Seattle drops to fifth in traffic congestion
Seattle Times staff reporter
New rankings of 75 metropolitan areas released yesterday as part of the Texas Transportation Institute's (TTI) annual Urban Mobility Report put Seattle-Everett in a tie for fifth place. What's more, TTI said, Seattle also would have placed fifth rather than second in last year's report if new, better data used this year had been available at the time.
Los Angeles finished first both this year and last. Release of the report — easily the best-known, most widely publicized congestion study in the nation — came amid mounting criticism of TTI and questions about whether it measures traffic accurately.
The Washington state Department of Transportation, one of 11 state transportation agencies that had funded the study, withdrew its support in May, saying TTI's calculations don't factor in many steps the agency is taking to combat congestion, such as ramp metering and clearing accidents faster.
"This report has been used for years by the highway lobby to whip up support for more road-building," said David Burwell, president of the pro-transit Surface Transportation Policy Project.
While the methodology TTI employed this year in calculating congestion still doesn't account for the impact of such variables as high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and ramp metering, the report does contain new chapters discussing their potential value.
Study co-author Tim Lomax said TTI, part of Texas A&M University, is trying to address its critics' concerns. They are right about the limitations of TTI's methodology, he said; improvements should be made soon.
State Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald, who has criticized TTI in the past, said this year's report "is much more thoughtful about the things that need to be done."
Mark Hallenbeck, another critic and the director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington, agreed the report is moving in the right direction.
"If you're No. 2 or No. 5, do you really care?" he asked. "Hey, traffic sucks. Let's do something about it."
TTI measures congestion in many ways. Perhaps the best-known is the "travel-time index," the ratio of freeway and arterial travel time at rush hour to travel time when roads are free-flowing. When Seattle's score in that category placed it second last year, local political leaders cited it as evidence of how serious a problem traffic was.
For 2000 — the most recent year for which information is available — the new report calculates Seattle's travel-time index score at 1.45. That means a trip during peak periods took 45 percent longer than at other times
Seattle-Everett tied with Miami and Boston for fifth place.
But the difference between second place and fifth isn't significant, Lomax said. After Los Angeles, clearly No. 1, the next eight cities are bunched so tightly that even slight changes from year to year can alter their rankings, he said.
In this year's report, TTI also revised its calculations and rankings from past years to factor in new, more sophisticated estimates of how fast vehicles travel as volumes increase. That change dropped Seattle's 1999 travel-time index ranking from second to fifth.
The new report also says that:
• The typical Seattle peak-hour road traveler spent 82 hours stuck in traffic in 2000. That ranked the region fourth in the nation in that category.
• That same typical traveler wasted 137 gallons of fuel in 2000, placing the region third nationally.
• Congestion in Seattle worsened more in the 1980s and early 1990s than it has since. While the region's travel-time index increased 26 points between 1982 and 1994, from 1.13 to 1.39, it has increased just six points since then.
• Since 1994, more than three dozen other cities have experienced greater increases in congestion, as measured by the travel-time index, than Seattle.
But none of TTI's conclusions are based on what's really happening on the roads at rush hour. Instead, the institute uses a database from the Federal Highway Administration that contains relatively limited information: miles and lanes of freeway and arterials in each city, and the average daily traffic volumes on each road segment.
All TTI's conclusions are based on assumptions and estimates it applies to that data. Critics, including Hallenbeck, MacDonald and environmentalists, say TTI's assumptions are too crude, and that they may skew the rankings.
"They're not telling the whole story," said Peter Hurley, executive director of the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition in Seattle.
The new report takes a step in answering critics' questions. A chapter on the value of HOV lanes, for instance, indicates that traffic in such lanes in Seattle moves faster than traffic in neighboring general-traffic lanes, and that without them freeways would be more congested.
The report says ambitious road-building programs in some cities have kept congestion from getting worse as rapidly as elsewhere. But it also says roads, by themselves, don't seem to be the answer.
Supporters of Referendum 51, a $7.7 billion statewide transportation-improvement package on the November ballot, said Seattle's fifth-place ranking demonstrates why the package is needed.
MacDonald called the report "very helpful. It reinforces the things we have to do. We have to look after the details as well as the big projects."
Eric Pryne can be reached at 206-464-2231 or firstname.lastname@example.org.