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Cutting Commute Times Through Smarter Home Building

October 27, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

For decades, transportation experts have told Twin Cities commuters that their traffic congestion delays were increasing faster than practically anyplace else in the country. This instilled a perverse local pride (We’re No. 1!) while affirming our righteous disgust over freeways turned to parking lots at rush hour.

And the solution seemed clear: Lay enough new pavement to give each of us an open road ahead. The cost would be enormous, but counterbalanced by economic gains from reducing wasted fuel and time. Minnesota tried this in the past decade, adding more than 500 lane-miles of freeways and arterial streets to the Twin Cities area.

But most congestion measures barely budged, and the cost attributed to traffic jams still rose. Meanwhile, with resources diverted from maintenance of existing roads to building new ones, vehicle repair costs soared. Commuting kept draining more and more of our time and money.

Maybe we’ve been looking at the problem the wrong way. A new study suggests that dysfunctional transportation is more a product of how and where we build our homes and workplaces than of how we build our roads. It turns conventional wisdom about congestion on its head, showing that a dense city such as Chicago has the nation’s shortest major metropolitan commuting times while sprawling Nashville has the longest.

Chicagoans spend an average of 136 hours a year in peak-period travel, 41 of the hours in traffic delays. Commuters in Nashville put up with only 37 hours of delay a year, but their total time on the road is more than double Chicago’s – 286 hours. The reason is simple: The average Nashville commute is 25.2 miles, tops in the nation; Chicago’s is just 13.5 miles, longer only than New Orleans’ 12.6 miles. (Commuters in the Big Easy average 138 hours a year in traffic, 20 of them delayed.)

Minneapolis-St. Paul came in about the middle of the pack in the study issued by CEOs for Cities – 202 annual hours of peak-hour commuting, 39 of them in traffic delays, and an average travel distance of 20.1 miles.

The report, “Driven Apart: How Sprawl is Lengthening Our Commutes, and Why Misleading Mobility Measures Are Making Things Worse,” was written by economist Joseph Cortright, who earlier developed a nifty interactive walkability measure for any address in the United States.

In “Driven Apart,” Cortright notes that the average U.S. one-way commute lengthened from 8.8 miles in 1983 to 11.8 miles in 2001, increasing the time spent on the road from 18 minutes to 23 minutes. But, rather than congestion clamping down on average speeds, they increased from 29.3 miles per hour to 31 m.p.h. over the same 18 years.

That leads Cortright to a direct assault on the methodology and conclusions of the Texas Transportation Institute, whose Urban Mobility Reports have long been considered the gold standard in congestion analysis. He argues that TTI’s focus on commuting delays – the time spent in heavy traffic above what would occur in free-flowing conditions, 4.7 minutes more a day in 2001 than in 1983 – assumes a utopian world where traffic never backs up. Its emphasis on high traffic speeds, Cortright says, “rewards places where people can drive fast, even if they must drive much farther. It is a measure that gives credit for going nowhere, fast.”

Cortright also said TTI “ignores the role of land use and accessibility in shaping urban travel” and “misidentifies those metropolitan areas with the most costly and wasteful transportation systems.” He even says TTI’s estimates of fuel wasted in congestion use bad data and fail to account for greater fuel economy at reduced speeds in moderately heavy traffic.

Full disclosure: I’ve uncritically quoted TTI’s findings in the past to advocate more investment on highways. Fortunately, some Minnesota policymakers have been smarter than that. The state Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Council both have long-range plans that emphasize compact development, transit expansion and management of existing roads over building new ones.

Whatever the reasons – enlightened new public policies or just economic and demographic forces catching up with the high costs of sprawl – Cortright found that the Twin Cities and most other major metros actually decreased their peak period travel distances between 2001 and 2007. It wasn’t nearly enough to reverse two previous decades of increase in our area, but it’s a start.

Surprisingly, almost one-third of U.S. metros over 1 million population cut their commuting distances throughout the long economic expansion from 1982 to 2007. These winners in the quest for efficiency range from megalopolises like Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco to growth-restricting Portland, Ore., to seeming paradigms of Sunbelt sprawl such as Dallas, Jacksonville, Phoenix and San Diego. Also in this group is Pittsburgh, the biggest city in the country without an Interstate highway ring road.

The Twin Cities’ 27 percent increase in travel distances in the 1980s and ‘90s followed by a small drop in the past decade more closely mimics the experience of second- and third-tier regions like Birmingham, Ala., Kansas City, Louisville and Orlando.

Met Council Chairman Peter Bell says our region is “re-densifying,” with housing growth in the core cities and developed suburbs (31 percent of the total over the past decade) running ahead of official goals. Whether the trend will continue with eventual easing of the Great Recession and exurbia’s foreclosure crisis remains to be seen.

Public policies that limit growth on the edge of the metro can go only so far to stifle Americans’ pioneer spirit and love of wide open spaces. Met Council spokesman Steve Dornfeld argues that clamping down too hard on sewer extensions and other infrastructure improvements in the far reaches of the council’s jurisdiction merely pushes growth to the exurban counties even further out.

According to the 2000 Census, 40 percent or more of workers living in those places traveled to jobs in the seven metro counties. Perhaps a lot of those exurban commuters were taking shorter trips to workplaces the council has allowed to proliferate on the metro’s edge. Critics say the Met Council has used too little of its authority to concentrate residential and job growth in efficient central clusters.

No matter what land use policies government adopts, some people will still “drive to qualify” for mortgages on cheaper acreage and bigger homesteads far from the metro core. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to subsidize that choice with multilane highways easily accessible to every exurban cul-de-sac.


Photo credit: Enrio Fuente, creative commons

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