Analyst Trevor Reed said the Inrix ranking shows how quickly traffic deteriorates during rush hour. A smaller, older, and more compact region such as Boston, he said, simply just wasn’t built to handle a sudden influx of cars.Thus, Boston might be a traffic jam all day, but because it's a small metro area, people are stuck in traffic for 100% of a commute that lasts at most fifteen minutes. In the Chicago area, people might be stuck in traffic for 25% of an hour-long commute. For traffic congestion, Chicago is not the Second City.
“When you have older street networks like Boston, they clog much faster than in a city that was built around the automobile,” Reed said. “It doesn’t lend itself well to moving vehicles.”
INRIX's scorecard finds Boston to be the most congested city in the country. Drivers there spend 164 hours (nearly a full week) in rush hour traffic each year. A close second is Washington, D.C., where commuters are losing 155 hours to gridlock.There has to be a way to capture the effect of congestion on housing prices in central cities. Chicago's Gold Coast high-rise condominiums, for example, might be even more valuable because they're at best a short, if aggravating, drive, or a quick, if sometimes hazardous, L train ride, to the Loop, relative to larger quarters in the suburbs, which, when things go wrong, can be several hours drive away.
Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle fill out the rest of the top six in INRIX's rankings—which weigh time lost to congestion against a city's population—with drivers in these metros wasting between 128 and 138 hours a year in traffic. On average, commuters are losing 97 hours a year because of congestion.
INRIX develops these rankings by comparing travel times during peak hours to those during free flow conditions when there is no traffic. The difference between the two figures is the amount of time lost to traffic congestion.
The INRIX report cites research showing that whatever the levels of traffic congestion, people are generally only willing to spend one hour a day commuting—half an hour each way—with most people moving closer to work to cut down on travel times.Road commissions could apply congestion pricing to existing roads, and that might obviate the additional lanes, but that's for another day. (In Boston, where could you put the additional lanes, but I digress.)
The more congestion limits where you can travel within that 30 minutes, as well as the employment and leisure opportunities you'll be able to comfortably access — limiting the advantages of living in an urban area in the first place.
Congestion, says Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation analyst at the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit which publishes this website) is at its core a supply and demand problem. "Congestion is when you have more people than you have road space," Feigenbaum tells Reason, saying that the problem is a mix of adding congestion pricing to current road space and adding new lane miles.
The idea behind congestion pricing—variable tolls that rise and fall depending on the number of cars on the road—is that by charging drivers for the space they take up, they can be incentivized to take less congested routes or to travel in off-peak hours when traffic is lighter, improving road conditions for everyone.
"Cities that have not been investing in their roadways at all, and not building any new lane capacity, are very high up on this list compared to their overall [population] size," Feigenbaum tells Reason. Road-adverse Seattle, he notes, is the 15th largest U.S. metro area by population, but manages to have the sixth-most congested roads, and travel speeds in the inner city nearly as low as New York City.The benefit principle? For roads (or other infrastructure)? There's a generalization to other government services, left as an exercise.
By contrast, Houston—the fifth largest metro in the U.S. and one that has continued to add more roadways to accommodate its growing population—ranks 13th on INRIX's scorecard.
Expanding roadways is not a cure all for congestion. More lanes can induce more driving, meaning more trips are taken but actual traffic flows stay about the same. Measures of roadway congestion can also understate urban mobility if a city has well-functioning transit options. INRIX's gives London as an example of a place where congestion has gotten much worse, but expanding transit options may well have increased overall urban mobility.
Feigenbaum says that transit can play a role in improving mobility in some American cities, provided it's the riders, not the taxpayers in general, that are paying for it. Improving congestion, however, he says, requires treating road space more like normal market goods, where prices rise and fall, and supply expands to meet demand.