The Texas Transportation Institute today released another one of its periodic reports on traffic congestion. This one ranked the DC area first in delay per car commuter. The last report, in 2012, came under considerable criticism for its flawed methodology, and the new one doesn’t seem to have changed much, though its author sounds a little more sophisticated about possible solutions.

The report, from Texas A&M University, looks at only one factor: how fast traffic moves. Consider two hypothetical cities. In Denseopolis, people live within 2 miles of work on average, but the roads are fairly clogged and drivers can only go about 20 miles per hour. However, it only takes an average of 6 minutes to get to work, which isn’t bad.

On the other hand, in Sprawlville, people live about 30 miles from work on average, but there are lots and lots of fast-moving freeways, so people can drive 60 mph. That means it takes 30 minutes to get to work.

Which city has worse roads? By TTI’s methods, it’s Denseopolis. But it’s the people of Sprawlville who spend more time commuting, and thus have less time to be with their families and for recreation.

(Note: This post is a revised version of one I wrote in 2011. That’s because just about everything I wrote then is still relevant.)

Critics like Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute and Joe Cortright of CEOs for Cities have pointed out these problems each time TTI releases a new study with an accompanying press blitz, but TTI continues to focus on the same metrics. For example, in the 2012 report, TTI ranked Portland as worse than Nashville, with a Travel Time Index (TTI) of 1.15 for Nashville and 1.23 for Portland. However, because of greater sprawl, Nashville commuters spent an average of 268 hours that year commuting, while the average Portland commuter spent 193 hours.

Does this mean build more roads?

What does this mean for public policy and the Washington region? TTI’s data is often used to justify spending money on new freeway capacity, since congestion sounds bad. Tim Lomax, a co-author of the report, told the Post’s Ashley Halsey III in 2012, “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.”

“That we are congested is not news, but TTI’s report does tremendous damage, because they fail to recognize the primary cause of our congestion and imply that we could simply widen roads to build our way out of the problem,” said Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, about the 2012 report.

Perhaps responding to the criticism Lomax received for his one-sided push for road construction, he seems to have softened his tone somewhat. This year, Lomax told Halsey, “It’s going to be hard to figure out how you scale up [the Capital Beltway] to make it accommodate another million people, 20 or 25 percent more travel demand. We need to figure out how to use our existing capacity smarter.”

Lomax did talk about squeezing more cars on the road through technology like car automation that can run cars closer together. But he also suggested how technology can remind drivers when transit might be a better option:

Say you’re commuting in from Manassas: Your computer looks at your calendar, sees that it’s a regular commute day and that the weather’s going to be terrible so traffic is going to be bad, and there’s already been a big crash on I-66. So, your computer goes out and finds the VRE train schedule and the bus schedule, and here’s the Metrorail schedule and where it drops you off. So, at 5:45, you’re shaved and showered and your computer presents you with your travel options for today.

Traffic in Houston. Photo by TexasDarkHorse on Flickr.

The real solution is to reduce dependence on long commutes

Technology can help people get around more easily, but there are bigger-picture policies as well to help people not have to drive so far in the first place. To do that, we need to concentrate future growth around existing hubs with more residents, jobs, and multimodal transportation.

That’s what the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) has been trying to push with its Region Forward plan and the related “What Would It Take?” scenario (PDF). These involve focusing development in places like Tysons Corner and the Route 1 corridor in Fairfax, around underutilized Metro stations in Prince George’s, future ones in Loudoun, and MARC and VRE hubs in Maryland and Virginia.

Arlington achieved substantial job and resident growth in its Rosslyn-Ballston corridor without adding to traffic congestion, as has Montgomery with growth in Silver Spring and Bethesda and DC development in places like NoMA and the Capitol Riverfront area. Regional leaders should be less concerned with speeding up existing cars, which just leads to sprawl farther out, and invest more in finding ways to grow the region without adding traffic.

In fact, that’s just what the DC region has done. Another, better part of TTI’s 2012 analysis (which I don’t see in the 2015 report) measures the amount of time savings that come from each region’s transit; DC was 3rd best. That metric still doesn’t account for the value of people living nearer to their jobs, however.

Washington has grown while managing congestion

Between better location and transit, page 50 of the original report (now not online) showed congestion did not increase from 1999 to 2012 even on TTI’s flawed scale. That means our region had been successfully growing without adding traffic. Instead of “Washington area tied with Chicago for traffic congestion, study finds,” which was the 2012 Post headline, it could have read, “Washington area’s traffic hasn’t gotten worse in a decade thanks to smart growth.”

In his article about this year’s report, Halsey reported that “traffic delays in most parts of the country have bounced back to pre-recession levels.” But in Washington, the TTI report’s numbers hardly budged from 2012 to 2014, according to the Excel spreadsheet you can download.

The Silver Line, which opened between the last TTI report and this one, reduced traffic by 15% at some intersections while also offering many people new choices to get to work.

These smart growth approaches work. They slow the rate of traffic worsening while letting regions grow by helping people not have to drive so much or so far. Our region simply has to follow through.

Update: Joe Cortright has written a new critique of the latest TTI report at City Observatory, and Todd Litman picks apart the report in Planetizen.

Tagged: roads, traffic

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.