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Thursday, June 9, 2011 11:05 am

Driving the east side mad

Will fixing Dirksen Parkway fix traffic problems?

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Road crews, I see, will be spending the summer making the intersection of Dirksen Parkway and Clear Lake Avenue safe for the out of sorts. It’s been years since I’ve driven through it on a regular basis, but apparently at rush hours that spot is more congested than a legislative calendar in May. No wonder. The intersection sits at what is the eastern gateway into and out of downtown Springfield for both state and hospital workers and for tourists and state government visitors, whose vehicles make some 25,000 trips through it per day.

When it’s busy those vehicles back up. Impatient drivers rush to beat the red lights and they rush to beat oncoming cars at turns. (In a typical incident from a weekday noon hour in May, a driver allegedly failed to yield the right of way at a green light and hit a car coming the other way.) This is the same sort of behavior that has made travel on Lawrence at Walnut and MacArthur so exciting that neighborhood kids sell inflatable neck braces from sidewalk stands instead of lemonade. (See “Going ’round and ’round,” Dec. 10, 2009.)

The crossing is not among even the 10 most dangerous intersections in town, according to IDOT data, but the state has decided that even it is blighted by nearly $12 million worth of safety risks. That’s what will be spent to further widen the approaches to provide room for dual left turn lanes on all legs of the intersection plus dual right turn lanes on the southeast corner. Two of the existing turn lanes will be lengthened, to allow more cars into the turn queue. In addition the whole thing will be repainted, reconfigured (at Hill Street), resurfaced, re-median-ed, re-signed and re-signaled.

Why are so many Springfield drivers so annoyed behind the wheel? Well, there’s a lot of state workers who carry enough repressed aggression these days to blow up a bridge, but I suspect that the causes lie in the intersection itself. Drivers get especially impatient when they are not going fast if they believe they might be going faster if it wasn’t for all the jerks on the road. No injustice so rankles an American as missing a green light they expected to make, especially if you are trying to squeeze a 60-minute lunch hour into a 30-minute dash to Wendy’s.

There are two obvious ways to cope with road congestion. One is to expand the existing infrastructure so it can accommodate expanding demand. That works – for a while. By adding capacity you make traveling a street more convenient, and by making it more convenient you attract more drivers (or new development, which results in new drivers) and the new road quickly becomes as clogged as the old one. You can also squeeze more lanes into an existing right-of-way by re-marking the pavement. This is a common fix in land-tight cities; on some major streets in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, for example, traffic moves comfortably at 30 mph along lanes not much wider than a parking space.

Whether you build more lanes or simply paint new lanes, demand will rise to meet capacity unless their number is constrained by the land available at the site. The only permanent fix is to take cars off the streets by providing fast and frequent public transit, or expanding the street grid to reduce the amount of traffic piling onto Clear Lake. (At present it is one of only six east-west through streets.) Alas, redesigning public transit and redesigning the city are both harder to do (if wiser) than redesigning intersections.

Roads are improved around Springfield in the same way that life in Illinois is improved by reformers – however much money and good intention go into it, the benefits never last very long. The reason congestion cures will have only temporary effects is that congestion is not the real problem. The problem is bad driver behavior. Deputy police chief Cliff Buscher has blamed the reckless driving at Clear Lake and Dirksen on people being in a hurry or not paying attention.

It is folly to design public works to accommodate the worst instincts of the worst people in a town. A better policy would call not for more concrete but more aggressive enforcement of the traffic laws. The last thing a new mayor wants to do, however, is tell his police force to crack down on jerks behind the wheel, because it might spur them to jerk-ish behavior in the voting booth in the next election. So, and not for the first time, it is left to engineers to solve problems for which engineering has no real solution.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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