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U.S. drivers hit by more unpredictable traffic, study says

A report from Texas A&M University looks at 498 urban areas and finds it's getting harder to plan trips without running into slowdowns.

By Clifford Atiyeh Feb 7, 2013 6:44AM
Americans are wasting more time in traffic than ever and getting hit by increasingly unpredictable levels of congestion, according to the latest research from the Texas Transportation Institute.

The annual report, conducted by researchers from Texas A&M University and Inrix, a traffic data collector, shows that average commuters slogged through 38 hours of traffic in 2011, the latest year studied. That's 22 hours longer than in 1982, when the report was started. Of the 498 surveyed routes, road delays in metro areas with at least 3 million people caused drivers an extra 52 hours of headaches.

Those numbers aren't due simply to a higher population driving more cars, nor is it the regular timing of 9-to-5 commuters or the usual Friday night snag.

A&M researchers found that 37 percent of all delays happened during midday and early-morning hours, when traffic is supposed to be at its lightest. During those times, drivers would have needed to plan leaving three times as early in order to make it to their destination on time. These kinds of irregular delays -- whether from road construction, area tourism, accidents on poorly managed routes or any kind of imaginable incident -- affected one in four car trips in 2011, or five times as many as in 1982. And that scenario assumes you'll still be late to work at least once a month.

The Washington, D.C., area was the worst among the country's largest metro areas, at an average loss of 67 hours per driver. Los Angeles and San Francisco ranked second, at 61 hours each, with the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area draining 59 hours per driver. Boston ranked next, followed by Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle. The D.C. and L.A. areas were also the most unpredictable for traffic congestion, with D.C. trips taking nearly six times as long compared with traditional off-peak hours.

Altogether, A&M estimates congestion cost us $121 billion in one year, and the future looks worse. By 2020, drivers will waste 45 hours in traffic, spend even more on fuel and belch out more carbon dioxide.

If it all seems bleak, A&M at least offers some solutions on transportation planning, such as more public transportation and persuading businesses to let more people work from home. And as a nation, we wasted less time than in 2005, when the average commuter faced 43 hours of traffic. But unless fundamental shifts occur in our society, we're going to have to figure out something better to do with all that time. Autonomous driving systems may be the only thing that will save our sanity.

[Source: Texas Transportation Institute]
1Comment
Feb 7, 2013 9:00AM
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I've been saying that for years.

So many people have moved to Dallas in the last two or three decades, traffic has changed from being quick and predictable anytime of the day to totally unpredictable anytime between 6am and 9am in the mornings. It has gotten dramatically worse since unemployment rates have risen up north, so people are flocking to Texas. Glad someone did an actual study on that!

In Dallas, our "Rush Hour" lasts at least three hours. I have often spent the equivalent of a whole extra day per week sitting in traffic - unpaid time, BTW - just because some supervisor wanted everyone in their seat by a specific time, so when the manager walked in, the place looked busy.  Very poor excuse to upset people's lives to such a large degree.

God forbid those clock-watching supervisors pick 10am to be the time they want everyone in their seats, instead of 8am!  Of course anyone in a customer service position never had that luxury at all, which is a shame - but if people NOT in those positions were allowed to stagger out their arrival times till 10am or even 11am, just think how much better 8am traffic would be for people with a real need to be at work at exactly 8am or 9am!

It seems to me that as traffic has gotten worse, more and more companies these days are also restricting their definition of "Flex-Time", to the point that it's almost meaningless. True, they might allow you to set your own schedule +/- 1 hours if you're lucky enough to work for one of those companies with some version of Flex-Time, but +/- 1 hour isn't enough to keep you from encountering unpredictable traffic. Flex-Time no longer means you can vary your hours +/- 1 hour day-to-day. It has come to mean that whatever time you pick is set into concrete for weeks or months, no matter how unpredictable day-to-day traffic is.

It used to be in my profession as a contract programmer that as long as you did your job and met your schedules, no one really cared what hours you worked. In fact, there was a labor rule that said if you told a contractor which hours to work, he was no longer a contractor - He was an employee and therefore entitled to employee benefits!

There is also seemingly no realization that unpredictable traffic causes enough stress by itself, without clock-watching managers making it even worse  - I feel lousy enough as it is if I'm an hour late (no matter what the reason). But managers harping on it makes it infinitely worse, especially when no one is even affected by what time you get in, and you either make up the hours or don't charge for those hours.

Contrary to popular press, I've also noticed that fewer and fewer companies allow "tele-commuting". My impression is that it's a trust factor, but it hurts everyone who drives to work, not just those people who could be tele-commuting.

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