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Is Washington DC Doomed To Perpetual Traffic Hell?

November 7, 2011

I mainly ride my bike and try to ignore that question. But when Washingtonian magazine called me up and asked me if I wanted write an article about traffic, I think I surprised them a bit by saying: “Absolutely.”

The reason is that Washington’s horrific traffic is a classic example of a problem that everyone wants to confront, that has a rational solution, and yet politics and poorly calculated, perceived self-interest make that solution very unlikely. Just my sort of story, in other words, and I took the opportunity to explain just how bad things will get, and why the solution (if we are rational; I know, I’m crazy) makes all sorts of sense.

Washington drivers spend more than twice the national average time in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Aerial Photograph by Cameron Davidson for the Washingtonian

Here’s the intro (and you can read the whole thing here):

Last August, a 911 operator took a desperate early-morning call. A man, on the way to Washington Hospital Center with his pregnant daughter, was trapped on DC’s New York Avenue by a complete traffic lockup following a fatal collision between a tractor-trailer and a dirt bike. “My daughter is having a baby!” the man shouted. The operator tried in vain to direct the gridlocked minivan to a fire station. By the time emergency crews reached the vehicle, working their way through the obstacle course of idled cars, the baby had been born in the passenger seat.

Mother and newborn daughter turned out to be fine. But surviving the great roulette wheel that’s set spinning every day by the Washington traffic Fates can be a soul-sapping experience for anyone. With painful frequency, drivers are cast into the First Circle of Hell, which is where those who have committed the sin of hoping they’ll journey uncontested spend what seems like an eternity. It can happen for no discernible reason. It can happen when someone texting clips another car. It can happen when there’s an act of God, such as last year’s Snowmageddon or August’s “just reminding you the East Coast has tectonic plates, too” earthquake.

The reason is simple: There are way too many cars on the roads. There are a zillion unsurprising reasons this is true—a growing population, too many car commuters (64 percent of them solo), too many jobs located where workers don’t live (more people in Virginia and Maryland commute to work in another county than residents of any other place in the country), a lack of long-range planning and coordination among the local governments involved, and inadequate transit options, to name just a few. Or, as Dorn McGrath Jr.—professor emeritus of geography and urban and regional planning at George Washington University and a longtime denizen of the area’s transportation planning wars—sums it up: “It is pure foolishness aggravated by governmental fragmentation and, occasionally, political indifference.”

As a result, Washington has been elevated to a dubious status: a regular presence at the top of national traffic-congestion rankings. Telling drivers this is like telling a person standing in a downpour that weather statistics indicate the area is prone to rain. But the ugly numbers are worth a quick review.

In September, Washington topped the charts—yep, numero uno—in the 2011 Texas Transportation Institute Urban Mobility Report. The data showed that the average Washington driver loses 74 hours a year to traffic congestion (in 1982, Washingtonians were delayed only 20 hours a year). That’s almost two work weeks vaporized behind the wheel, a waste that costs us an average of almost $1,500 a year in fuel and lost earnings potential. It also means that the time we spend in bumper-to-bumper conditions is more than twice the national average. Those whiny Los Angeles drivers who always think they have it the worst? They lose a mere 64 hours a year to traffic delays.

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