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2012 Urban Mobility Report Indicates as Economy Improves Congestion Returns

Baruch Feigenbaum
February 13, 2013, 9:47am

The Texas Transportation Institute released its 2012 Urban Mobility Report last week. The major finding is that after remaining static since 2005, congestion is growing thanks to an improving economy.

While the report is best known for analyzing traffic congestion, it also details the role of transit in reducing congestion. Further, it explains how congestion worsens air quality. TTI has been producing this report annually since 1982. During that time, congestion has tripled in many U.S. metro areas. 

TTI made several changes this year, but the most noteworthy is a new metric, The Planning Time Index (PTI) that explains the amount of buffer time needed to reach a location on time in 19 out of 20 instances. According to TTI:

If the PTI for a particular trip is 3.00, a traveler would allow 60 minutes for a trip that typically takes 20 minutes when few cars are on the road. Allowing for a PTI of 3.00 would ensure on-time arrival 19 out of 20 times.

PTIs on freeways vary widely across the nation, from 1.31 (about nine extra minutes for a trip that takes 30 minutes in light traffic) in Pensacola, Florida, to 5.72 (almost three hours for that same half-hour trip) in Washington, D.C. 

The best way to reduce the PTI may be managed lanes and managed arterials. Managed lanes are freeway lanes that are free to buses and large carpools. Single person vehicles may use these lanes for a small fee that varies based on congestion. This small fee helps keep managed lanes free-flowing 24 hours a day even during rush hour. Managed arterials are bridges or tunnels at major intersections that drivers can choose to pay to avoid congestion. Managed arterials are free-to-use for transit vehicles With managed lane and managed arterial networks commuters are guaranteed a congestion-free ride and can factor in less planning time. As a result, commuters will have more free time for other activities. 

The traditional metric that TTI uses to measure congestion is the Yearly Delay per Auto Commuter. The ten metro areas with the worst congestion from heaviest to lightest are Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle. 

As these metro areas are the largest in the country, there are no major surprises. Although some areas with relatively smaller populations have relatively large congestion problems while some of the biggest metro areas have relatively moderate congestion issues. 

Washington D.C., the 8th largest metro area, ranks 1st in congestion. This is due to several reasons including the strong regional economy, the large number of face-to-face jobs where personal contact is important and the poor regional freeway network. Despite the presence of a strong subway network, D.C. area residents still have the worst commute in the country. Other metro areas where congestion is more severe than population include San Francisco, Boston and Seattle. 

Chicago, the 3rd largest metro area, ranks 8th in congestion. This is likely the result of a poor regional economy, better freeway and arterial network, and stronger regional cooperation. The other major metro area where congestion is less severe than population is New York City. 

As the economy improves congestion will increase. This is the time for metro areas to develop a comprehensive cost-effective, congestion-reduction strategy. This includes new managed lanes, new managed arterials and new, targeted freeway and arterial widenings. This strategy also includes enhanced use of tolling, cost efficient local bus/BRT systems, and increased use of intelligent transportation systems. 

Metro areas that are improving thier transportation system fare better than metro areas that are not upgrading thier systems. Let’s take a closer look at one of the latter--Atlanta. Atlanta’s congestion increased from 13th worst in 2011 to 7th worst in 2012. This is a large jump due in part to new methodology. However, Atlanta’s increase in population, increase in vehicle miles of travel and decrease in transit usage are the larger factors. Atlanta is on the road (bad pun intended) to returning to its early 2000’s pattern of severe congestion. 

An improving metro economy is one reason for the growing congestion. After lagging behind the rest of the country for much of the recovery, metro Atlanta foreclosures recently hit a six-year low. The unemployment rate has declined from almost 11% to 8.5%. According to William Frey of the Brookings Institute, the most important growth factor of the past 50 years has been average January temperature. And while Atlanta will likely not return to its growth rate of the 1980’s and 1990’s, it figures to continue its increase in population. 

Inadequacy of the transportation network is the other contributing factor. Atlanta has not substantially widened its freeway or arterial network over the last 20 years. It has not added redundancy or upgraded insufficient suburban arterials either. Nor has it invested in a high-quality, low-cost bus and BRT network. A metro area that is growing but not improving its transportation network is going to face major congestion problems. In a way the recession saved Atlanta from far worst congestion. But with growth continuing Atlanta remains without a comprehensive plan to solve its transportation challenges. 

Other metro areas such as Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Miami with major congestion problems are investing in managed lanes, managed arterials, reconstructing arterials, and implementing cost-effective transit service. Meanwhile Atlanta is doing very little. Without improvements, increased growth will lead to increased congestion. The smart money says Atlanta’s travel time index will be much worse than 7th in the future.


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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