Washington area tied with Chicago for traffic congestion, study finds

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 12:05 AM

The rush-hour commute stinks, but you know that. There are too many cars on the road, but that's obvious. What you don't know is that you're twice as likely to encounter someone caught up in a bout of road rage and that nobody in the nation spends more time stuck in traffic than you do.

The number of drivers in the Washington region who say they frequently feel uncontrollable anger toward another driver has doubled in the past five years, according to a Washington Post poll taken last year. Almost a third of drivers said they're overcome with that wild rage from time to time.

One reason for that boiling frustration is contained in a report released Thursday, which found that Washington ranks first in the nation when it comes to hours wasted stuck in traffic.

The most sophisticated number crunching done on traffic congestion says the average Washington area driver loses 70 hours a year - almost three full days - crawling along in traffic, tying the region with Chicago for worst in the country. Los Angeles, the perennial king of congestion, comes in third, with 63 blown hours.

The news came in the annual national traffic survey done by the Texas Transportation Institute, a highly regarded research group based at Texas A&M University.

The nexus of road congestion and road rage might prove tenuous, but the fact that frustration can lead to anger is not. Very often, according to an earlier study by AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety, the traffic incident that turns violent is "the straw that broke the camel's back" for someone living a stress-filled life.

"Very slow or stationary traffic situations present typical conditions in which driver aggression can be allowed to reach detrimental levels," the foundation concluded.

As traffic has gotten more congested in Washington, the number of people who say they've felt uncontrollable road rage either frequently or occasionally has risen from 22 to 32 percent.

There is something of a silver lining to the news that Washington is at the top of the heap as far as big-city traffic congestion.

"We haven't been hit as hard by the recession as other major areas like Los Angeles," said Ron Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "Maybe we should be happy to be moving up the list because it means we're going a little bit better than a lot of other places when it comes to job growth and the economy."

Overall, the Texas Transportation Institute report concludes that congestion cost Americans $115 billion in 2009, up from $24 billion in 1982 when calculated in 2009 dollars. Engines idling in traffic gobbled up 3.9 billion gallons of gasoline. Nationally, congestion cost the average commuter $808, up from an inflation adjusted $351 in 1982. And the average time lost to congestion nationwide was 34 hours, up from 14 hours in 1982.

Researchers said the depth of the data used in this year's study far surpassed the quality of information used in past years, giving the results an unprecedented degree of accuracy.

Past surveys used traffic volume data provided by the states to calculate the relative degree of congestion in major urban areas. The same information was collected for this report, but a vast volume of data compiled by a private firm also was figured into the mix.

The company, known as INRIX, places data-gathering devices on 3 million trucks, taxis, fleet vehicles and delivery vans. It also offers an iPhone application that provides users with real-time travel information in return for anonymous tracking of the users' travel.

INRIX information, which is used by Kirby's planners, provides a 24/7 picture of traffic patterns, not just the peak-hour data previously available.

"Now we have the middle of the day, too," said Tim Lomax, the TTI researcher who co-wrote the report. "That's of critical importance because that's when freight moves. It's not just about people taking more time to get places, it's about freight and the economy."

Instead of just rush hour, Lomax can now see weekend traffic issues on the Capital Beltway, around malls and for special events.

"When Stephen Strasburg is on the mound, there's going to be traffic backing up around Nationals Park," Lomax said.

"Clearly, in any growing area - and D.C. has continued to grow - you need to build more capacity," Lomax said. "You can do little things like stagger work hours, fix traffic-light timing and clear wrecks faster, but in the end, there's a need for more capacity."

Pete Ruane, president of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, said the report underscores the need for Congress to move ahead on the six-year transportation funding reauthorization bill that has been stalled for more than a year.

"The report makes one thing crystal clear," Ruane said. "The failure of elected leaders at all levels of government to adequately invest in transportation improvements is taking an alarming toll on American families and businesses. If members of Congress had to sit in mind-numbing congestion every day like their constituents, they might have a greater sense of urgency in passing the 15-month-overdue transportation bill."

The American Public Transportation Association also urged Congress to act.

"There is no doubt that expanding public transportation use is the key to reducing traffic congestion," said William Millar, the association's president. "Congress needs to move on passing a well-funded, multi-year surface transportation authorization bill. Each passing day means a delay in addressing congestion problems which impact individual and undermine business productivity."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company