When it comes to traffic congestion around Washington, even the good news is bad, and it goes downhill from there.
The city that so hungers to be No. 1 at something — usually on a gridiron or diamond-shaped field — has again risen to the top as the most congested metropolitan area in the United States, a place where the average driver burns 67 hours and 32 gallons of gas each year sitting in traffic.
The No. 1 ranking is the good news. The bad news is that it’s going to get worse.
The annual crunching of numbers by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute projects that unless something is done about traffic, the economic recovery will put more wheels on the road and create more congestion. By 2020, analysts say, the average U.S. driver will spend an additional seven hours in traffic each year and waste six more gallons of gas.
The Institute’s calculations are based on data from transponders on millions of moving vehicles. It comes from Inrix, the commercial network that also provides much of the information used in traffic reports on radio, television and the Internet.
After Washington, the four most congested metro areas in the nation were among the perennial contenders: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Boston. Raleigh-Durham rated as the easiest major city to get around.
Rankings are relative and don’t say much about your personal commuting misery, unless there’s perverse pride in being No. 1 or you’re looking to move some place where congestion isn’t so bad. (Traffic is light in Bakersfield, Calif.)
For the first time this year, the Institute came up with a new metric to salt the wound that is traffic congestion around Washington. It calculates the true meaning of an expression often used on traffic radio reports — “allow a little extra time” — a polite way of telling drivers that their traffic nightmare meter has hit the red zone.
The Institute calls it the Planning Time Index, and this is how Tim Lomax, one of the study’s authors, explains it: “It’s predicated on the notion that your boss will let you be late to work one time a month and you’d better be on time the other 19 days.”
So, the new index compares the time it would take to make a trip in light traffic with the time you need to allow if you want to be punctual for work (or anywhere else) 19 days out of 20.
It’s a new index that tells an old story: No place is worse than Washington, which rates 5.72 and is behind metro Los Angeles and New York. Baltimore ranks 15th among large cities with a 3.81, while Salt Lake City is at the bottom with a 2.02.
What does that mean?
“If you had a 20-minute trip in light traffic, 20 times 5.7 is almost 2 hours that you ought to allow for a really important trip in the middle of rush hour,” Lomax said. “That’s the combined effect of weather and bad crashes and special events and construction, and in y’alls cases, presidential motorcades. It’s everything rolled together.”
The Institute provided a plan for addressing congestion that applies to the Washington region and the rest of the nation. It was a collection of ideas, many of which are already in use.
It included addressing immediate traffic problems — such as having tow trucks poised to sweep away wrecks and stalled vehicles, and using metered freeway on ramps to modulate traffic flow — and obvious goals of increasing capacity, encouraging transit use and embracing flexible work schedules.
“You should be able to call the boss and say ‘Traffic’s bad today, how about if I telecommute for now and come in two hours later?’ ” Lomax said. “And you need to take advantage of those options when they make sense for you. Don’t just get stuck in the rut of ‘I drive my car to work every day because that’s just what I do.’ ”
Pete Ruane, the blunt-spoken president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said the area had a double-barreled problem.
“Washington, D.C., has the dubious distinction of being number one in two areas. It is the capital of partisan gridlock, and now traffic gridlock,” he said. “The real news in the report is the projection that traffic congestion costs will balloon another 65 percent by 2020 if we maintain the status quo. The number of hours of lost time will also skyrocket 55 percent.”