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Improving Economies, Growing Congestion

By Baruch Feigenbaum

Baruch FeigenbaumThe Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) released its 2012 Urban Mobility Report this month. The major finding is that after remaining static since 2005, congestion is growing, thanks to an improving economy.

While the report is best known for analyzing traffic congestion, it also details the role of transit in reducing congestion. Further, it explains how congestion worsens air quality. TTI has been producing this report annually since 1982, during which time congestion has tripled in many U.S. metro areas.

TTI made several changes this year, but the most noteworthy is its new metric: the Planning Time Index (PTI). This is the “buffer” time needed to reach a location on time in 19 out of 20 instances. (The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s award-winning Metro Atlanta Performance (MAP) report does much the same thing for Atlanta.)

According to TTI, if the index for a particular trip is 3.00, a traveler would allow 60 minutes for a peak-hour trip that typically takes 20 minutes when few cars are on the road. Allowing for a PTI of 3.00 would ensure on-time arrival 19 out of 20 times. PTIs on freeways vary widely across the nation, from 1.31 (about nine extra minutes for a trip that takes 30 minutes in light traffic) in Pensacola, Fla., to 5.72 (almost three hours for that same half-hour trip) in Washington, D.C.

The best way to reduce the PTI may be managed lanes and managed arterials, which guarantee commuters a congestion-free ride and allow them to factor in less buffer time and more time for other activities:

  • Managed lanes are freeway lanes that are free to buses and large carpools. Single-person vehicles may use these lanes for a small fee that varies based on congestion, which helps keep managed lanes free-flowing.
  • Managed arterials are bridges or tunnels at major intersections that drivers can choose to pay to avoid congestion; transit vehicles travel free.

The traditional metric that TTI uses to measure congestion is the Yearly Delay per Auto Commuter. The 10 metro areas, from worst to lightest delay are Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle. These metro areas are the largest in the country, so they are no major surprises.

As the economy, improves congestion will increase. This is the time for metro areas to develop a comprehensive cost-effective, congestion-reduction strategy. This includes new managed lanes, new managed arterials and new, targeted freeway and arterial widening. This strategy also includes enhanced use of tolling, cost efficient local bus/bus-rapid transit (BRT) systems and increased use of intelligent transportation systems.

Metro areas that are improving their transportation systems fare better than metro areas that are not. Areas such as Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Miami with major congestion problems are investing in managed lanes, managed arterials, reconstructing arterials, and implementing cost-effective transit service.

Unfortunately, metro Atlanta is on the road to returning to its early 2000s pattern of severe congestion. Congestion increased from 13th worst in 2011 to seventh worst in 2012. This large jump is due in part to new methodology, but larger factors are Atlanta’s increase in population, increase in vehicle miles of travel and decrease in transit usage.

An improving metro economy is one reason for the growing congestion. After lagging behind the rest of the country for much of the recovery, metro Atlanta foreclosures recently hit a six-year low. The unemployment rate has declined from almost 11 percent to 8.5 percent. While Atlanta is unlikely to return to its growth rate of the 1980s and 1990s, it figures to continue its increase in population.

Inadequacy of the transportation network is the other contributing factor. Atlanta has not substantially widened its freeway or arterial network over the past 20 years. It has not added redundancy or upgraded insufficient suburban arterials, either. Nor has it invested in a high-quality, low-cost bus and BRT network. Georgia’s state Department of Transportation is focusing on HOT lanes in the Northwest corridor and this week announced it would expand HOT lanes on I-85 by adding capacity. Given the lack of federal funding opportunities, such a process would be expedited with a greater attempt at public-private partnerships.

A growing metro area that is not improving its transportation network is certain to face major congestion problems. In a way, the recession saved Atlanta from far worse congestion. Without improvements, increased growth will lead to increased congestion. With growth continuing, Atlanta must dedicate itself to a comprehensive plan – based on funding and mobility realities – to solve its transportation challenges. Without that commitment, the smart money says Atlanta’s travel time index will be much worse than seventh in the future.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Senior Fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and a Transportation Policy Analyst with the Reason Foundation (www.reason.org), a national, nonprofit public policy organization that promotes choice, competition and a dynamic market economy as the foundation for human dignity and progress. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent, state-focused think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or the Reason Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

©Georgia Public Policy Foundation (February 22, 2013). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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