Guess what? European cities have worse traffic than Washington


D.C. area traffic is terrible — but it could be worse, according to a new study. (JASON REED/REUTERS)

Next time you’re stuck in traffic, just be happy you’re not in Istanbul, or Warsaw, or Marseille.

Marseille? Oui!

Traffic in Marseille is much worse than in Washington, which takes a perverse pride in being one of the most congested cities in America.

Yet another study of traffic congestion has come out, this one produced by TomTom, the company that makes the GPS devices used by many drivers.

This time Washington ranks third nationally, down from first place in the Texas Transportation Institute study of 2010 and two spots ahead of where it ranked in last year’s Inrix study. But TomTom adds an international twist by including three Canadian cities that have it worse: Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. And the company puts out a whole separate list for European cities.

You want bad? Go to any of the three cities listed in the first paragraph, or to Palermo, Rome, Paris, Stuttgart, Brussels, Hamburg, Stockholm or about a dozen other European cities where TomTom says traffic is worse.

How much? Perennial U.S. congestion champ Los Angeles rates a 37 on the TomTom scale. Istanbul is a 57. If L.A. had to play in the European league it would rank behind Palermo, tied with Paris and Rome. Washington would barely make the top 20, tied with London, Milan and Toulouse.

Toulouse? Oui!

The answer to the “how bad is it?” question has benefited from high-tech sophistication in the past few years.

At the turn of the century, estimates were formula-based extrapolations of things like the number of minutes it took a driver to get from point A to point B on a given weekday at a given hour. Multiplication was done and estimates derived.

Not so anymore.

When people buy a TomTom, they’re asked whether they want to provide traffic data. If they say yes, their GPS feeds data on their travels back to the manufacturer just as TomTom transmits location information. TomTom says their driver’s data do not reveal who the sender is, so there’s no Big Brother keeping track of a particular driver’s whereabouts.

The gold standard for the past several years in traffic data collection has been set by Inrix, another private company whose transponders are installed in trucks and fleet vehicles to track the flow of traffic.

People who do traffic studies carve raw data like ice sculptures, and the result is that no two studies produce comparable information. But a popular standard is the calculation of how much time the average driver spends stuck in traffic.

Two years ago, the Texas study found that Washington drivers were losing 70 hours a year.

Last year, Inrix said the number had dwindled to 45 hours wasted, a drop that has been attributed in part to congestion relief from the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Now, TomTom says the number has jumped to 80 hours.

Different formulas are the likely cause of that, but both Inrix and TomTom agree that congestion in the Washington region isn’t as bad as it was a few years ago.

And it’s not as bad as Berlin.

Berlin? Jawohl!

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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