A new wrinkle on traffic: Are delays caused by inadequate roadways? Or by excessively long commutes?

A new wrinkle on traffic: Are delays caused by inadequate roadways? Or by excessively long commutes?

For more than two decades the Texas Transportation Institute has measured and ranked rush-hour traffic delays in major metropolitan areas, including Minneapolis-St. Paul. Its widely cited findings have led policymakers to conclude that traffic delays and their related ills — congestion, pollution and wasted time, fuel and money — are caused mainly by inadequate roadways. Building new roads has been the most common response.

But that analysis may be flawed.   

A new report from Chicago-based CEOs for Cities shows that time spent stuck in traffic is less a product of inadequate roads than of widely dispersed land-use patterns and lengthy trips from home to work. Cities with more compact development layouts and more transportation options tend to generate shorter trips, both in time and distance. The solution, then, seems to be less about adding new road lanes than cutting the distance between destinations.

“The secret to reducing the amount of time Americans spend in peak hour traffic has more to do with how we build our cities than how we build our roads,” the report says.

If, for example, each of the top 50 metro markets reduced the average distance from home to work achieved by the top-performing cities (like Chicago and Portland), their residents would drive 40 billion fewer miles every year, saving 2 billion gallons of gasoline and $31 billion in fuel costs, according to the report.

Solve congestion with shorter commutes
The study, “Driven Apart: How Sprawl Is Lengthening Our Commutes, and Why Misleading Mobility Measures Are Making Things Worse,” zeroes in on Chicago and Charlotte, N.C. The conventional numbers suggest that Chicago’s traffic problem is far worse when, on average, Charlotte’s commuters spend more time in traffic — 48 minutes per day compared to 33 minutes in Chicago. The reason? Charlotte commuters have longer trips (nearly 50 percent longer) and fewer choices.

Minneapolis-St. Paul’s commute profile is similar to Charlotte’s. If they and other spread-out metro areas were built more compactly (like Chicago or Portland, Ore.), the average local commuter would drive nearly 1,000 miles less every year, the report says.

Failing to take distance into account is apparently the main flaw in the Texas Transportation Institute’s basic measurement, known as the Travel Time Index. It’s a score that compares the time required to drive a stretch of freeway at rush hour compared to the time required to drive the same stretch when traffic is free-flowing. The index leaves the impression that cities like Chicago, New York and Boston are beset by huge traffic problems when, in reality, the average commuter in those cities has figured out how to avoid or minimize traffic jams, either by taking transit or living closer to work.

By that reckoning, spread-out cities like Nashville, Raleigh-Durham and Kansas City have some of the nation’s biggest traffic challenges, mainly because commuting distances are so great. The temptation for them is to simply add more road lanes. But that’s a bit like the fat man who loosens his belt to accommodate more eating. More lanes induce more long-distance driving.

Which cities have the longest and costliest commutes?

Among the top 51 metro areas, Nashville ranks worst; Chicago ranks best. The Twin Cities are in between.


Excess hours of rush-hour travel per person per year

Cost of excess rush-hour travel per person per year

1. Nashville



2. Oklahoma City



3. Birmingham



4. Richmond



5. Raleigh-Durham



6. Memphis



7. Detroit



8. Orlando



9. Kansas City



10. Louisville



21. Mpls-St. Paul



42. Salt Lake City



43. Buffalo



44. Riverside, Calif.



45. Cincinnati



46. New York



47. Cleveland



48. Sacramento



49. Milwaukee



50. New Orleans



51. Chicago



Source: Driven Apart, CEOs for Cities, 2010

Choice and proximity should be policy priorities
It’s a case I’ve been trying to make in my writing for more than a decade: that proximity and choice should be the top components to this metro area’s transportation policy. Concentrating as many jobs as possible in the downtowns and along the existing and planned transit corridors leading to the downtowns is good policy because it gives commuters an alternative to driving. Likewise, clustering homes, jobs and shopping in reasonable proximity to one another throughout the metro creates shorter trips.

Each of those strategies lessens the pressure on roadways, consumes less energy, reduces the expense of extending infrastructure into new areas, and embraces an important Minnesota value — making optimal use of the land that’s already been developed while leaving more space for nature and for people who choose to pay the true market price of living in sparsely-built areas.

By some estimates, half of the buildings that will exist in 2060 have yet to be built. So, it matters a lot where new buildings are built and how they are connected. In the metropolitan context, transportation and land-use have become pretty much the same thing.

Jim Erkel, who follows transportation issues for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, praised the CEOs for Cities analysis, noting that the Metropolitan Council’s latest draft transportation plan seems to head in the same direction.

Barb Thoman, director of Transit for Livable Communities, said lengthy Twin Cities commutes tend to be caused by greater distance rather than by undue congestion. Every large metro area will have congestion, she said.

Tim Lomax, who heads the Texas Transportation Institute’s research team, told Sign On San Diego that the CEOs for Cities report overstates the influence of his numbers on the road-building industry. “Our data is used to provide context,” he said. “We’re trying to measure the reality of what’s on the ground. We’re not an advocacy group.”

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Brian Simon on 10/06/2010 - 10:55 am.

    “Are delays caused by inadequate roadways? Or by excessively long commutes?”

    Call me obtuse, but I see that as saying the same thing two different ways.

  2. Submitted by Fritz Dahmus on 10/06/2010 - 11:40 am.

    Brian….in this case the word “long” means distance and not time. What they are telling us is “to live in the urban areas in a high rise condo…preferrably downtown, so we can walk to work or take light rail”.

    What these experts fail to realize; most suburbanites have roots in outstate rural areas or in places like the suburbia where they live. They will not..and do not want to live in an urban area! In this MinnPost issue there is an article about rural areas losing manufactoring jobs…I think this article found the solution…implement thier solution to “long” commutes. That will get suburbanites out of the cities and to those new manufactoring jobs in the rural areas of the state.

    What causes traffic congestion? Those of us who drive those “long” commutes that are causing the traffic jams know the answer already. Answer: Bottlenecks…i.e. poorly designed parts of our “long” commute.

  3. Submitted by Arito Moerair on 10/06/2010 - 12:31 pm.

    But unlike Chicago, the Twin Cities has no natural geographic boundary to block sprawl. Chicago has the lake. Therefore, Chicago cannot sprawl in 360 degrees like the Twin Cities can. The upshot is that sprawl in Chicago means much further distances from the urban core, leading to an advantage for high-density housing. I guess what this means is that if you want to live anywhere near your job, it’ll have to be in a higher-density area.

    Here in the Twin Cities, you can just keep building more suburb rings and the distance to the core doesn’t change as quickly. Couple that with demented, troglodytic policies against mass transit, and you’re left with the data you show above.

    I don’t know, just a wacked theory I pulled out of you-know-where.

  4. Submitted by Alicia DeMatteo on 10/06/2010 - 12:44 pm.

    It’s great to see some data on what I’ve been trying to explain to people for years now.

    But the question is how will we use this information to our advantage, and how long will it take to turn things around? How will we make living near transit corridors and high-density job areas palatable to the family with 3 kids currently enjoying a spacious multi-level house in Albertville? New construction patterns in the suburbs and exurbs seem to suggest we value having a spacious new home (which is not available in Minneapolis or St. Louis Park for a similar price) over a time savings in our commute.

    I hope someone has the answer!

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/06/2010 - 12:52 pm.

    It’s funny how irrational the reactions to common sense planning can be. In a lot of ways this study merely confirms the obvious, you see this in any city anywhere in the world where they have well developed public transit. This idea we had in this country that people could all live out in former farm fields spread out all over and drive to other former fields on the other side of the city to work was always daft.

    We kinda got taste of this a few years ago when we shut off the ramp meters to see what would happen. I remember the all the guys out in Orono started complaining about their commutes but here in St. Louis Park it cut our commutes in half. The reason was that we’d been sitting at lights waiting to get on the freeway while the guys from Orono flew by down below. This is a good illustration of a transit polity that favored long commutes over proximity. It never made sense and now people are beginning to realize that.

  6. Submitted by William Levin on 10/06/2010 - 01:54 pm.

    Why no mention of flexible scheduling, which allows people to avoid peak period rush hour (I do this), or telecommuting?

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/06/2010 - 05:04 pm.

    “I don’t want to,” which seems to be the main point of Fritz’s comment in #2, and by extension, probably reflects the views of many thousands of suburbanites, smacks of “the illusion of central position” common to small children, and is not a useful way for adults to formulate public policy for the community as a whole.

    I’d like to live on a hundred square miles abutting the Colorado Rockies, to stretch the point considerably, but the truth is, I can’t afford it. Eventually, that’s going to be the case for far-flung suburbs, as well. It doesn’t matter whether most suburbanites know only suburban life, or came to the suburbs from rural areas. When transportation gets expensive enough, they won’t be able to afford to live 30 or 40 or 75 miles from work.

    What made suburbs possible in the first place was… wait for it… mass transit. Early streetcar lines in metro areas allowed suburban areas now engulfed by core cities to develop, though they were largely built, and in some metro areas pretty exclusively built, for the wealthy. In some metro areas around the country, they remain as close-in, rather exclusive neighborhoods of big homes on modest-to-large lots.

    Besides mass transit, the other factor, increasingly important with every decade of the past century, and eventually superseding public transit, was cheap energy, especially fossil fuels. With time payments, families could buy an automobile with relatively negligible expense for fuel. That is, they could go into debt to acquire their own personal transportation, and the cost of operating that transportation remained within the bounds of a normal middle-class family budget.

    Those fossil fuels are going away. We’re already drilling in places we wouldn’t have even tried a generation ago. The easy, inexpensive oil has pretty much been found. Much of it is in the hands of our enemies – and by that I mean both politically and economically. Quite a few governments that control sizable oil reserves do not have the welfare of the United States at heart. What we ought to be reminding ourselves of is that big oil doesn’t care about the United States, either. Big oil cares about the quarterly return on investment numbers. “Drill here, Drill now” bumper stickers ignore the fact that oil pulled from under the ocean 100 miles offshore is fungible. It doesn’t “belong” to the United States. It “belongs” to the oil company that sucked it from beneath the ocean floor, and that oil company can (and will) sell that oil to anyone, at whatever price the global market allows.

    The suburban family that doesn’t want to live in the city may find itself, literally, isolated in a generation. Banks commonly use the figure of 30 percent of income to decide what a reasonable monthly figure might be to devote to housing. What will those suburban families do when their transportation costs exceed their housing costs by a wide margin because gasoline’s cost has tripled or quadrupled? Yes, the development of electric and hybrid vehicles will delay the inevitable for a few years or decades, but in the end, the 30 or 40 mile suburban commute is simply not sustainable unless those 30 or 40 miles are served by mass transit.

    On that scale, mass transit will be very expensive. Some of the same people who oppose it now will oppose it even more as it becomes more necessary. Others will begin to oppose it because it doesn’t serve their particular suburb. This doesn’t mean everyone has to live in a cramped condo in downtown Minneapolis or downtown St. Paul, but it DOES mean that people had better be prepared to live close to their work, wherever that work happens to be. If we can get manufacturing going in rural areas and small towns in outstate Minnesota, then there will be jobs available in those areas, but people will increasingly have to move to those areas to work unless they’re willing to pay the very high costs of insisting on their own, personal, transportation.

    Having tried it, I don’t like condo living, either, but that’s not the only urban housing choice. Even now, it’s possible to find “ownership” housing at reasonable cost in the urban part of the metro area. You won’t have half an acre – largely wasted unless you’re growing your own food – but you’ll have a 5,000 square foot lot, enough for small children to play in, and if you look around, you’ll find every neighborhood in the Twin Cities seems to have green space and play fields. Yes, you might have to scale back your plans for that McMansion, but most of that is wasted space to begin with. Spending less on transportation and housing (and the maintenance thereof) will give you more money to spend on other parts of life that might be more fun. It’ll also automatically make your family MUCH more environmentally friendly.

  8. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 10/07/2010 - 08:18 am.

    I have to agree with Ray Schoch on his final comments. In 1986 I bought a single family house in the Minneapolis Longfellow neighborhood. Your 40 foot wide lot that is close to 5,000 square feet. The house is a single story bungalow with basement which will facilitate aging. I put a lot of insulation in the attack, used the “house doctor” to find air leaks and put in a high efficiency furnace. Pretty good heating efficiency for a 90 year old house and no need for central AC.

    Work was 3.6 miles one way. I recall back around 2002 when gas was cheap and my parents were still alive in Maplewood I drove 6,000 per year in my four cylinder stick mini-pickup (good mileage).

    With my parents deceased and me now retired my annual mileage excluding “road trips” is under 3,000 miles per year. You have a lot of people in my Longfellow neighborhoods who have short commutes or they “reverse commute”. I didn’t have school age children, which are somewhat sparse in my neighborhood b ut otherwise city living works.

    That said the anti-car movement is most active in the cities because of the political nature of it. When they did the Lake Street rebuild East of Hiawatha they eliminated around one-third of the on-street parking. There is also an anti-car culture (think bicycle “critical mass”). In my middle class neighborhood everyone has a car or two usually in a garage or driveway, off-street. It’s a matter of how much they drive them.

  9. Submitted by sean mckenna on 10/07/2010 - 08:34 am.

    A traffic jam in Birmingham, Alabama?
    Yeah, right…

  10. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 10/07/2010 - 09:38 am.

    When I started my current job I was living in Lakeville and took the job in Eagan partly because of the short commute. Several months later the company I worked for was bought and moved to Eden Prairie. (Thank God it wasn’t California!). So now I still have a job, but the commute has more than doubled. I couldn’t afford to sell my house and move closer to my job even if I wanted. Some of us have tried to do the right thing and our situation changes without our being consulted.

  11. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 10/08/2010 - 07:30 pm.

    Sheila, its not about you. You have to do what you have to do to get by, no one is saying you have to sell you home and move, its going to be okay. This is about policy, urban planning and design. We need to have clear honest data to make clear intelligent decisions. That’s all. Of course we have a major political party in this country that would rather make its decisions based on emotion. People like poster #2 who take offence when someone points out the obvious. Personally, if my tax dollars weren’t being wasted on all these roads for suburbites, I’d say let them sit in trafic. My commute doesn’t change but a few minutes, rain, snow or beautiful fall day, so its no skin off my nose if the sit there burning gas. Well it is killing my environment so maybe I should care.

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