It seems almost every day there’s a new "best of" list in regard to America’s cities. We have the best city to live if you are a retiree, the cities where people are the happiest, the priciest cities, the cities with the most new development, etc.
The most unusual list is the one issued by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, which it calls the National Congestion Tables but might as well be labeled the cities with the most awful commutes.
TTI’s 2010 report doesn’t come out until the autumn, so the most recent numbers are from 2009, which may seem overly ripe, but the cities on the list don’t change positions very much from year to year.
Before I get to the list, I should explain that I came to call on the TTI experts when gasoline started to push the $4-a-gallon-at-the-pump range earlier this year, something we hadn’t seen since around 2005.
For a long time, I have been espousing the cause of reverse metro migration: moving back to the cities or older, closer-in suburbs so as to reduce the financial pain of commuting, which I was to learn from TTI is more severe than I imagined.
Intuitively, one would assume that with the price of gasoline being so expensive, people would indeed consider moving, for example, from the exurbs to the suburbs. But as it turns out, corporate America often makes that issue moot, because instead of building new facilities and forcing commuters to come to it, corporate America over the past three decades has embarked on a pattern of moving to where the workers are, often in the suburbs.
Still, a great number of workers, no matter where you might live in the U.S., commute to the downtown where there are city and state jobs, courts, law offices, major accounting firms, tourism and hotel infrastructure plus a host of companies that just need or want to be in a downtown setting.
Taking all that into consideration, according to TTI’s research, the two cities tied for the worst commute are Chicago and Washington, D.C. Back in 2009, and again this doesn’t change much annually, the Yearly Delay Per Auto Commuter for the poor souls commuting into downtown Chicago and D.C. was 70 hours.
These two cities were followed by Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, at 63 hours, Houston at 58 hours, San Francisco-Oakland at 49 hours, Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington at 48 hours, and Boston at 48 hours.
Between 33-44 hours are the cities of Atlanta, Seattle, New York-Newark, Miami, Philadelphia, San Diego, Phoenix and Detroit. So you folks in Orlando, Tampa, Charlotte, Denver and San Antonio: stop complaining. Your commute just isn’t all that bad.
This is more about stop-and-go (bottlenecks, bad merge lanes or construction projects) as opposed to distance of commute, explained David Schrank, co-author of TTI’s Urban Mobility Report.
The slower cities are bigger cities, he adds, because big populations mean more trips, more service and delivery trucks, more economic activity and more tourism as there are more things to do downtown.
TTI’s congestion tables are not always so simple. An extended version takes into account the delay per auto commuter (70 hours in Chicago and D.C.), multiplies it by Travel Time Index (ratio of travel time in peak period versus travel time at free-flow) and then by Excess Fuel Per Auto Commuter (increased fuel consumption due to travel in congested conditions) to come up with Congestion Cost Per Auto Commuter.
At $2.50 a gallon of gas, the Congestion Cost for a Chicago commuter was $1,738, followed by D.C. at $1,555; Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana at $1,464; Houston at $1,322; San Francisco-Oakland and Boston at $1,112; Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington at $1,077; Seattle at $1,056; and Atlanta at $1,046.
Where’s the Big Apple you ask? Back at a mere $999.
(At $4 a gallon the congestion cost goes up about 10 percent to 15 percent.)
That seems like a lot of money per year to sit in traffic.
Expensive gas changes the calculus that people use in regard to costs, but it is not as dramatic as the press tries to make it out to be, said Alan Pisarski, a transportation consultant and author of a series of books called Commuting in America.
"I don’t mean to disparage high fuel expenses," he said. "But the fundamental job shifts over the past 35 years have been to the suburbs. Either an employee’s company moves out to the suburbs, so the employee is closer to the job, or that same person goes to work for a different company and it is located in the suburbs."
This in turn has created a couple of newer S-curve trends. First, if a person’s job moves to the suburbs, the employee may then move from the suburbs farther out to the exurbs. Or, the jobs move so far away from the downtown that people in rural areas start commuting to the ‘burbs.
"West Virginians had the biggest increase in travel-to-work times from 1990 to 2000," Pisarski said. "It wasn’t because of horrible congestion in West Virginia, but because those people were commuting to jobs on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., or Pittsburgh."
While high gasoline costs may not be a game changer, Pisarski does expect commuters will try to accommodate for that higher family expense. "In (the) short term they will look for car pools or van pools, test mass transit, and some on the geographic margins might move closer and pay more for housing," he said.
In the longer term, it’s not that people will buy a new home closer in, but will instead shift toward more fuel-efficient vehicles. Oddly, today the cost comparison between a foreclosed house and a new hybrid automobile is not all that much.