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How Bad Is Bad?

Most traffic reporters, politicians and transportation issue advocates wait for this day, when the Texas Transportation Institute releases it's assessment of the travel problems in urban areas across the nation. They put it in a simple package for us: Just find your metropolitan area on the list and see whether you've gone from bad to badder.

According to the study released today, which is based on traffic data from 2005, we've moved into a tie with San Francisco-Oakland as the region with the second worst traffic delays in the United States. Only Los Angeles beats us in a contest we would prefer not to win.

But now that you know that, what do you know?

"The good news is that there are multiple strategies involving traffic operations and public transit available right now that if applied together, can lessen this problem," said the study's co-author, Tim Lomax, in a statement released with his report. But he also noted that there's no one solution to congestion, just as there's no one cause of the problem.

These are some of the solutions the report identifies:
-- Get as much as possible from the transportation resources you have.
-- Add capacity to the roads and transit systems in critical corridors.
-- Relieve chokepoints.
-- Change usage patterns.
-- Offer travelers more choices.
-- Diversify the development patterns.
-- Keep expectations realistic.

Here's a link to a 49-page summary of the report, and here's a link to the story on washingtonpost.com by Post staff writer Jonathan Mummolo. I hope we'll talk about this report and its implications a lot more this week, but here are a couple of preliminary thoughts I hope you'll discuss with me:

We're doing a lot of that stuff already. How come we're not winning? One answer might be that the problems of congestion are overwhelming government and private efforts to keep up. Maryland has been building new interchanges along Route 29, and they've eased traffic flow through some notorious choke points. But drive a mile to the east or west of 29 and you'll see all the new housing developments under construction that will pour more cars onto the roadway in the next couple of years.

Virginia leaders are trying to correct the mistake that is Tysons Corner and turn those traffic choked roadways in to a liveable urban community by redesigning the streets and sidewalks and adding transit. But their plans are not keeping pace with the efficiency of private corporations planning more shopping and office space.

Don't be too discouraged by the study, which works best as a way of focusing our attention on a national problem.
It's a big picture study, and you're results may vary. We tend to focus on the category that makes us look the worst, and that's the 60 hours of annual delay per traveler during peak travel periods, that gives us the number 2 ranking. In some other categories, such as excess fuel consumed, or congestion cost,we're farther down the list, though still in the top 10.

(Here's a link to a description of the methodology, which has changed somewhat since the last study.)

What a list like this can't pinpoint is that we have had some local successes and will have some more. The reconstruction of the Wilson Bridge, Springfield Interchange and Douglass Bridge are among the recent achievements. Interstate 66 is being widened and Metro is adding more rail cars.

In fact, the one downside I can see to a report like this is that it masks achievements and leaves many people feeling that no matter how much we plan and spend, things can only get worse. Ultimately, I think, it's a struggle we'll win because we have to.

By Robert Thomson  |  September 18, 2007; 11:20 AM ET
Categories:  Congestion  
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