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Posted at 1:35 PM ET, 01/19/2011

How commuters define misery

By Robert Thomson

The Texas Transportation Institute on Thursday is scheduled to release the latest version of the report we've long relied on as a benchmark of our misery as commuters. The D.C. region is always high up on the list of congested areas in the institute's Urban Mobility Report.

The report released in 2009 again ranked Washington second to Los Angeles in car congestion. Politicians, transportation advocates, reporters, columnists and commuters cite the statistic whenever they seek a national measure of just how dire a fix we're in.

But what does it mean? It's not your personal misery index as a commuter. That depends more on the day, the season and the route. Do you have to switch from car to train, train to train or bus to bus? Is your route under construction? Do you have a long and straightforward trip, or do you drive fewer miles and need to make many lane changes in heavy traffic to follow a route that involves different roadways?

The report doesn't drill down that far. Among the nation's largest urban areas, we ranked second in the 2009 report behind Los Angeles in annual hours of delay per traveler. That's the hours of extra travel time divided by the number of peak period travelers.

We ranked fourth on the Travel Time Index, a ratio of the travel time during the peak period to the time required to make the same trip at free-flow speeds. We ranked second, again behind L.A., in wasted fuel per traveler.

So what help is it to know that? The report says this about the measures and rankings: "They are especially good at identifying multi-year trends and in comparing relative
levels of congestion. As evidenced by the continual refinement of the measures, estimation procedures and data, however, this series of reports is still a 'work-in-progress.' "

For example, all the estimation procedures involve simplifying assumptions that are not correct for every situation.

The institute's measures continue to evolve. The latest report is going to combine historical traffic speed data provided by INRIX with traffic counts provided by public agencies to produce the latest congestion trends. INRIX is a private provider of traffic information and services.

Also, the congestion analysis won't be just for peak periods. Because of the additional data from INRIX, it can include off-peak and weekend congestion as well.

In a preview released in September, the institute described the new national data report this way:

1. Speeds on many congested sections of road are not as bad as previously estimated. There are severe bottlenecks with very low speeds, but most sections are not congested for more than four to five hours each day.

2. The true effects of incidents are not as significant as previously estimated. When crashes occur, congestion increases, but in most cases not as much as previous estimates. The bottleneck delay that crashes cause is partially offset by free-flowing traffic once the crash scene has been passed.

3. Off-peak direction delay is not a significant problem on most roads. High daily traffic volumes were previously estimated to create travel delay in the "minor" direction. The real speeds indicate the congested time may be only half as much as previously estimated.

The report won't help you pick where to live or by what means to travel. But it means a lot to transportation officials and advocates who want to make travel easier in congested areas. And some of the adjustments highlighted in the preview may lead us all to think differently about just how badly off we are and why.

The writers of the study don't advocate any particular fix:
"Solutions to the congestion problem will not change; the Urban Mobility Report analysis indicates that many strategies are needed in most urban regions. No single strategy has been successful in addressing mobility problems over the long-term."

But another group, CEOs for Cities, released a report funded by the Rockefeller Foundation that challenges some of the assumptions, methodologies and results from previous mobility studies by the Texas Transportation Institute.

See if you think this approach gets closer to the realities of urban travel.

The study, called Driven Apart, says previous Urban Mobility Reports are unreliable guides to understanding the nature and extent of transportation problems in the nation's metropolitan areas. For example, the Mobility Report's Travel Time Index is structured so that it conceals the effect of sprawl and travel distance on travel time.

As long as travel volume increases more than capacity, the model predicts slower speeds and travel times.

But a driver cares about how long the entire commute is, not just about how long the driver spends in congestion, Therefore, sprawl counts, the study says. Many regions have land-use policies and transportation programs that wind up putting a great distance between people and their destinations.

If you promote the value of travel distance and reexamine the data, as the Driven Apart study did, the D.C. area doesn't even make the top 10 in travel misery. Taking the place of Los Angeles, Washington and Atlanta as home to the most miserable commuters are Richmond, Raleigh-Durham, Detroit and Kansas City.

The key reason is the much longer-than-average peak period travel distances in those cities, Driven Apart says.

What does this mean for transportation policy? Seek solutions in better land use, not just in road capacity. The study concludes that the "secret to reducing the amount of time Americans spend in peak hour traffic has more to do with how we build our cities than how we build our roads."

How do you define commuting misery? Post a comment below.

By Robert Thomson  | January 19, 2011; 1:35 PM ET
Categories:  Commuting, Congestion, Driving, Transit  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock  
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One five letter word: Metro.

Posted by: charlotte7 | January 19, 2011 2:24 PM | Report abuse

I define "commuting misery" less by the amount of time I spend in my car, even counting congestion, and more by stress factors, such as the unpredictable behavior of pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. That would include pedestrians who cross in the middle of the road or against a red light, noses buried in their blackberries; cyclists who run through yellow and red lights, blow through stop signs, and take up an entire lane of traffic while a entire row of cars are crawling behind them; and drivers who change lanes unnecessarily, pass at high rates of speed, or drive much slower than the flow of traffic, all while animatedly talking on their cell phones. In other words, I am made more miserable by stupid behavior that endangers my life and the lives of others around me than I am by sitting in traffic peacefully listening to satellite radio.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | January 19, 2011 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I think it's definitely the right approach in assessing "commuting misery" to decline to consider individual commuters' tolerances, simply because those vary so widely. Let me cite myself as an example. I've lived in the DC area since 1974 (when I was 1 year old). We originally lived in the Bedford Village development next to Fairfax Hospital. A year later we moved to Strathmeade Square (townhouse neighborhood behind Fairfax Hospital), and in the early 1980s we moved to where my parents still live today, out near WT Woodson High School in Fairfax. My father worked downtown throughout that entire period (still does, actually, in the same building). So I grew up with the idea that it takes around 35 to 45 minutes to commute to work and that living just outside the Beltway is normal--and I now live just outside the Beltway myself in Kingstowne. During the summer of 1996 when I was a student at Duke Law, I had a job in Raleigh and I lived in my apartment at Duke. The commute was about 40 miles each way, but it only took about 45 minutes, so to me it was similar to what I was used to from Northern Virginia but with less traffic.

But I know plenty of people in their 20s who have more recently moved to the DC area who think that anyone who lives outside DC, or at most any further out than Ballston, is insane. I could see how someone who comes from a place with less traffic would think that way, but it underscores to me that it's all a matter of what you're used to.

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 19, 2011 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Two words: other drivers. Simple as that.

Posted by: sigmagrrl | January 19, 2011 3:43 PM | Report abuse

There will always be people who want to live in a city environment and those who prefer large back yards and to awakent to the sound of birds rather than garbage trucks in the morning. The latter will be willing to put up with longer commutes rather than live in a 15-story apartment over a Metro station.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | January 19, 2011 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Incidentally, in my prior comment I didn't get a chance to address the question of what I define as "commuting misery" before I got interrupted by the phone.

I think one prong of "commuting misery" in my mind is those days when EVERYTHING gets messed up, no matter how you're commuting or which alternate route you use. I-395 at a standstill, so you get off to take US-1 through Crystal City and that goes nowhere, so you try Glebe Road only to discover a wreck. Usually driver rudeness spikes big-time when that sort of thing happens, too--people turning out of the wrong lane, people trying to sneak down the shoulder, people blocking the box because they're fed up with not getting through the light, etc.

I think the other prong of "commuting misery" comes from repeatedly dealing with people who are conditioned to think that rudeness is acceptable and normal. A lot of people in the DC area have a "f***-you" attitude towards everyone else. Try going over the 14th Street Bridge on a weekday morning and watching how many people cut from the thru lanes into the onramp acceleration lanes, then try to butt back in just to get four car-lengths ahead, or how many people will drive down the shoulder trying to cut, or the like. And there's always someone who's happy to let those people do it, which I think just exacerbates the problem by "enabling" them--they keep doing it because they know there's always a sucker. Eastbound Constitution at 18th NW is another example--the left lane is left-turn only, but I'd wager that 80% of the people in that lane ignore the restriction and go straight simply to bypass the traffic in the other lanes. To those of us who drive legally, it's like giving all of us the finger. On southbound 15th at Constitution, there is only one right-turn lane, but lots of people illegally turn right out of the second lane because they know they won't get ticketed. Pedestrians and cyclists are hardly exempt, either; we all know that the majority of pedestrians think the "Walk/Don't Walk" lights are there to be ignored and that a lot of cyclists think they should have the rights of a motor vehicle without the responsibilities.

I think what I'm getting at is that the prevailing attitude among many people around here when it comes to commuting is "me first, screw the rest of you." It just contributes to gridlock. If, for example, the box-blocker would consider the effect his action has on the cross traffic, he might realize that if the box stays clear we ALL get through sooner. But all he cares about is "I got through." When everyone thinks only of himself, the system falls apart. If people cooperate, it works a lot better.

Put differently: How many people do you see at the grocery store walking past everyone on line for the checkout and shoving in at the front? None, of course. Yet the same people don't bat at an eye at turning out of the wrong lane just to get ahead. What makes the road so different?

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 19, 2011 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Everyone got it right. The frustrations result from self-centered individuals, driving, walking, or cycling, who do wrong and rely on alert drivers who know better and obey the rules of the road. After decades of driving I just shake my head and keep moving. Worrying and reacting only ruins my day. I prefer music instead.

Posted by: mitch661 | January 19, 2011 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Three words: Love my bike!

There's no such thing as a bad commute.

Posted by: krickey7 | January 19, 2011 5:52 PM | Report abuse

At the end of the day, when I've arrived at work safely and home again safely without causing harm to others, it's a good day. If I had a pet peeve, though, it would be left-lane slow pokes, especially on stretches of interstate that are only two lanes. Left-lane slow pokes tend to cause bottlenecks.

Posted by: CAmira5 | January 19, 2011 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Everyone, whether drivers or Metro door-jammers, is the Most Important Person in the area. Maybe that causes some conflict.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | January 20, 2011 12:34 PM | Report abuse

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