. It's why Sears could move its giant merchandise group out, over the horizon, to Hoffman Estates. It's as if congestion is the price we pay so some people can "do lunch" together.

So, it is fair to ask, why does government continue to subsidize these densities? The subsidies flow in the form of tax-increment financing districts, direct grants, huge mass transit subsidies and the likes of Block 37 -- the city's long-delayed attempt to play developer. The costs of TIFs fall on other government units, such as schools, and neighborhoods that long are denied the increased tax revenues that they otherwise would receive from the properties.

Yes, the subsidies bring jobs and the prestige of corporate headquarters. But they also bring the supposedly dreaded congestion.

If the goal of the tax is a less congested downtown, maybe we should stop trying so hard to lure more businesses there with big pots of money. Let the chips fall; let businesses pick locations that conform to the economics of a modern telecommunications society.

Sure, we would lose businesses that we had to bribe to locate downtown. But then government wouldn't need to impose a tax to help solve a problem it helped to create. And maybe we wouldn't be arguing about doing silly things, such as imposing a downtown vehicle toll.


Anonymous said...


You are missing the point. Centralized business is not an obsolete concept as you suggest. With fuel being rapidly depleted, pollution ruining the environment, etc. the best solution is a downtown, with few cars.

Metra is excellent, and designed to get suburbanites to and from downtown efficiently and in a fairly comfortable way. CTA on the micro level (getting city people downtown and around town). Neither are perfect, but neither is driving.

A car-culture is no longer going to be a good way to get to work. Getting people to widely disbursed corporate campuses is just not efficient or environmentally sustainable.

I just returned to downtown after 12 years working in the Schaumburg metro area. With it's 6 lane highways for roads, few sidewalks, parking lots for every store, that is an obsolete concept if there ever was one.

No matter what your view on the Iraq war is, one has to agree access to cheap oil is at least a major factor in why we are there (if not the defining factor).

There should be few reasons to drive downtown, public transportation is more than sufficient. Those that feel the need should pay a hefty premium to do so.

As usual, you are looking at limited aspects (just the congestion issue and the "bribes") as opposed to the big picture.

Anonymous said...


I agree with the above comment regarding the necessity of centralized business in the 21st century, and would like to add that perhaps what we need is not a congestion tax, but a whole new paradigm in public transportation. A Personal Rapid Transit system, or PRT, has been proposed in Minneapolis, and would allow for public transportation to more distributed locations than a rail system, with none of the pollution, delays and congestion of busses and cars. More information on such a system can be found here:

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but your logic is terrible. You are obviously not an urban planner or work in city government, which is a good thing.

Here's a great idea: stop subsidizing suburban sprawl. Meaning we create a green belt or some other means to decrease suburban growth (area wise) and promote density in the suburbs as well as the city. If you hate subsidizing corporations and mass transit, how about the highway system? How about we stop funding road expansions and let us see what happens? We do we continue to promote residential, retail, and office growth in the suburbs that relies on automobiles when it creates congestion that has to be relieved by new roads and highways?

Oh, I know why. Because you are a suburban writer, right?

Anonymous said...

I don't know exactly what kind of world you're proposing, but it sounds like a very lonely one where people exist only in big metal boxes or on the other end of the telephone or an e-mail message. If you don't like being around people regularly, perhaps you should consider moving downstate or to North Dakota? Don't worry, you'd still be able to have your opinions published. God forbid if the rest of world would not be able to read YOUR opinions. You, like every Joe Sixpack with a blog or newspaper column, are so much more learned and brilliant than the rest of us and have the answers to everything, without having to do absolutely any analysis. How would the rest of us be able to live if we didn't know what YOU thought about every issue?

Anonymous said...

As someone who has lived in the suburbs all of my life and worked in both the suburbs and downtown, having businesses in the Loop makes far more sense.

If people want to drive from the suburbs to the Loop, they are just stupid. I have always taken the Burlington to work, driving only when I had meetings, court dates, and closings in the suburbs, or I planned to stay late for a CSO concert or an opera performance.

This all started when Mayor Richard J. Daley instituted the head tax, and businesses started moving to the suburbs.

The problem is that there is virtually no mass transit to connect suburbs, particularly office parks.

The road system that moves people within the suburbs isn't as well designed as the expressway system that moves people into the Loop. To avoid traffic while driving to the courthouse in Wheaton, I learned to take various residential streets, because the main thoroughfares, such as Roosevelt Road and Naperville Road are just nightmares at 8:30 in the morning.

Then there's the problem of lunch hour. If you work in the Loop, you can walk to McDonald's, a deli, the Italian Village, or Carson's. Working in an office park means getting in the car to grab lunch or go shopping. The problem is that everyone else is doing the same thing. Try drving along Butterfield Road/22nd Street between Yorktown and Oak Brook at 12:00. It's worse than drving Michigan Avenue at noon.

I can't begin to tell you the number of intersections in the suburbs that take 3, 4, or even 5 changes of the light to get through. Ogden Avenue and Belmont Road/Finley Road in Downers Grove comes to mind. Route 83 and St. Charles Road is another.

No, it makes things far worse to have businesses in the suburbs, because the traffic in the suburbs is much, much worse.

Robert Salm said...

I am still trying to figure out if Dennis Byrne was simply removing a mind-blockage or if he really believes all that nonsense. Perhaps Mr. Byrne reads too many Wired magazine articles about telecommuting, the wireless and paperless office of the future and the future of suburbia. Perhaps he’s enjoyed far too many days working from home and dreads going into the big city with the fancy buildings that expect him to pay to park whatever gas-guzzler he decides to drive in.

As silly as this may seem to Mr. Byrne, face-to-face meetings are STILL the norm in service businesses that depend on good client interaction. The farther businesses are from each other, the more difficult it is for businesses to acquire new clients and foster those relationships. An overwhelming majority of businesses still need to conduct initial, touch-base and follow-up meetings in person.

If Mr. Byrne wants to use the argument that his state and county taxes partially fund his right to drive on Chicago streets, there’s another tax-supported idea he can rally behind instead, and it’s called Public Transportation. Don’t like it? I hope you enjoy paying $6-7 for a gallon of gas, which is what it may cost by 2010 according to CNN Business analysts. As for me, I enjoy living downtown, not owning a car and having all the luxuries of museums, shopping and parks so close to enjoy.

Crazy Politico said...

As usual, Dennis, you are right on. The loop toll idea is as dumb as it comes, and your logic on how to end the congestion makes plenty of sense.

Unfortunately you are fighting an uphill battle against people too dense to see it's a government created problem, and another government solution will actually create more problems.

Alex from Hyde Park said...


There are some big misconceptions about the telecommunications revolution. Central Business Districts have changed since the rise of the internet but they certainly haven't dissapeared, and if anything they have increased in importance. Information technologies don't mean dispersal; they mean greater connection between distant nodes like Chicago, New York, London, and Tokyo. If Chicago wants to cement its position as a global city it will embrace policy like congestion pricing that helps city government work with a densely packed high-end service firms that could never move out to Schaumburg. Taking your route will turn Chicago into a back office for New York, exacerbate obviously-unsustainable and speculative sprawl. If Chicago doesn't efficiently manage and cultivate the Loop it will be passed over. Read some research (I particularly reccomend Saskia Sassen) to understand the complex ways that cities ACTUALLY work nowadays instead of your own intuition about telecommunication and what makes for a successful city