Washington region’s fabled traffic jams eased last year


Traffic backs up on the inbound 14th Street Bridge in this file photo. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Washington, a city that has found no glory in its sports teams of late and has been tarnished by lawmakers seen as incapable of making laws, now faces another ignominy. No longer can it claim to be the most traffic-congested place in the nation.

Not even close. And you can blame it on Congress.

With the nation’s economy on the rise, traffic congestion picked up last year in all but one of the 10 most congested metropolitan regions: Washington.

In fact, Washington was one percentage point less congested, according to Inrix, the global traffic-tracking company that uses transponders in 100 million vehicles to provide real-time traffic flow data used in traffic reports.

Every other city that made the traffic top 10 saw congestion shoot up last year, including Los Angeles (8.5 percent), New York (5 percent), Boston (22 percent), San Francisco (13 percent).


Nine area congestion points rank among the 200 worst roads in America, according to traffic analytics company INRIX. Here they are, ranked by hours of delay each causes the unfortunate commuter who drives it five days a week, 48 weeks a year. (The Washington Post/Jim Bak of INRIX)

Although Washington can no longer take perverse pride at being No. 1 or even in the top five (it slumped to seventh by one yardstick and 10th by another), commuters who want to fume can take heart that they still waste 40 hours a year stuck in traffic.

Much has been written about a shift in the region’s urban dynamic, with people who once fled the city or who grew up in suburbia moving to the District. The population is up, but the number of households that own a car and the number of licensed drivers are not. More people are using public transit, rental cars and bicycles to get around town.

But that’s not unique to Washington, nor is it the primary reason that the region saw a decline in congestion.

“That’s what happens when D.C. shuts down for a month and government hiring slows with sequester,” said Jim Bak of Inrix.

Furloughs and the government shutdown last year put fewer drivers into the daily commute, he said.

“If we didn’t have the shutdown, D.C. would have been flat or up slightly,” Bak said. “Blame it on Congress. That’s kind of a popular thing to do these days, isn’t it?”

Washington wasn’t alone in seeing a drop in congestion. So did Youngstown, Akron and Toledo in Ohio, Scranton and Allentown in Pennsylvania, and several other cities.

“When you look at the cities with drops, they were the Rust Belt cities that never got [their economy] going last year,” Bak said.

In all, 61 metropolitan areas in the United States saw traffic increase last year. Several of those cities — Austin, San Jose, Seattle and Boston — saw a corresponding growth in population as people were attracted by job availability and the desire to live in an urban core.

“People are moving where the jobs are, and that’s major urban cities,” Bak said. “Young people who are coming out of college want to live in urban centers, not in the suburbs.”

As that trend toward renewed urbanization continues, he said, the United States may struggle with more congestion. While the average driver in Washington loses 40 hours a year stuck in traffic, he said there are those who waste “way, way more than that.”

With 70 percent of the world’s population forecast to be clustered around urban hubs by mid-century, he said commutes like the two to three hours drivers invest in San Paolo, Brazil, and congestion like the infamous 10-day traffic tie-up caused by road construction in Beijing in 2010 should be lessons for the United States.

“The solution for us isn’t going to be building new roads,” Bak said. “Our future highways are going to be built with software and technology.”

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Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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