Chicago, your commute will likely take far longer than you think

You can predict with a high degree of confidence that the time it takes to drive from Point A to B on any given day is unpredictable.

And it's not just snowy or rainy days. It can be any day.

If there is a bright side, it's that Chicago was not the worst.

Residents of the Chicago area are accommodating that increasing uncertainty by setting aside more time each day — just in case — for the commute, new research shows.

For the most important trips, such as going to work, medical appointments, the airport or making a 5:30 p.m. pickup at the child care center to avoid late fees, drivers in northeastern Illinois and northwest Indiana should count on allotting four times as much time as it would take to travel in free-flowing traffic, according to the "Urban Mobility Report" to be released Tuesday by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The analysis is based on 2011 data, which are the most recent available.

It is the first time that travel reliability was measured in the 30-year history of the annual report. The researchers created a Planning Time Index geared toward helping commuters reach their destinations on time in more than 95 percent of the trips. A second index, requiring less padding of travel time, would get an employee to work on time four out of five days a week.

"If you plan only for average traffic conditions on your trip in the Chicago area, you are going to be late at least half the time," said Bill Eisele, a senior research engineer at the Transportation Institute who co-authored the study.

The constant unreliability that hovers over commuting is stealing precious time from other activities, crimping lifestyles, causing mounting frustration for drivers and slapping extra costs on businesses that rely on just-in-time shipments to manage inventory efficiently, researchers found.

The Chicago region ranked No. 7 among very large urban areas and 13th among 498 U.S. cities on a scale of the most unreliable highway travel times. The Washington area was the worst. A driver using the freeway system in the nation's capital and surrounding suburbs should budget almost three hours to complete a high-priority trip that would take only 30 minutes in light traffic, the study said.

The Washington area was followed on the list by the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, New York-Newark, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Seattle.

Rounding out the top 10, the Chicago metro area was trailed by San Francisco-Oakland, Atlanta, and Houston.

Truck driver Frank Denk said he usually adds an hour or two to his trip through the Chicago area. Sometimes, it's not enough, other times traffic isn't a problem, he said. The one constant, Denk said Monday afternoon while taking a break at the O'Hare Oasis on the Tri-State Tollway, is that it is almost impossible to anticipate correctly.

"Job-wise, it can be very detrimental to truckers," said Denk, who is based in Green Bay, Wis. "All of a sudden, you're not able to make your delivery."

But quadrupling the time to travel back and forth each day? That's excessive, said Mike Hennigan, a 64-year-old accountant who regularly commutes from his Evanston home to his office near the junction of the Kennedy and Edens expressways. He recommends doubling the anticipated travel time.

"I can predict when it's going to be bad," Hennigan said, although he is less optimistic about his travel times when he heads toward downtown.

"Coming into the Loop can be deadly, especially later in the week," Hennigan said.

Overall, traffic congestion in the Chicago region is getting worse as the economy improves, although it's not as severe as the grip that gridlock has taken recently on some other very large metropolitan areas in the U.S., according to the report. The Washington area again topped the list, followed by Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, New York-Newark, Boston, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Seattle.

No longer being ranked at the very top of the congestion heap provides little consolation for Chicago-area drivers.

What should be a 20-minute jaunt across town in Chicago or the suburbs if highway capacity were sufficient to permit vehicles to travel the speed limit now becomes about an 80-minute ordeal, according to the Texas A&M study. Scheduling 80 minutes for the trip would ensure an on-time arrival 19 out of 20 times, the study concluded.

But that would be similar to treating every day of the year as if it were like Monday, when a moderate snowfall blanketing the Chicago region smacked traffic into slow motion during the morning rush.

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