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You Think Your Traffic Is Bad? Ha!

As someone who regularly drives in many parts of the country, I was interested to compare the results of the most recent TomTom Traffic Index study with my own experiences.

For example, I have long had a very healthy respect, if that’s the right word, for Miami traffic. The city’s expressways regularly gridlock every afternoon, although for those who are affluent or desperate enough to pay the congestion-price-based tolls, express lanes offer relief. So does the cashless SunPass tolling system. Without those pressure valves, the place would be an utter nightmare. As it is, it clocks into TomTom’s list of the most congested U.S. cities at number seven.

For all that, I think Atlanta’s traffic is even worse, even though TomTom ranks it lower, at 13. The exception? During any bout of snow, sleet or freezing rain, Atlanta’s traffic moves from “worse” to “literally life-threatening.” Atlanta may be the only place in America where somebody might actually risk dying on an urban freeway someday due not to a crash, but to a protracted absence of movement.

Of course Los Angeles traffic is notoriously bad, so it is probably no surprise it takes the dubious honor of the top spot on the list. The traffic of Silicon Valley, which is to say that of fifth-place San Jose, is equally well-bemoaned. And one rush-hour visit last summer to Seattle, number four, was enough to last me a long time.

You expect traffic headaches from the West Coast metropolises, where urban planners of the past more or less stopped trying to keep up with fast growth. But Portland, Oregon, is a surprise. They don’t allow growth in Oregon. Seriously, you could get elected in that state by promising to build a wall and make California pay for it. But people have a way of sneaking past borders anyway, and in Oregon, so does growth – and, apparently, traffic, as Portland squeezed into the top 10.

New York is probably the place that least deserves its spot on the list, as well as the place that deserves it most – for somewhat different reasons. The city and surrounding suburbs offer one of the densest, most popular and most costly mass transit systems in North America – and also the most heavily used, by far. You can usually get where you need to go by public transportation anywhere in the greater New York City area. But still the region’s highways remain jammed. To my surprise, largely because I don’t have to commute on those roads, they remain even more jammed than those in Miami or Atlanta or Seattle, at least by TomTom’s measurement.

How can this be, if so many New Yorkers are taking public transit? The answer is simple. The New York-New Jersey region has barely invested in its highways at all since the last World’s Fair shut its gates. I won’t make you look it up: That was in 1965.

The Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx (most Americans would just call it Interstate 87) is three lanes wide and nearly always congested between Yankee Stadium and the George Washington Bridge. Those are the same three lanes of expressway that were available when I was a boy in a neighborhood alongside the Deegan, back when that World’s Fair was operating. The city’s population has grown by about 1 million since then. The city’s number of cars has increased even faster. The capacity of the highway has not changed one single bit.

At least increased traffic in most other major cities is a byproduct of economic growth. In New York, it is simply a byproduct of not-very-benign neglect.

In fairness, things could be worse. The TomTom study shows that American traffic is still way better than that of many other places in the world, particularly places that have seen recent economic and population growth. (A byproduct of places with stagnant or declining populations is that you can easily go wherever you want; you just probably don’t want to go anywhere in particular.) Mexico City’s drivers currently suffer the worst congestion, with those in Bangkok not far behind.

America’s worst traffic city, LA, barely makes it into the top 10 as far as global traffic nightmares are concerned. Angelenos may find this knowledge small comfort as they sit on “the 10” (what most Americans would call Interstate 10) this morning. Or this afternoon. Or tonight. Or all of the above.

TomTom’s survey also points out that diverting just a small share of the car traffic would benefit not only the diverted drivers and their passengers, but everyone still on the road at rush hour. The company’s senior traffic expert, Nick Cohn, suggests strategies for individual drivers, but also emphasizes that larger, systemic changes will actually benefit city drivers most in the long run. That is a fair point in favor of mass transit investment, but probably an even fairer one for encouraging more business to allow people to work flexible hours or to work from home, or for putting workplaces closer to where people live and vice-versa.

So in a lot of places, traffic is bad and getting worse; in some, it is worse than ever. But it could always be worse, as a children’s book, frequently called upon in our household when my daughters were growing up, observed. At least these days we have satellite and Internet options galore to keep us entertained while we wait.

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