By Gary Washburn
Tribune staff reporter
Published March 15, 2005
City Hall will begin a quick-towing policy at accident scenes next month, the first shot in a war on traffic congestion that will end years from now when the entire city has been equipped with "smart" traffic signals to keep cars and trucks flowing smoothly, Chicago officials announced Monday.
Also in the works are such things as tickets-by-camera for drivers who illegally use bus-only lanes; the use of traffic aides in brightly colored jackets who will bike through downtown to reach accident scenes and direct traffic; and special lanes on some busy streets reserved for use by vehicles with multiple occupants during rush hour.
"At one time, the answer to traffic congestion was always to build more and more and bigger roads and expressways," Mayor Richard Daley said at a news conference. "That's out of the question in Chicago. ... [But] we can make Chicago move faster and safer by centralizing traffic control and making greater use of modern technology, as other cities have done."
But the plan will be only for city streets. Chicago-area expressways are overseen by the state.
As it is, the average Chicago-area driver wastes about 61 hours a year in traffic, part of a national problem that costs nearly $70 billion annually in time and gasoline, officials said.
Chicago officials studied what Tokyo--the city Daley called the most advanced in the world on the traffic control front--Houston, Los Angeles and Atlanta have done to ease congestion and devised a local plan that incorporates methods used by each.
The anti-congestion effort will be the responsibility of a new Traffic Management Authority that will be part of the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Employees from various departments, which until now have dealt with different aspects of traffic control, will staff the new authority.
Checking practices in other cities, Chicago officials concluded that "from a centralized location, we had to be able to quickly mobilize and move resources," said Ron Huberman, executive director of the emergency management and communications office. "We needed to track multiple events simultaneously, we needed to be able to pull information from multiple places quickly and then communicate it quickly to the public so motorists could make better decisions."
The things that are easiest to do will be done the quickest, all of them by late summer, Huberman said.
Experts say that as much as 60 percent of congestion is caused by accidents or other events that block lanes, and the first initiative will be the towing effort, he said.
City trucks currently are called only after emergency responders have reached the scene, but dispatchers in the 911 center next month will begin sending them at the same time as police and firefighters.
New software scheduled to go online in July will allow officials to track construction permit applications in relation to scheduled events that could affect traffic, allowing permit issuance to be delayed or the hours of work to be limited.
The costly and herculean task of installing "smart" signal timing, street sensors and changeable message signs to maximize efficient traffic flow is to begin in September, with a pilot project somewhere in the downtown area that will be funded by $14.9 million in federal seed money.
But Huberman could not estimate how many years it will take or how much it will cost to equip the city's 2,800 intersections. The current cost per location ranges from about $75,000 to $250,000, he said.
As the new technology is installed, green lights will be able to stay green longer for approaching Chicago Transit Authority buses, cameras will be able to catch motorists who invade bus-only lanes in the downtown area and message boards will be able to advise drivers how to avoid congestion. Also planned is real-time transmission of accident and congestion information to the electronic media for transmission to listeners and viewers.
Ald. Thomas Allen (38th), chairman of the City Council's Transportation Committee, applauded the new effort, but he called for new technology on side streets as well to improve safety. Specially equipped vans deployed in other cities use cameras to nab speeders and motorists who blow neighborhood stop signs, he said.