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Traffic study sees congestion spreading

An annual transportation study released Tuesday found that even smaller U.S. cities are showing the congestion problems of their mega-counterparts.
Typical backups in Los Angeles, which ranked worst in the annual Texas Transportation Institute study, include this intersection of Interstate 405 and U.S. 101 in the Sherman Oaks area.
Typical backups in Los Angeles, which ranked worst in the annual Texas Transportation Institute study, include this intersection of Interstate 405 and U.S. 101 in the Sherman Oaks area. Ric Francis / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Los Angeles for years has had the nation’s worst traffic jams, but these days even the streets and highways in small and medium cities from Brownsville, Texas, to Anchorage, Alaska, to Honolulu, Hawaii, are giving rush-hour drivers fits.

Snarled traffic is costing travelers in the 85 biggest U.S. cities a whopping 3.5 billion hours a year, up from 700 million two decades ago.

The problem worsened over the past two decades in small, medium and large cities, according to the Texas Transportation Institute’s annual Urban Mobility Report released Tuesday. The institute, part of Texas A&M University, looked at data from 1982 to 2002.

Over that period, the study recorded the greatest leap in congestion in:

  • Dallas, from 13 hours annually in 1982 for the average peak-period traveler to 61 hours annually in 2002.
  • Riverside, Calif., from nine hours annually per rush-hour traveler in 1982 to 57 hours on average in 2002.

The average urban traveler was stuck in road traffic 46 hours a year in 2002, a 187 percent increase over the 16 hours lost in 1982.

Even more startling is the decline of free-flowing traffic during rush hour. In 1982, 30 percent of urban highways and arteries were congested. Twenty years later, drivers were delayed on 67 percent of those roads.

Cities big and small
Alan Pisarski, author of “Commuting in America,” said that escaping to a small city no longer means escaping from traffic.

“You’re beginning to see problems in places that you didn’t know had problems, places you’ve never heard of,” Pisarski said.

Even in cities with the least bad congestion — Anchorage, Alaska, and Brownsville, Texas — drivers lost five hours a year to traffic. In medium-sized cities such as Honolulu it was 18 hours.

The problem is still most severe in cities with more than 3 million inhabitants.

The average Los Angeles commuter spent 93 hours snarled in traffic in 2002, the most of any city in the survey. In San Francisco-Oakland area, drivers lost 73 hours to rush-hour slowdowns. And in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, motorists spent 67 hours stuck in traffic on average in 2002.

What’s alarming is how congestion outpaces a city’s ability to handle it.

In 54 urban areas, traffic snarls increased 30 percent faster than roads could be built to alleviate them.

Tips from Tampa
Tim Lomax, the report’s author, said the news was not all bad. Roads were built fast enough to catch up to spreading populations in some cities, such as Anchorage, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Tampa, Fla., and Charleston, S.C.

“They’ve been getting worse, but they’ve been getting worse slower than everyone else,” Lomax said. “In the bizarre world of transportation mobility, that’s progress.”

Tampa is a good example of a city that has eased traffic in ways other than building roads, Lomax said. Like many cities, it has coordinated its traffic signals, smoothed traffic flow on major roads and created teams to quickly respond to accidents. Such programs have reduced traffic delays in Tampa by 7 percent, or 3.2 million hours a year.

With names like Highway Helper, The Minute Man and Motorists Assistance Patrol, accident response teams are used in 71 cities, where they saved drivers an estimated 170 million hours in 2002.

Lomax said bigger cities are realizing that they can help fix their traffic problems with operational solutions as well as by expanding roads.

“It’s something you can do right away,” he said. The report notes that major highway improvements can take 10 years to 15 years to complete.

Poor economy, better traffic
Traffic in some cities has actually gotten better — but that’s because their economies have done poorly.

“In a lot of the places in the past we’ve seen success in cities suffering job declines — Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland,” Pisarski said. “Unemployment is a great solution.”

The biggest time-saver, according to the report, is public transit, which shaves 32 percent off the time drivers spend sitting bumper-to-bumper.

“If public transportation service was discontinued and the riders traveled in private vehicles, the 85 urban areas would have suffered an additional 1.1 billion hours of delay in 2002,” the report said.

Lomax said the benefits to transit systems are in cities that are already too congested to handle more vehicles.

“Typically you’re in a situation where you can’t handle any more transit on the roads, so public transit becomes the way you support economic development,” he said.

The report is based on data from the states and the Transportation Department. The full study is online at