How the DC Commute Really Stacks Up


The longest traffic jam in history. China National Highway.

You probably ran across that Express Newspaper article that said DC’s traffic is, well, the worst. There’s more than meets the eye, though.

The article cites the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard compiled by INRIX and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The study says that drivers in Washington do spend more time in traffic than any other city in the country. Here in the nation’s capital, commuters waste an annual average of 82 hours in traffic congestion delays.

That beats out Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York—which occupy the next three spots. It seems like an incredible statistic. Is Washington DC really the worst city to get to work in?

Those figures don’t even count the commute itself without traffic—just the time wasted above and beyond the driving time. But that’s just the problem.

It’s an odd metric. It doesn’t actually tell you how much time commuters spend in cars. It captures the level of frustration, to be sure. It gets at the time you’re crawling past a 65 MPH sign, cringing because you haven’t gotten above 3rd gear for the last 20 minutes, all before sunrise, no less.

But it’s not comparting apples to apples. It’s more like comparing a medium-sized apple that came off a tree with little apples, and saying “wow that’s a big apple,” instead of comparing it properly—like to a big apple. OK, so maybe it can be like comparing apples to apples, but just really different apples.

Gist is—this doesn’t actually tell us who spends more time in traffic. What’s more, it doesn’t tell you the commuter time on trains, buses much less folks that bike, walk, or snow-mobile to work (larger population than you might think). So that statistic that everyone reads here in DC doesn’t actually pertain to anyone but the drivers.

The question then becomes—how bad is traffic in DC, really?

It turns out that the mean travel time to work—one way, that is—was 29.9 minutes in the District. While that did oddly enough tie us with Los Angeles, we tied for 6th longest commute after these cities:

  1. New York 7
  2. Chicago 7
  3. Philadelphia 0
  4. San Francisco 5
  5. Baltimore 5

Yes, we have a shorter commute than Baltimore and Philly—so our neighbors got it a lot worse off than we do.

And with the average commute time at 25.8 minutes, we’re only losing 4 minutes each way. Even over the course of the 261 work days per year, we’re only losing 35 hours over the entire year more than the average. And if you did get home quicker, what more would you do than sit down on your duff a little sooner? Point is that DC’s commute time really isn’t that bad.

The same study has some other interesting (and telling) stats on the town’s commuters. For starters, at Washington has the second highest biking percentage, at 4.5%. Ceding first place to Portland feels better knowing that we also took down all the hipsters in Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver—as well as New York’s famed bikers.

In the same vein, Washington DC has more people that work to work than any major city other than Boston. At 13.6% of the populace, that means that puts several percentage points above the next contender, San Francisco.

Not surprisingly, we also sport the second highest rate of train commuters. But at 38.5%, we’re still a far cry from New York’s top spot and 56.7% of the population that commutes by rail. But they’ve also got 46% of the population that don’t have access to a car, compared to only 36% of Washingtonians.

Another big asterisk to this study is that it is only Washington, DC—not the metropolitan area. And because only 646,000 people live in the District, compared to 6 million people, it’s not representative of the area.

Either way, we’re always ranked somewhere in the top ten. And maybe that’s just an affectation of size. But I would venture to say that it’s also the inability of large traffic systems to cope. In essence, systems evolved to suck—or perhaps more accurately, they suck at evolving well.

Traffic is one great example of a large system with many components. A road is often designed for one purpose. Let’s take the beltway. It was designed to mobilize traffic to divert from DC crossing into. However, most often, it’s used to slingshot into or out of the city—which causes huge congestion at those points.

Ceremony for the final link of the DC Beltway, Maryland. August 17, 1964.

Ceremony for the final link of the DC Beltway, Maryland. August 17, 1964.

Maryland traffic officials expected 55,000 automobiles to pass through the state’s section of the beltway. But that number was surpassed within a year of its completion in 1964, and now the worst sections carry upwards of 225,000 vehicles per day.

The system’s operators didn’t foresee the amount of traffic that the beltway now has to contend with. Nor could they adapt to it. Because the heavy investments in creating a system to do one thing at the moment, without flexibility to adapt built in, it became nearly untenable to adapt it to today’s requirements, which would probably be a ten-lane highway.

But then Parkinson’s Law comes to mind. Work will expand to fill the time allotted, and perhaps traffic is the same way. Like a drug, in which supply creates demand, so too does the supply of lanes create the demand for using them.

All in all, there’s no escaping the fact that DC traffic is bad. Whether it’s because systems can’t evolve quick enough to fill our ever-changing patterns, or whether it’s because our species is as hopelessly addicted to assisted mobility as we are on salt and sugar, traffic gets bad in big places. DC is no exception. But before we listen to a study that says we have the worst traffic—let’s look around. It’s only 4 minutes a leg more than the average, anyway.

2 responses to “How the DC Commute Really Stacks Up

  1. Mr. Reynolds did not identify the photo of the highway showing traffic and congestion shown in this article. Is this from the DC metropolitan area or another location?

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