“We’re number eight!” is not the chant of champions. If there ever was anything to like about traffic congestion, it was that the District was No. 1 — in a bad year, maybe No. 2 — in the entire country. Nobody did bumper-to-bumper better than Washington, D.C.
Now the best this sprawl of more than 5 million people can do is a less-than-contender-
caliber ranking of eighth, according to a new report out Tuesday that collected anonymous data from people’s GPS devices to make its calculations.
Last year, an analysis by a different group had the District at No. 1. Five years ago, the District tied for worst with Chicago, another major-league city. In 2009, congestion in the District was second only to that in Los Angeles, where it is said some people get stuck in backups that last from infancy to old age.
Globally? Egad! The District is not even a player on that stage, just the 79th-most-congested city in the world. (Skip this year’s Olympics: Rio de Janeiro has the world’s fourth-worst traffic, behind Mexico City, Bangkok and Istanbul.)
Tuesday’s rankings come in a traffic index produced by TomTom, a Dutch company that sells navigation equipment and compiles its congestion data from feedback sent from GPS devices installed in private vehicles.
There’s distressing news for those who have taken solace, while inching through D.C. traffic, in the belief that their commute is the worst in the nation. It never has been, according to the TomTom data. The District climbed as high as No. 5 in 2010-2011 but has fallen several notches since then.
Congestion is congestion, but the difference may be in what two of the big outfits that put out rankings do with the collected data.
The Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University uses data compiled by Inrix, a company that has beacons in many trucks and fleet vehicles and sells its information to people who put out real-time traffic reports. The big number in their annual index is how many hours the average driver spends stuck in traffic per year.
Last year, TTI/Inrix calculated that the District ranked No. 1, with 82 hours of delay per driver. The rest of the top five were Los Angeles, with drivers delayed 80 hours per year; San Francisco (78); New York (74); and San Jose (67).
TomTom follows a different angle. It calculates a baseline for each highway or road that represents how much time it would take to drive a distance without any traffic at all — think of 3 a.m. Then it measures how long it takes drivers to negotiate that chunk of road throughout the day and averages that travel time out for the entire year.
To that, TomTom assigns a percentage. It says, for example, that getting from Point A to Point B takes 25 percent longer, on average, than it would at 3 a.m.
Based on that baseline-to-reality comparison, Los Angeles has the worst congestion in the country, with a 41 percent increase in travel time, compared with the baseline. San Francisco is second (36 percent), New York is third (33 percent), Seattle is fourth (31 percent) and San Jose rounds out the top five at 30 percent.
The District takes eighth, sharing a 26 percent rating with Portland, Ore., and Chicago.
Los Angeles barely breaks into the top 10 worldwide, trailing far behind Mexico City (59 percent), Bangkok (57 percent), Istanbul (50 percent) and Rio de Janeiro (47 percent).
Nick Cohn is the senior traffic expert at TomTom who put the data together.
“We know that we’re not going to be able to build our way out of congestion,” Cohn said. “We really hope that people will take a look at their own cities and say, ‘What hours are the worst? What can I do to change my travel patterns?’ In this day and age, when we keep talking about flexible work hours, people still are not that flexible. We’re still stuck with these terrible peak hours.”
In addition to considering cycling and transit options, Cohn said drivers should find ways to work around the worst congestion.
“There are a lot of cities on the list where we can see that some typical commuter routes are always busy and then there are some arterials that are just less congested,” he said.
Congestion isn’t increasing in every city in the TomTom top 10, but it is in the places with the largest employment growth. Couple that with other problems, and suddenly a city such as San Francisco vaults to No. 2.
“While there has been job growth in San Francisco, there have been some other things happening,” Cohn said. “The [Bay Area Rapid Transit] crossing the East Bay is pretty much at capacity, and yet people are continuing to have to move farther and farther out because housing prices are so high. There really aren’t significant alternative ways of getting into work in San Francisco.”
Seattle has similar problems — growing employment and challenging topography.
“There aren’t a lot of entrances to the city. There is big suburban employment, as well. This is extremely difficult to serve with public transportation,” he said.
“Washington [D.C.] also has some challenges, with enormous suburban employment centers which are very tough to handle in terms of transportation.
“It will be interesting to see if the Silver Line becomes a success in terms of serving Tysons Corner. I’m not so sure, but time will tell,” he said.
As to the host city for the summer Olympics: “People going to Rio certainly can expect lots of delays,” Cohn said.
“Brazil had great economic growth for a number of years and a huge increase in car sales and car ownership,” he added. “That has come to a halt, but the cities are still very congested.”