Chain Reactions

Are Traffic Jams Politically Motivated?

I've sat in my fair share of traffic jams in my life, and probably like most everybody else I blamed the weather, or all the clowns on the road shaving, applying lipstick or texting instead of paying attention to the highway, or all the gapers who feel the need to slow down and stare at a series of orange cones as if it's the second coming of Elvis. Never did I think, though, that traffic jams were actually part of vast, right-leaning conspiracy.

According to a news story by ABC reporter Scott Mayerowitz, however, we can blame congestion on urban sprawl, the thinking being that the farther away people live from their jobs, the longer they'll spend on the road. That's based on a report by CEOs for Cities, which Mayerowitz describes as being sponsored by the "liberal-leaning Rockefeller Foundation." The actual name of the report pretty much clues you in as to its main point: Driven Apart: How sprawl is lengthening our commutes and why misleading mobility measures are making things worse.

The "Driven Apart" study doesn't so much analyze traffic or congestion (although it pretends to) as it does point out the obvious: If you live a long way from your work, then it's going to take you longer to get there than if you lived closer. Not sure that you need a study to come to that conclusion, but there you go.

In any event, based on CEOs for Cities' findings, the number one worst commute in the United States is in... Nashville, Tenn. Yep, worse than New York City, worse than Boston, worse than Atlanta, worse than Los Angeles. Music City is just plain awful, says the report. And the second worst commute, out of all the cities in the USA, is in... Oklahoma City. Third worse is Birmingham, Ala. You've pretty much got the idea by now as to how this works.

The key to interpreting the results comes in their analysis of congestion in Chicago, which they compare to the Urban Mobility Report (UMR) prepared by Texas Transportation Institute, which is considered the industry standard when it comes to traffic pattern studies:

"The UMR depicts Chicago as having some of the worst travel delays, when it actually has the shortest time spent in peak hour traffic of any major US metro area. In contrast, Nashville jumped from 31st to first on the list of those with the longest peak travel times.... The key is that some metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Portland and Sacramento have land use patterns and transportation systems that enable their residents to take shorter trips and minimize the burden of peak hour travel. If every one of the top 50 metros followed suit with Chicago and other higher performing cities, their residents would drive about 40 billion fewer miles per year and use two billion fewer gallons of fuel, for a cost savings of $31 billion annually."

In other words, the "Driven Apart" study is actually factoring in time spent on a subway, train or bus in its analysis of traffic congestion. So it's basically irrelevant as to how backed up the traffic might be on the Dan Ryan any given morning, as long as plenty of folks are taking the CTA in from the suburbs. Rather than identifying the cities that have the greatest need for new and upgraded roads, CEOs for Cities is actually recommending that commuters forget about their cars altogether and instead ride their bikes down to the closest bus station.

Which is fine, if that's what they want to promote, but it seems pointless to criticize legitimate studies of traffic patterns on the grounds that people ought to take public transportation to their jobs instead of driving in to work every day. Talk about an apples-vs.-oranges comparison.

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