Car Culture: Highways driven to the saturation point

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

Three weeks ago I discovered that Chicago had moved to Iowa, an amazing metaphysical feat that took me by complete surprise.

I’ll explain: As a Midwest native, I’ve taken at least 100 car trips that loop me from metro areas of Detroit through Chicago, and on to Milwaukee, Madison, Des Moines, Minneapolis and beyond.

It’s always been an easy trip on I-94 drive, maybe with congestion in Chicago, but simple enough to plan around. Last year, for example, I did a Saturday trip to Milwaukee in six hours. On Aug. 4 this year, I left Ann Arbor at noon, and didn’t arrive in Milwaukee until 9:30 p.m. The 340-mile trip is estimated to take just over five hours according to Google Maps, which is a 68-mph average. This year, I averaged just 35 mph.

The reason for the recent delay was congestion, of course, partially from construction-identified sections in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin — yet there were no construction crews present and lanes were not blocked. There were other traffic behaviors, some I hadn’t seen before: Drivers seemed checked out, slowing unnecessarily, not creeping along nose-to-tail in the congestion, sometimes 100 feet apart while they finished their texts or other internet-connected chores before catching up.

To escape the congestion, cars were turning around on the stationary three westbound lanes of I-94 near Porter, Indiana, and driving opposite of traffic flow on the shoulders.

It felt like Chicago had moved a whole state farther away from here. It makes me second-guess the future usefulness of one of America’s shining public works achievements, the 60-year-old interstate highway system. I now feel trapped in Michigan, an unfamiliar sensation.

The congestion creating the delay seemed to be the sheer volume of vehicles. There are more cars, light trucks and commercial trucks on the Interstates than ever, although the capacity of the interstate system has not increased in 20 years.

Today, vehicle density is double for private personal vehicles and four times as crowded with trucks as it was in 1986. As the population of the country climbed 91 percent from 1956 to 2015, the volume of private passenger vehicles and commercial trucks jumped a whopping 300 percent, from 65 million to 260 million. Vehicle travel increased four-fold, and today the total exceeds 3 trillion miles a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The interstate system is just 1 percent of the road mileage in the U.S., but it now carries 25 percent of all that traffic.

“Americans are driving more, and vehicle miles traveled hit a record high in 2016,” reported the American Society of Civil Engineers in its “report card” on infrastructure in 2017. “With more traffic on the roads, it is no surprise that America’s congestion problem is getting worse, but adding additional lanes or new roads to the highway system will not solve congestion on its own. More than two out of every five miles of the nation’s urban interstates are congested. In 2014, Americans spent 6.9 billion hours delayed in traffic — 42 hours per driver.”

The data suggests I come up with a new way of thinking about car travel. When I think of having a spare 42 hours, one of the first things I think is, “Let’s see, Google Maps says it’s only 34 hours from Ann Arbor to San Francisco via the Interstate ...”