For the fourth year in a row, the Washington region was named "worst in the country" in the Texas A&M Transportation Institute's annual ranking of metropolitan areas based on how much time they say drivers spend "stuck in traffic" each year during the morning and afternoon commutes.
According to the TTI ranking, the average driver in the Washington region experienced 67 hours of delay last year, compared to 61 hours for drivers in the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas, which ranked second and third, 59 hours in New York, which ranked fourth, and 53 hours in Boston, which ranked fifth.
Because severe congestion occurs at relatively few locations and times in the region, however, not all drivers experience equally significant delays. Those with especially long commutes on the routes, in the directions, and at the times with the most congested conditions accumulate far more delay, sending the overall average higher than the typical individual's experience.
A 2011 aerial traffic survey by the Transportation Planning Board revealed where drivers encounter the worst back-ups during the morning and afternoon commutes.
The I-95/I-395 corridor from US 1 near Woodbridge, Virginia, north to the 14th Street Bridge had the greatest estimated travel delay, according to the TPB survey. Travelers along this route between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. experienced close to 45 minutes of delay each day, with a trip that would take 18 minutes in free-flow conditions estimated to take almost 63 minutes during the height of rush hour.
The inner loop of the Capital Beltway between VA 7 and I-270 during the evening commute and eastbound I-66 from the VA 234 Bypass to the Capital Beltway during the morning commute rounded out the top three "longest delay corridors." On the 10.3-mile stretch of the Beltway, the estimated delay was almost 32 minutes, while on the 19.4-mile stretch of I-66 the delay was close to 30 minutes.
Drivers on routes like these know they have to budget extra time to get to their destination each day, but knowing exactly how much time to add can be difficult. Especially disruptive accidents or extreme weather events, which occasionally happen, can easily add hours to the length of a trip.
This year, TTI added a new measure to its annual congestion assessment that aims to quantify the amount of time drivers should budget to reach their destinations on-time 95% of the time.
The measure, called the Planning Time Index, compares actual travel times in congested conditions to how long it would take to make the same trip in uncongested conditions. The resulting ratio is supposed to tell drivers how much extra time to budget.
For the Washington region, TTI calculated an average Planning Time Index of 5.72 for reaching one's destination on-time on 19 out of the 20 workdays in a typical month. That means that for a trip that would take 20 minutes in free-flowing traffic, drivers would need to regularly budget two hours to ensure that they arrive on-time 95% of the time. For a trip that would take 40 minutes in free-flowing traffic, drivers would have to budget almost four hours.
Few people can or do budget nearly this much time for arriving at destinations on time, and they're right not to do so because the types of extreme events that cause trips to take so much longer are much less frequent than the Planning Time Index suggests. Because the index is an average for the entire freeway system, it doesn't account for the fact that the events that cause the most significant delays are usually highly-localized, affecting relatively few people and happening infrequently enough that it wouldn't make sense for one driver to regularly budget so much extra time.
Increasingly, transportation agencies in the Washington region have been helping travelers avoid some of the delay caused by unexpected, one-time disruptions like accidents by responding to and clearing accidents more quickly or by providing drivers more timely information to help them avoid disruptions by taking other routes or, when possible, choosing other modes of travel. New technologies like networks of traffic cameras, overhead message boards, and real-time data pushed to smartphones are all helping drivers avoid such delays.
The region also offers a wide and expanding range of options to help travelers avoid everyday congestion.
A robust public transit network -- made up of Metrorail, Metrobus, and more than a dozen county or municipal transit services -- give hundreds of thousands of people an alternative to congested highways, in many cases offering better and more reliable trip times than highways during peak travel periods. Approximately 24% of commute trips in the region are made by transit, behind only the New York and San Francisco metropolitan areas.
The Washington region also features a growing number of transit-accessible neighborhoods and more and more bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure like sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and bikesharing services. Areas like downtown Washington and other transit-accessible, mixed-use housing and job centers around the region are becoming more popular, and as they do more and more people are able to travel by means other than car.
Finally, the new 495 Express Lanes on the Capital Beltway in Virginia give drivers new options to avoid traffic back-ups when they need to the most. The express lanes allow drivers to pay a toll that varies based on congestion levels to ensure free-flowing travel speeds at all times. The TPB's "Aspirations" scenario envisions a regional network of such lanes on most major highways, coupled with a 500-mile network of bus rapid transit operating on the congestion-free lanes and more concentrated, mixed-use development in areas near transit stations, which, together, could provide travelers with even more options for avoiding congested highways.
While the Washington region ranks at the top of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute's list of the country's most congested metropolitan areas, it also leads the way nationally in providing travelers options to avoid highway travel and traffic back-ups by providing a robust network of public transit, supporting mixed-use development in areas with access to transit, expanding infrastructure to make bicycling and walking safer and more convenient, and by retooling roads in ways that provide drivers with new congestion-free options.