Putting num­bers to driv­ers’ mis­ery

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY ROBERT THOM­SON thom­sonr@wash­post.com

When ad­vo­cates for trans­porta­tion im­prove­ments want to il­lus­trate how bad the com­mute has got­ten, they al­most al­ways cite their re­gion’s high rank­ing in a na­tional study of con­ges­tion pre­pared by the Texas Trans­porta­tion In­sti­tute. Tim Lo­max, a re­searcher with the in­sti­tute, rec­og­nized the bench­mark sta­tus the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s Ur­ban Mo­bil­ity Re­port has gained when he char­ac­ter­ized it as “ the sec­ond slide” in many trans­porta­tion pre­sen­ta­tions, com­ing right af­ter the ti­tle page.

With such an im­por­tant role to play, the re­port has de­vel­oped its share of crit­ics. They ques­tion its method­ol­ogy and con­clu­sions about where we stand and what we should do next.

The de­bate re­flects a fun­da­men­tal is­sue for com­muters: When we try to mea­sure our com­mut­ing mis­ery by the num­bers, what val­ues should we look at and what goals should they re­flect?

Ur­ban Mo­bil­ity Re­port

The lat­est ver­sion, re­leased last week, con­tin­ued a de­press­ing trend for the D.C. re­gion. By any of the var­i­ous mea­sures of mo­bil­ity, we don’t have it. In fact, our con­ges­tion and de­lays are among the worst for very large ur­ban ar­eas, based on the 2009 statis­tics. Here’s a sum­mary of our key na­tion­wide rank­ings. Travel Time In­dex: No. 2 This mea­sure of con­ges­tion fo­cuses on each trip and each mile of travel. It is a ra­tio of travel time in peak pe­ri­ods to travel time in free-flow­ing traf­fic.

De­lay per peak auto com­muter: No. 1

This is a yearly sum of de­lays for peo­ple who drive in the peak pe­ri­ods of 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. It il­lus­trates the ef­fect of per-mile con­ges­tion as well as the length of each trip, the re­port says. We tied with Chicago.

De­lay per non-peak trav­eler: No. 2

This mea­sure re­flects an­nual ex­tra travel time for peo­ple dur­ing mid­day, evening and week­ends.

Con­ges­tion cost per peak com­muter: No. 2

This is the value of travel de­lay for 2009, es­ti­mated at $16.01 per hour for a per­son’s travel, and the ex­cess fuel con­sump­tion, es­ti­mated us­ing a state’s av­er­age cost per gal­lon.

Ex­cess fuel con­sumed per com­muter: No. 1

This is a mea­sure of in­creased fuel con­sumed dur­ing travel in con­ges­tion rather than in freeflow­ing traf­fic.

In many of the key mea­sures dat­ing from 1982, such as the Travel Time In­dex and the de­lay per peak auto com­muter, we’ve moved up in the rank­ings.

“You have been one of the lead­ers,” Lo­max said of the D.C. re­gion’s com­muters.

How do these mis­ery rank­ings help us?

Lo­max said, “Folks would like to know how bad things are in re­la­tion to other peo­ple — more im­por­tantly, how bad they are rel­a­tive to where they’ve been — so they can make de­ci­sions about pub­lic ex­pen­di­tures of funds.”

For the av­er­age com­muter, there’s some­thing missing in such analy­ses: What about me? The mea­sure of de­lays for non-peak trav­el­ers might in part re­flect the sever­ity of the lunchtime traf­fic in Tysons Corner, but the mea­sures don’t reach such spe­cific lev­els for Tysons or any other area.

“What we’re re­port­ing are re­gional av­er­ages,” Lo­max said. “ The av­er­age is just the av­er­age. It’s not about any in­di­vid­ual.”

But he said the re­port still could serve to raise the con­scious­ness of a com­muter, who might fo­cus on the cost of trav­el­ing at peak hours and ask whether it would make sense to leave 15 min­utes early or to spend more time work­ing from home.

The crit­ics’ case

CEOs for Cities, a na­tional group whose goal is to dis­cover ways that ur­ban ar­eas can be­more suc­cess­ful eco­nom­i­cally, re­leased a study last fall called “ Driven Apart.” Fo­cus­ing on the mo­bil­ity re­port’s Travel Time In­dex, it faulted the trans­porta­tion in­sti­tute for missing the role that in­creas­ing travel dis­tances and sprawl have played in the amount of time we spend com­mut­ing.

Over the his­tory of the mo­bil­ity re­port, many com­muters have moved far­ther from where they want to get to each day. “ That in­crease in dis­tance was enough to ex­plain the in­crease in travel time,” said Joseph Cor­tright, the study’s author.

A re­ex­am­i­na­tion of the traf­fic data in that light shows that com­muters’ ex­pe­ri­ence na­tion­wide has not been uni­ver­sally bleak, he said. “In some cities, we’ve seen to­tal travel times at peak hours ac­tu­ally de­crease, be­cause peo­ple are now driv­ing shorter dis­tances.” He pointed to Port­land, Ore., as one ex­am­ple. Even the D.C. re­gion dropped from sec­ond to 14th place on peak travel time in this re­work­ing of the data from the pre­vi­ous mo­bil­ity re­port.

As with the mo­bil­ity re­ports, the data Cor­tright used do not quan­tify how mis­er­able you are on In­ter­state 66 at the Cap­i­tal Belt­way in the morn­ing or on the in­ner loop through Bethesda in the af­ter­noon. But they sug­gest some­thing in­di­vid­u­als can con­sider: The ef­fect on their travel lives of be­ing closer to work and in a com­mu­nity that of­fers op­tions that in­clude tran­sit rid­ing and walk­ing.

For pol­i­cy­mak­ers, Cor­tright sug­gests, the study asks whether their goal should be to in­crease road ca­pac­ity for the sake of in­creas­ing peak-pe­riod speeds, or in­stead to con­cen­trate on lan­duse plans that don’t seg­re­gate home, of­fice, com­merce and en­ter­tain­ment into widely sep­a­rated zones reach­able only by cars.

Other fac­tors

I asked read­ers of the Dr. Grid­lock blog to tell me how they mea­sure the mis­ery of com­mut­ing. These themes emerged:

To­tal time spent in the car isn’t as im­por­tant as stress fac­tors, such as the un­pre­dictable be­hav­ior of pedes­tri­ans, cy­clists and driv­ers.

It’s dif­fi­cult to mea­sure in­di­vid­ual mis­ery be­cause com­muters have dif­fer­ent tol­er­ances, based in part on their ages and ex­pe­ri­ences with dif­fer­ent travel pat­terns and travel modes.

Peo­ple­make choices that are dif­fi­cult to quan­tify. For some, the mis­ery of a long com­mute is off­set by the plea­sure of hear­ing birds sing­ing when they get home.

An over­all mea­sure doesn’t re­flect the re­al­ity that some days and some routes are bet­ter than oth­ers.

Ron­ald F. Kirby, trans­porta­tion plan­ning di­rec­tor for the Metropoli­tan Washington Coun­cil of Gov­ern­ments, said this about the big stud­ies of com­mut­ing ex­pe­ri­ence: “ They are av­er­ages, based on a typ­i­cal day — if there ever is such a thing. If you look at the in­di­vid­ual com­muters and what they think about in terms of what’s in­volved in get­ting to work, there’s an enor­mous vari­a­tion in their con­cerns.”

For ex­am­ple: Will my com­mut­ing time be the same to­day as it was yes­ter­day?

“ That’s ter­ri­bly im­por­tant,” Kirby said. “It’s the re­li­a­bil­ity that re­ally both­ers peo­ple on the road and in­creas­ingly on the Metro. That’s not picked up in any of these data, but that’s what’s re­ally im­por­tant to peo­ple.”

SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IM­AGES

Grid­lock in Chicago, which, one sta­tis­ti­cal mea­sure says, is tied with the District for worst con­ges­tion.

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