District steers clear of global traffic traumas

It will be of little solace as you sit in the post-Labor Day traffic morass this week that annually overwhelms Washington, but drivers in Mexico City, Beijing and New Delhi think they’ve got it far worse.

Of course, all of those cities have upward of 12 million people, and none is blessed with roads as magnificent as the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 or Interstate 66 to help them along.

They’re among 11 foreign cities all judged to have worse traffic congestion than Los Angeles, the perennial winner of the worst-traffic award in national rankings in which Washington usually finishes second.

This is all according to an international survey done by IBM, which shares the data with business partners and folks who want to know how their traffic congestion compares with everyone else’s.

Although Washington wasn’t one of the surveyed cities, it’s easy to extrapolate where it stands based on available data. And it has an interesting trend in common with those cities.

In the cities it surveyed, IBM found that more people were taking public transportation than last year. Probably as a result of that, more people said traffic had improved somewhat or substantially. But people who continued to drive said they were more stressed out than ever.

“A person’s emotional response to the daily commute is colored by many factors — pertaining both to traffic congestion as well as to other unrelated issues,” said Naveen Lamba, IBM’s global intelligent transportation expert. He said that “drivers in cities around the world are much more unsettled and anxious compared with 2010.”

With a sour economy, an earthquake, a hurricane, a return to school, and traffic volume ramping up after the summer holidays, stress on Washington area highways was exacerbated this back-to-work week by lots of rain.

Keeping step with the worldwide trend, there was evidence that in and around Washington, fewer people are commuting alone by car than in the past.

Although 64 percent of people continue to drive alone, that’s a drop from 71 percent in 2001, according to the State of the Commute Survey released in June by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.

The planning board report also showed that weekly trips by train increased by more than 2 percent since 2001 and that bus use was up from 4.6 to 5.7 percent.

“Slowly and surely, the face of the daily commute shows signs of changing all around us,” said Mahlon G. Anderson, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association. “Nowhere is that more apparent than in the nation’s capital itself. In the past few years, District residents have developed interesting commuting patterns.”

Anderson pointed to five years of tracking reported in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which showed that 37 percent of District residents take public transportation, 11 percent walk to work, almost 7 percent carpool and 3 percent bike to work.

Nicholas W. Ramfos, director of Commuter Connections, a regional network of transportation organizations coordinated by theMetropolitan Washington Council of Governments, provided another twist.

“Approximately 600,000 workers — 25 percent of the region’s workforce — telework occasionally,” Ramfos said.

With continued growth in the region’s population projected through the next decade, the Capitol Hill debate this month on how much to spend on highways and transit takes on particular parochial significance.

The IBM survey found that foreign cities that invested in infrastructure expansion were reaping benefits in reduced congestion.

For example, commuters in Beijing said that conditions improved after about $12.5 billion was invested in transportation projects. Mexico City spent $2.5 billion on infrastructure.

Despite a sense of improvement in those cities and others, drivers reported that their stress level was not reduced. In Beijing, 86 percent of the respondents said that commuting anxieties spilled over into the workplace or classroom. Sixty-seven percent of drivers in Mexico City, 63 percent in New Delhi and 61 percent in Beijing said that they abandoned plans for a trip last month because of anticipated traffic. Globally, 69 percent of those surveyed said that traffic had affected their health in some way.

IBM based its calculations on overall commuting time and time stuck in traffic. It also factored in whether those surveyed agreed that gas prices were too high; traffic had gotten worse; stop-and-go traffic was a problem; driving was causing stress or anger or affecting work; traffic conditions caused people to stop driving; or a trip was abandoned because of fear of traffic congestion.

Based on those factors, the scores for the surveyed cities were: Mexico City, 108; Shenzhen, 95; Beijing, 95; Nairobi, 88; Johannesburg, 83; Bangalore, 75; New Delhi, 72; Moscow, 65; Milan, 53; Singapore, 44; Buenos Aires, 42; Los Angeles, 34; Paris, 31; Madrid, 28; New York City, 28; Toronto, 27; Stockholm, 26; Chicago, 25; London, 23; and Montreal, 21.

When asked about the longest amount of time they had been stuck in traffic over the past three years, drivers in Mexico City, Moscow, Beijing, Shenzhen and Nairobi said about two hours. In Moscow, three in 10 drivers said they been stuck for more than three hours.

At the other end of the scale among surveyed cities, about half of the drivers in Stockholm, Singapore, Madrid and Buenos Aires said they spent less than 30 minutes or literally no time stuck in traffic.

halseya@washpost.com

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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