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Chicago Traffic Congestion Relieved by Advice of Harvard Bureau--Most Streets Used at Efficiency of 50 to 75 Percent

By Miller McClintock, A.M. '22, Ph. D. '24, Director of the Albert Russell Erskine Bureau for Street Traffic Research. Reprinted from the Alumni Bulletin.


The advent of the motor car and the airplane has given the individual a new relation to his environment by establishing new and infinitely more profitable standards of time and distance. The motor car has changed man's radius of action from 30 to 300 miles a day, while the airplane has increased it to a thousand miles or more. These are substantial contributions to American life.

Unfortunately the changes wrought by the motor car in particular have brought in their wake not only benefits but serious and aggravated problems. Street congestion and accidents have assumed alarming proportions in all of the larger effetely, while even in the smaller communities the steadily increasing volume of traffic has created grave difficulties.

Harvard University is taking an active part in the study and relief of these special problems through the Albert Russel Erakine Bureau for Street Traffic Research. The Burean, which bears the name of the president of the Studebaker Corporation of America, was created in 1926 by the President and Fellows of the University as a result of a grant made by the Studebaker Corporation through the interest of Paul G. Hoffman, its vice-president.

Two Albert Russel Erskine Fellowships in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences were established in connection with the Bureau. These fellowships pay a stipend of $1,000 each per year, and are designed to encourage research and a professional interest in traffic engineering.

The keynote of the Bureau's work was sounded in a statement made by Mr. Erskine at the time of its creation "Much of the failure of American cities to deal more effectively with street traffic may be attributed to a lack of techni. cal information. Traffic is an engineering problem. It can be controlled satisfactorily only through sound engineering methods."

It can hardly be said that Harvard has discovered through these surveys and studies any simple, practical, and economically possible solution for the traffic problem. There is no such "solution". Surveys have shown, however, that few cities even when suffering from the most acute congestion use their existing street area to more than fifty or seventy-five per cent of their potential capacity and efficiency.

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that material improvements in traffic conditions can be brought about. Traffic control plans drafted by the Bureau have saved millions of dollars a year to street users through increased efficiency in the operation of all forms of street traffic, and have reduced accidents in spite of normal increases in motor vehicle registrations.

First Survey in Los Angeles

The Bureau's first survey was undertaken in Los Angeles, which was suffering from an acute attack of hardening of the traffic arteries as a result of the exceptional density of its motor vehicle population. While most cities have from four to ten persons per automobile, the ratio in Los Angeles is just a fraction over two persons per car. As might have been expected, the city also suffered from an abnormally high number of motor vehicle accidents and fatalities.

Acting as consultant to the Los Angeles Traffic Commission, the Bureau directed a detailed traffic survey of the metropolitan area. On the basis of this thorough inventory of the traffic situation a new traffic code was prepared and put into effect, with the assistance of an intensive educational campaign to familiarize street users with its provisions and relative advantages.

Briefly summarized, the effect of the new code was a substantial reduction in the accident record, coupled with a marked increase in the facility of traffic movement.

Chicago, with its extreme concentration of business activity and business population in the "loop' 'area, offered the next detailed traffic survey undertaken by the Bureau. Congestion in the "loop" area was fostering an abnormally rapid decentralization of business activity. During the twelve-hour period of the average business day over a million and a half people entered and left this small area. The movement was complicated by the movement of more than 300,000 street vehicles.

As a result of the conflicts and delays occasioned by this tremendous traffic load, the commercial efficiency of the city was seriously threatened by the congestion of its principal business district. The situation obviously called for an inventory an which to base relief measures.

At the request of the Street Traffic Committee of the Chicago Association of Commerce, the Bureau undertook the organization and direction of a year's survey of the metropolitan area.

The most sensational single development of the Chicago survey was the elimination of all parking in the congested "loop" area. It was obvious to the survey engineers that the lanes of parked cars along the curb were a serious obstruction to all traffic movement. But there is no more delicate question in the whole traffic problem than parking. Merchants look on the parked car as a source of much business. Motorists resent any attempt to curtail parking as an abrogation of personal privilege.

Merchants Protest

When the elimination of parking was discussed in committee, merchants in the "loop" area declared such a step would be ruinous to trade, adding that from twenty-five to as much as fifty per cent of their business came from motorists who parked in the "loop" in front of or adjacent to their shops.

It was necessary to get the facts. With the cooperation of retail stores of every class and location in the "loop" an all-day census of shoppers was made. Nearly 100,000 persons were interviewed. Analysis of the result revealed that parked cars contributed not 25 per cent, of the number of shoppers, but 1.5 per cent.

Measurement of curb space disclosed the additional fact that, even with half-hour parking strictly enforced, the amount of available parking space along the curbs was inadequate to care for more than a fraction of the demand. Some 10,000 cars were allowed to dam up the movement of approximately 300,000 vehicles a day.

"No parking" has been a definite success in Chicago. Retail trade has increased rather than diminished. More people and more vehicles get in and out of the "loop" with a greater degree of convenience than before. Tremendous economies have been effected in the handling of merchandise by the increased efficiency of the streets.

One example of this increased efficiency, and what it means to street users, seems worth quoting. In a recent article in "Nation's Business" the superintendent of vehicle service of the Railway Express Agency, operating some 200 definite routes in the "loop" area states, "No parking has already increased our speed twenty-five per cent, as far as travel is concerned. Since the ordinance went into effect we have been able consistently to handle five per cent, more business in the "loop" with exactly the same number of vehicles and the same personnel."

But "no parking", successful as it has been in Chicago, is no universal panacea for all traffic ills. The one fact proved by Chicago's case is that, when street storage interferes seriously with street movement, parking must go. As in every aspect of the traffic problem, the actual requirements of a given situation must determine the proper remedy.

Parking plays a more important role, for instance, in some cities than in others. In Boston, eighty in every thousand parkers are store customers. In San Francisco a survey showed the ratio to be 112 per thousand. San Francisco and Boston merchants may well say, "No parking is feasible for Chicago, but not for us."

A recent summary of the progress in traffic control made by the San Francisco Traffic Survey Committee includes reference to a two million dollar reduction in accident and damage claims arising from the more orderly flow of traffic under the new San Francisco Traffic Code.

Sidewalk Saturation Studied

One of the more interesting aspects of the Boston survey, conducted by the Bureau for the Mayor's Street Traffic Advisory Board, was a study of sidewalk saturation, made to determine. If possible, an index to sidewalk width in relation to pedestrian volume. It was found that sidewalk convenience ceased to exist at 800 pedestrians per foot of sidewalk width per hour.

Another somewhat startling aspect of Boston's traffic problem was discovered by an all-day origin and destination survey which showed that approximately thirty per cent of the traffic in the downtown district was mis-routed. The results seemed to indicate that even Bostonians were unfamiliar with the most direct routes from one point to another in their own city, and either through habit or lack of better knowledge were adding to the congestion of already heavily over-burdened traffic ways, when simpler, more direct, and often less congested routes were open to them

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