The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘It’s a waste of time’: Washington is No. 3 in traffic congestion, study says

Evening rush hour traffic is pictured on the Beltway from Seminary Road in Montgomery County, looking east toward Georgia Avenue.
Evening rush hour traffic is pictured on the Beltway from Seminary Road in Montgomery County, looking east toward Georgia Avenue. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

It comes as no surprise to commuters: The nation’s traffic is bad and getting worse. Drivers in the Washington region are feeling their share of road congestion, spending more time sitting in traffic, on average, than anyone outside of California.

Washington drivers spend 102 hours each year in traffic delays, the third-highest amount in the nation, according to a report released Thursday by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The annual study ranks large metro areas using data on speed and traffic volumes.

Los Angeles-area roads are the nation’s most congested, with drivers spending 119 hours a year in traffic, followed by the San Francisco-Oakland region, with 103 hours. After Washington, the New York and San Jose areas round out the top five, with 92 and 81 hours of delays, respectively.

A silver lining of traffic congestion is it’s often the result of job growth, as more people commute to work. Researchers said the nation added 1.9 million more jobs in 2017 than in 2016, which was “more than enough to exacerbate the nation’s traffic woes,” according to the 2019 Urban Mobility Report .

Drivers from Washington and Baltimore are the worst, report says

For the D.C. region, the delays for commuters have been growing, even as Washington has stayed in third place in the report for the past five years. The area hasn’t seen large shifts like other major cities because of the steady job growth and the consistency of the federal government, researchers said.

“It tells you that the economy and job market has been steady in D.C.,” said David Schrank, a senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “You haven’t had some of the peaks and valleys in D.C. that other areas have had.”

The 102 hours of delay in Washington are up from 67 hours in 2013 — a year in which the region claimed the top spot as the most congested in the nation. Delays in Los Angeles have nearly doubled from that year’s report.

Data in this week’s report is based on 2017 figures, the most recent available, from the Federal Highway Administration and includes speed information from Inrix, a company based in Kirkland, Wash., that tracks vehicle data for navigation systems and devices.

Nationwide, a commuter spends an average of 54 hours a year stuck in traffic, the study found. That translates into 8.8 billion hours of extra travel time for drivers. In that time, researchers pointed out that 124 million couples could have binge-watched all eight seasons of “Game of Thrones.”

That congestion brings the extra cost of time and fuel estimated to be worth $166 billion, using an extra 3.3 billion gallons of fuel, researchers said.

In the Washington area, commuters experienced about 248 million hours of delays. The region lost $4.6 billion — or about $1,800 a year per commuter — in lost time and fuel because of traffic, the report said. Road congestion means the area uses about 90 million gallons of extra fuel.

The study showed peak congestion in Washington is between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. Monday through Thursday, with other bad traffic snarls daily from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. There’s also a spike in traffic from noon to 5 p.m. on weekends, the report said.

Researchers said commuters typically allow 45 minutes for a trip that would generally take 20 minutes, accounting for the uncertainties of traffic.

D.C. ranks second for rate of fatal speed-related crashes, group says

Tracey Johnstone, a board member of the Action Committee for Transit, which advocates for improved public transit in Montgomery County, said she wasn’t surprised by the study’s findings.

“It’s a waste of time,” she said. “It’s no way to live. It’s bad for the car. It’s bad for the roads. It’s bad for the environment. It’s bad for your health.”

She said she would like more dedicated bus lanes, especially along 16th Street in the District, and increases in MARC commuter rail options to help decrease congestion.

It’s not just the nation’s largest cities that are experiencing lengthier delays. The study also found worsening traffic jams in medium and smaller cities.

Experts said traditional morning and evening “rush hours” are blending in with heavy traffic at other times of the day. Drivers are increasingly allowing extra time for time-sensitive trips, such as boarding an airplane, doctor’s appointments and day-care pickup.

Instead of 20 minutes that might be needed in light traffic, the report says it’s best to plan a 34-minute trip.

“Those minutes don’t sound like much, but they add up quickly over a year,” Schrank said. “Eventually, we’re talking billions of wasted hours, and the cost of delay at that scale is just enormous.”

The solution, experts said, is that “more of everything” is needed, although the solutions aren’t the same everywhere.

In some cities, researchers said more roads and highways could decrease congestion. Other areas need more rail and bus options at peak times. Solutions also include encouraging employees to telework or to adjust work hours to off-peak times.

“If you ask your chamber of commerce, they’d say, ‘I like the fact we have congestion. It means there’s jobs, people are in town and there’s money,’ ” Schrank said. “But your citizens would like to have a balance of the traffic and life they want to have.”

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news