Mo­bil­ity report tells sad story for trav­el­ers

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

There’s no sin­gle, com­pletely sat­is­fy­ing way of mea­sur­ing what it is we hate about traf­fic con­ges­tion. In fact,

trav­el­ers in the D.C. area rarely de­scribe the tar­get of their anger as “traf­fic con­ges­tion.”

In­stead, they com­plain about a traf­fic light that’s al­ways red when they reach the in­ter­sec­tion, about drivers with bad

merg­ing habits or about the lack of a more di­rect route be­tween home and work­place.

All those con­di­tions con­trib­ute to con­ges­tion and hin­der mo­bil­ity. But they don’t res­onate equally with a trav­eler in Bowie and an­other in Cen­tre­ville, let alone with one in Bos­ton or New York.

This cre­ates a dif­fi­cult task for the re­searchers try­ing to quan­tify the ex­pe­ri­ence of con­ges­tion and for the trav­el­ers try­ing to un­der­stand what they are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.

The Ur­ban Mo­bil­ity Report by the Texas Trans­porta­tion In­sti­tute is the study that has be­come the bench­mark for bad­ness. It tries to quan­tify the prob­lem in sev­eral ways. No one mea­sure sat­is­fies all trav­el­ers, but the col­lec­tive im­pact is telling.

You will see that the D.C. re­gion does very badly over­all, even if we’re not al­ways worst in the na­tion.

Also note that our con­ges­tion isn’t wors­en­ing as quickly as in the late-20th cen­tury, and con­sider the ef­fect on our trans­porta­tion plan­ning. In­dexes and mea­sure­ments

We’re counted among 15 Very Large Ur­ban Ar­eas in the most re­cent report, which mea­sured mo­bil­ity and con­ges­tion in nearly 500 ur­ban ar­eas based on 2011 data.

Within the large-area group, the worst per­form­ers are the D.C. re­gion, Los An­ge­les, San Fran­cisco, New York and Bos­ton.

Na­tion­wide, many types of con­ges­tion recorded in the study peaked around 2005. The report sug­gests that this is a short-term achieve­ment. The con­di­tions that fuel con­ges­tion will re­turn as the econ­omy im­proves, the report says, and con­ges­tion so­lu­tions are not be­ing pur­sued ag­gres­sively enough.

An­nual De­lay Per Auto Com

muter: This mea­sures all the de­lays for com­muters who drive in the peak pe­riod (6 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m.). The in­sti­tute says it il­lus­trates the ef­fect of con­ges­tion per mile as well as the length of each trip.

In 1982, the yearly de­lay na­tion­wide was mea­sured at 16 hours. It was 39 in 2000 and 43 in 2005 but shrank to 38 by 2010 and has re­mained there.

The D.C. re­gion ranks first, with 67 hours of de­lay per year. Los An­ge­les and San Fran­cisco were tied for sec­ond, with 61 hours. The na­tional av­er­age among the 15 Very Large Ur­ban Ar­eas stud­ied was 52 hours. Baltimore, con­sid­ered a Large Ur­ban Area, ranked 23rd, with 41 hours.

Travel Time In­dex: This meas-

The D.C. re­gion does very badly over­all, even if we’re not al­ways the worst in the na­tion

ure is a ra­tio com­par­ing travel time at rush hour with un­con­gested travel time. An in­dex of 1.30 would in­di­cate that a trip tak­ing 20 min­utes when traf­fic flows freely would take 26 min­utes dur­ing the peak. The na­tional in­dex had reached 1.23 in 2005 but de­clined to 1.18 in 2010 and 2011.

The D.C. re­gion ranked fourth in the 2011 data, with an in­dex of 1.32. The Los An­ge­les re­gion was No. 1, with an in­dex of 1.37. Al­most all of our rise on this of­ten-cited in­dex oc­curred be­tween 1982 and 2000.

Con­ges­tion Cost Per Auto Com­muter: This cal­cu­la­tion mea­sures the value of travel de­lay and ex­tra fuel con­sumed in traf­fic con­ges­tion. The D.C. re­gion is No. 1, with an an­nual con­ges­tion cost of $1,398. Among the top 15 ur­ban ar­eas, the av­er­age was $1,128. The Los An­ge­les re­gion was sec­ond, at $1,300.

Plan­ning Time In­dex: This is a new in­dex, so there’s no pre­vi­ous pe­riod for com­par­i­son. The re­searchers cre­ated the in­dex to mea­sure how much travel time varies from day to day. It’s not just the con­ges­tion. It’s the un­re­li­a­bil­ity of con­ges­tion and the ef­fect that has on travel plan­ning.

Re­duc­ing that an­noy­ance to a for­mula, the re­searchers set a fairly high stan­dard: How much ex­tra time com­muters should build into their sched­ules to be late no more than one work­day a month, de­spite en­coun­ter­ing sleet storms, crashes and mo­tor­cades.

If the ra­tio is 3.00, a trav­eler should al­low an hour for an im­por­tant trip that takes 20 min­utes in free-flow­ing traf­fic.

The D.C. re­gion is No. 1, with an in­dex of 5.72. The av­er­age for the 15 Very Large Ur­ban Ar­eas was 4.08. Los An­ge­les and New York were sec­ond and third. (Don’t use the in­dex as a guide to your own travel prepa­ra­tions. It’s show­ing us that when travel is dis­rupted, the im­pact is se­vere and wide­spread.) Con­ges­tion so­lu­tions

At this point, you might be think­ing about what a great coun­try this is, where re­searchers can find em­ploy­ment telling you what you al­ready know about traf­fic con­ges­tion. And yes, the cat­e­gories cov­ered are broad. But there are enough of them over enough time to give us quite a bit to dis­cuss.

Three decades of in­dexes and mea­sures point in the same di­rec­tion: Con­ges­tion costs us time and money we could put to bet­ter use. Some of us have the lux­ury of mak­ing in­di­vid­ual de­ci­sions that cut the per­sonal cost. We can live close to work or to a tran­sit sta­tion. But what should we do as a re­gion?

The mo­bil­ity report says that although big ur­ban ar­eas tend to share the same con­ges­tion is­sues, each re­gion needs to find its own “projects, pro­grams and poli­cies that achieve goals, solve prob­lems and cap­i­tal­ize on op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

And that isn’t a task con­fined to government trans­porta­tion agen­cies. The most ef­fec­tive strate­gies are ones that com­bine the ef­forts of government with those of busi­ness and civic lead­ers, and trav­el­ers, the report says.

We haven’t failed to act. The mo­bil­ity report notes the pos­i­tive ef­fects na­tion­wide of man­ag­ing road net­works and im­prov­ing pub­lic tran­sit. The decades cov­ered by the stud­ies over­lap with the com­ple­tion of the Metro­rail sys­tem, the ex­panded use of high-oc­cu­pancy ve­hi­cle lanes, the cre­ation of high-oc­cu­pancy toll lanes, the ad­di­tion of real-time traf­fic and tran­sit in­for­ma­tion and more cre­ative use of lane space.

Have we done enough, and do we want to in­vest more to ac­cel­er­ate im­prove­ments?

Yes, we’re the cap­i­tal of com­muter pain, but per­haps that doesn’t hurt as much as it used to, since the pain isn’t in­creas­ing as sharply. Are we now will­ing to en­dure the costs in time and money that it takes to get around the D.C. re­gion? Have we be­come com­fort­able with the things we call con­ges­tion?

LINDA DAVID­SON/THE WASHINGTON POST

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