Traffic Snarls in LA and NYC: Getting Worse

The Los Angeles and New York City areas have suffered the highest total annual costs from traffic delays since 1982. And the delays are getting worse.

It's no surprise that the LA-Orange County area ranks worst in travel-delay rankings, with the longest peak-hour travel delays -- an estimated 72 hours per year in wasted time per traveler according to the 2007 Annual Mobility Report produced by the Texas Transportation Institute.

And it's no surprise that the NYC metro area does better at "only" 46 hours' average delay per peak traveler.

The problem is that the delays are getting worse, the NYC area deteriorated, moving to 16th worst in the nation in 2005 (the latest year covered by the new report) from 23rd worst in 2004. The 46-hour delay puts NYC in the same per-traveler rank as Chicago and Boston, according to the institute.

Similarly, the dollar cost per peak traveler in NYC in 2005 is estimated at $888, 18th highest -- again, a deterioration from 22nd worse the year before.

The big surprise for someone not living in the LA area is that local snarls in today's LA Times focus not on LA's rating worst again, but on the report's understating the magnitude of the local problem! The director of planning and policy for the six-county Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), Hasan Ikhrata, says the institute doesn't know the half of it.

The institute assumes that traffic moves at the national urban average of 35 mph during peak hours. But SCAG says state Department of Transportation sensors in freeway pavements show an average rush-hour speed more like 20 mph, with vehicles in some segments traveling at less than 10 mph at peak hours. (Averages in large regions veil excruciatingly long delays at certain bottleneck points and times.) The extra delay, he says, comes to 100 hours per year per peak traveler, 40 percent higher than the institute reports.

In previous reports the institute assumed a 20 mph average peak-hour speed. Raising the average to 35 mph lowers the delay in the LA-OC area from 93 hours in 2003 to 72 hours in 2005. Ikhrata called the new number "misleading" because congestion was actually increasing rapidly during the period.

In the NYC area, the trend since 1982 has been for a steady increase in congestion, rising eight-fold from 68 million lost hours in 1982 to 384 million lost hours in 2005. The growth in delay per peak traveler has grown more slowly than the U.S. urban average, reflecting the large number of people in the NYC area who use public transit.

Experts on both coasts agree on the increasing toll of congestion. Martin Wachs is a Rand Corporation expert who formerly headed transportation research centers at both UC Berkeley and UCLA. He sums up: "traffic congestion is worsening gradually and steadily in the Los Angeles area and most other large American cities."

The value of the Texas report is in focusing government attention on the high cost of traffic congestion, estimated at 4.2 billion lost American hours in 2005. Among causes of delays, the report gives heavy weight to "freeway incidents." For example, two-thirds of the delays in the NYC area are attributed to such incidents. It gives most credit in delay-reduction correspondingly to "freeway incident management" - e.g., use of cameras and service patrols to incident prevention and response.

The bright spot for the NYC area is its strong public transit network. Without it, the institute estimates that the annual delay per peak traveler would jump in the NYC area by 26 hours, from 46 to 72 -- ahead of the LA area estimate. The total cost of congestion in the NYC area has grown, according to the report, from $649 million in 1982 to $7.4 billion in 2005, second only to the LA-OC area. Short of turning back the clock, congestion -- and the options for reducing it -- deserves the attention it has from time to time been getting from federal, state and local officials.