It may be hard to believe -- especially if you drive to work on U.S. Highway 101 or Interstate 405 -- but traffic congestion in Los Angeles and Orange counties eased off a little bit, according to a national report released Monday by the Texas Transportation Institute.
Residents of Los Angeles and Orange counties wasted 93 hours in rush-hour commuter traffic in 2003 -- still the worst in the nation, but five fewer hours than the year before and 10 fewer than in 2000, the report by researchers at the Texas A&M; University institute said.
Part of the reduction in congestion was linked to bad news: the dot-com bust of 2000 meant lost jobs and may have led to fewer drivers on roads in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The simultaneous growth in jobs in other industries in the Inland Empire area of Riverside and San Bernardino counties led to worsened traffic there, according to the study and local analysts.
Any improvement also can be credited in part to such measures as the MTA’s rapid transit bus service, improved metering at freeway onramps and better synchronization of traffic lights on city streets, said associate research scientist David Schrank, the lead author of the annual report.
“Every possible way that more capacity can be squeezed out of the existing system is being looked at,” Schrank said. “In L.A.'s case, they are dipping into just about every possible bag they can, and using just about anything including expanding their public transportation options.”
California was home to three of the 10 most congested urban areas in 2003, the most recent year studied by the Texas institute. After the top-ranking Los Angeles-Orange counties area, the San Francisco-Oakland portion of the Bay Area was in second place, with drivers wasting 72 hours in rush-hour traffic, down three hours from the previous year but just two hours fewer than in 2000.
The Riverside and San Bernardino counties region was tied for ninth place with Orlando, Fla.: travelers in both regions wasted 55 hours per year in the peak-hour periods examined in the study. Drivers in the booming Inland Empire region spent on average an additional hour clogged in rush-hour traffic compared with the year before and two more since 2000.
In San Diego, which ranked 15th in congestion, motorists wasted 52 hours in 2003, a gain of just an hour over the previous year, but a significant increase over 2000, when motorists there were stuck 39 hours in traffic.
Congestion continued to worsen throughout the nation, said the report, which is based on such data as freeway speed and traffic volume collected by state and local transportation agencies.
Americans lost 3.7 billion hours stuck in traffic in 2003, up from 3.6 billion in 2002. Drivers wasted 2.3 billion gallons of fuel sitting in traffic in 2003, 100 million more than the previous year, according to the study.
Between lost time and extra fuel, congestion cost the economy $63.1 billion, up from $61.5 billion in 2002, the researchers estimated.
That’s five times the $12.5 billion in congestion-related costs incurred the first year the survey was conducted, in 1982.
However, Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA, cautioned about taking the small gains or losses reflected in the Texas survey too seriously. Because states do not all collect the same types of data, he said, the researchers may have been limited in their scope.
Over time, he said, Southern California streets and highways will become more crowded.
“Population and vehicle travel is growing at a faster rate than road capacity,” Taylor said. “There may be little bumps up and down, but the long-term trend is growth.”
The Texas study reflected shifts in both population and employment throughout Southern California, said Hasan Ikhrata, director of policy and planning for the Southern California Assn. of Governments.
Congestion in Los Angeles County is increasing along several major corridors, Ikhrata said, including Interstate 10, Interstate 210, the 60 Freeway and the 91 Freeway, frequently used by commuters from Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
However, many people who moved to the Inland Empire may have at first kept their jobs in Los Angeles and Orange counties and then found employment closer to home, he said.
The study shows that traffic-calming measures, along with improved public transportation, have made it a little easier to get around.
In Los Angeles and Orange counties, for example, the researchers estimate that synchronized traffic lights, left-turn lanes and onramp metering saved commuters an average of 14 hours in 2003 that would otherwise have been wasted in traffic.
By eliminating 634 million local car trips annually, the use of buses and trains saved 19 hours per rush-hour traveler in 2003.
Still, said Shrank, it’s going to take a lot more than synchronized lights to cause L.A. to give up its position as the most congested city in the nation.
“In general, things are slightly better in Los Angeles,” Schrank said. “But it’s so far out past the other cities that it’s going to be a long while before we’re worried about No. 2 catching up.”
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Here are the annual hours of delay per traveler based on average extra travel time caused by congestion at peak hours. The numbers for 2003 are the most recent available.
*--* Top metropolitan areas 2000 2001 2002 2003 LA/Orange counties 103 99 98 93 San Francisco/Oak 74 74 75 72 Wash, D.C. 62 64 66 69 Atlanta 62 62 64 67 Houston 55 59 65 63 Dallas/Ft. Worth/Arl 59 60 61 60 Chicago 49 50 55 58 Detroit 49 52 54 57 Riverside/San Bern 53 53 54 55 Orlando, Fla. 58 58 55 55
Source: Texas Transportation Institute