Policy Study

The Facts About Gridlock in Southern California

Executive Summary

Traffic congestion is considered one of Southern California’s most serious problems, yet much of what people believe about traffic, especially rush-hour commuting, is wrong. Up-to-date data from the 1990 Census and Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey provide a sound basis for rethinking our approach to transportation planning in the greater Los Angeles region.

Despite concern over congestion, the fraction of commuters choosing to drive to work alone actually increased during the 1980s-from 70.5 percent to 72.3 percent of all worktrips. Carpooling and transit each attracted a smaller share in 1990 than in 1980. By 1990 more people walked to work or rode bicycles or motorcycles than used public transit services. As of 1990, transit accounted for only 4.5 percent of all worktrips.

Although greater Los Angeles is generally considered the nation’s most congested metro area, it compares surprisingly well to the other top-10 metro areas in both trip speeds and commuting times. Los Angeles is fifth highest among the top 10 in commuting speed, and it ranks even better for shopping and personal-trip speeds. Moreover, average commuting times have remained surprisingly constant over the past 20 years, at around 24 to 25 minutes. Continuing suburbanization has brought many jobs to the suburbs, and people have also moved closer to work. These locational adjustments have kept speeds and trip times from deteriorating.

Despite congestion, Southern Californians are making a lot more trips than 10 or 20 years ago, in part because of a strong increase in women’s travels, both worktrips and (especially) family related and personal trips. The large majority of all trips are nonworktrips. Surprisingly, nonworktrips make up a considerable share even of rush-hour travel. After factoring out “chained” trips (worktrips that include a stop along the way for shopping, daycare, and the like), truly nonworktrips constitute 43 percent of the morning rush hour in greater Los Angeles and 56 percent of the afternoon rush hour.

These facts suggest that transportation planners need to rethink many of their assumptions. Disproportionate emphasis is being placed on worktrip reduction (e.g., mandatory employer-based ridesharing under Regulation XV) and on fixed-rail transit. More promising efforts include highoccupancy vehicle lanes, expanded opportunities for taxis and van services, and increased telecommuting.