Each year, the feds traffic researchers put out lists of how many hours of productivity commuters lose by choosing to work in big cities. After living for 12 years in one of the top 5 worst commuter markets, I love my 3 and 1/2 minute commute to work. I realize that traffic congestion is all a matter of perspective, and when you compare the summer traffic in Kent with the rest of the year, there is a difference. But even at it’s worst, Kent traffic is terrific. For anyone that lives in Kent and commutes to Cleveland, I feel for you, but remember you could always open a place to work right here in Kent and we could car pool for our 3 and 1/2 minute commute together. One more reason why Kent is a great place to live, work and play.
Think about it.
Here in Kent, I can get to work in 3 1/2 minutes from my home. I can get to Middle School to watch my son play football in about 7 minutes. I can get to the grocery store in about 8 minutes. I can get to Kent State campus in 5 minutes. I can get to Starbucks in 4 minutes. Dinner at the Pufferbelly…4 minutes. The West River doctors…4 minutes. The Cuyahoga River trail…4 minutes. The MetroParks bike trail…5 minutes. The new Kent Free Library…4 minutes. The dentist…6 minutes. You get the idea.
In under 10 minutes I can get all over town. We talk a lot about quality of life, but for me, time not-spent driving to and fro is one of the better measures of quality of life. Think about that as you read about the lifestyle folks in other cities have to endure just to do the simple things that we take for granted here in Kent.
Here’s two recent articles (USA Today, LA Times) that show how the other half lives muddling through all that congestion.
|As commutes begin earlier, new daily routines emerge|
“The traffic is not as busy this time of day,” Shaw, 60, says after whipping into a QuikTrip store Monday to use the ATM and get a drink. “It’s not as stressful if you don’t have to deal with a lot of congestion.”
But Shaw’s reliable pre-dawn commute forces sacrifices in his personal life. He used to turn in after catching the first few minutes of the 11 o’clock news. He’d walk or jog in the mornings. Now, he goes to bed at 9 p.m. and rolls out at 4:30 a.m. “If I leave home after 6 and there’s an accident,” he says, “I’m late for work.”
Americans are leaving home earlier and earlier to beat the rush and get to work on time. Census data released today document the ever-lengthening commutes: In 2000, 1 worker in 9 was out the door by 6 a.m., the new data says; by 2006, it was 1 in 8. That might not seem like a big change, but it has put more than 2.7 million additional drivers — for a total of 15 million — on pre-dawn patrol.
This “commuting creep” is changing the lives of tens of millions of Americans. It affects everything from the breakfast-food industry to television viewership trends, from traffic-signal timing to newspaper delivery times, from carpooling patterns to personal fitness routines. Increasingly early commutes also are altering workers’ relationships with their families.
“What we’re seeing now is this tremendous amount of traffic even before 5 a.m. It seems there’s a big lifestyle change here,” says Alan Pisarski, author of a wide-ranging study on commuting in the USA.
For Martha Perry of Wyandotte, Mich., the need to get to work early — and stay late — to avoid traffic means 13-hour workdays and less time with her daughter Isabella, 2.
Perry, 34, is late if she’s not on metro Detroit’s Interstate 75 by 6 a.m. It’s a 45-mile commute to Auburn Hills, where she manages transportation operations for Insight Network Transportation. “I want to be walking in the door between 7 and 7:30,” she says.
She stays at work until 6 p.m. or later to avoid heavy traffic going home. Her parents and in-laws live nearby and help care for Isabella. The lifestyle seems to work, but Perry and her husband, Scott, 30, are unsure about having more children. “It’s still tough to find the time to care for one,” she says.
Perry says she and Scott have built the long days into their lifestyle. “We just try and make it work,” she says. “He’s very supportive of my career. He’s offered to move close to my workplace, but I just really enjoy where we live.”
Elliot Bloom has a different take on pre-dawn commuting. He leaves his Denville, N.J., home at 5:15 a.m. to beat the traffic into Manhattan. His commute takes about 45 minutes — compared with at least 90 minutes during rush hour. Bloom, 51 and a marathon runner, spends the early morning training in Central Park and working out at the gym, then gets to his job as chief communications officer for Travelport by 9 a.m.
“I could’ve chosen the path of ‘woe is me’ and fight the traffic and let it destroy my life,” he says. “Instead, I’ve turned it around and made it a positive for my health and a hobby I enjoy greatly.”
Going nowhere fast
American drivers spend 3.7 billion hours a year stuck in traffic delays, the Texas Transportation Institute found in its 2005 study of congestion in 85 metropolitan areas. Much of the gridlock is caused by unexpected incidents for which drivers cannot plan.
“Because the roadways are not as reliable as most commuters would like, they have to build in an extra amount of time to ensure they get to work on time,” says David Schrank, co-author of the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report. “Sometimes that means they’re there 20 to 30 minutes early. Sometimes it means they’re just in time.”
G.H. Caldwell of this Atlanta suburb is another commuter whose sleep habits have been affected by the need to get on the road earlier. He goes to bed about 10 p.m. so he can get out of the house by 6:15 a.m. It’s critical that he hits Interstate 285 by 6:30. “If I make it, it takes me 30 to 45 minutes to get to work,” says Caldwell, 57, a facilities engineer who runs a data center. “If I don’t, it takes me an hour to an hour and a half.”
Lawrence Gilligan, who teaches math at the University of Cincinnati, requests 8 a.m. classes “so I can beat the rush.”
Gilligan has sacrificed his late nights watching David Letterman to get to bed by 10 p.m. His commute takes about 40 minutes on good days, a lot longer on bad days.
Once, he says, traffic was so heavy a man in front of him pulled onto the shoulder, got out and strolled to a portable toilet alongside Interstate 71. When he returned, traffic had moved just two car lengths. “I wanted to get out and give the guy a high-five,” says Gilligan, 59.
Part of “commuting creep,” of course, stems from the USA’s booming population. The nation reached 300 million last fall and is on pace to hit 400 million by 2040.
As housing prices soared in many areas in recent years, people sought cheaper homes and found them where land is cheaper: farther out. Sprawl and more cars on the road worsened congestion and lengthened commutes even for those who hadn’t moved to far-flung locales.
In addition, more companies are allowing — even encouraging — employees to work flexible hours, from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., for example. That expands heavy traffic to once-light periods of the day.
The road warriors of the wee hours aren’t all commuters. Pisarski says some travel surveys have found that up to 40% of early-morning drivers aren’t commuters. They’re students, people doing things associated with work such as picking up laundry, retirees running errands and others.
The wave of pre-dawn commuters has created marketing challenges and opportunities.
Fast-food chains and coffee chains are battling to cater to bleary-eyed drivers by opening earlier. TV morning news shows have pushed up their starting times and now air at dawn or earlier. Newspaper publishers struggle to get their editions on doorsteps before people leave.
“Lengthening commute times of Americans has had a major impact on not only when and how Americans consume the news but what kind of news they consume and whether they consume it at all,” says Tom Rosenstiel, director of The Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, D.C.
There is ample evidence that longer commutes are the main reason audiences for the three broadcast network evening newscasts are half what they once were, he says: “People are not home at 6:30” p.m.
Now they’re increasingly not home at 6:30 a.m. either, when many newspaper carriers hit their routes.
“There’s a tension between making the paper as complete as the Internet might be and getting it to them in the middle of the night as opposed to the beginning of the morning,” Rosenstiel says. “For much of the last decade, the growth area in news (has been) early-morning television. These people who are waking up very, very early, in the dark, were turning on the television to watch local news and traffic and weather.”
Local stations have gone from airing news at 6:30 a.m., before the network shows come on, to 6 a.m., then 5:30 a.m. and now 5 a.m.
This “time creep” has perhaps reached its limit, Rosenstiel says. After years of gains, that segment stopped gaining viewers last year. “It may be that the audience just has so many other ways to get this information or they just may be too sleepy to want it,” he says.
If they’re sleepy, they may need coffee and food. At a conference of McDonald’s restaurant managers in Las Vegas this summer, company executives encouraged the managers to push their 5-7 a.m. business because Americans are driving to work earlier.
The breakfast rush, which used to start at 6 a.m., essentially has moved up an hour. About 75% of McDonald’s 16,700 U.S. restaurants now open by 5 a.m.; the company would like all of them to adopt early hours. About 30% of the company’s U.S. restaurants are open 24 hours at least some days, spokeswoman Danya Proud says.
Several competitors are trying to capture this fast-growing segment as the 24-7 economy expands well beyond 9-to-5 work shifts. Burger King has begun offering a $1 Breakfast Value Menu. Starbucks serves warm egg-and-muffin sandwiches. New breakfast menus are on the way at thousands of Wendy’s restaurants.
Michael Silverstein, senior vice president at Boston Consulting Group, a consumer marketing firm in Chicago, lives in Winnetka, a northern suburb. He gets up at 4:30 a.m. and sees lights flick on in neighbors’ houses about 5 a.m.
“Instead of doing exercise in the morning,” he says, “they’re getting in their car” in a race to beat traffic.
Earlier commutes affect not only people’s sleep but their relationships with their families, says Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families.
“It’s a real strain on the family in a lot of ways,” she says. “I know some couples who end up staying in different rooms.”
Coontz says that and different schedules “cut in to communication and non-communicative closeness” between husbands and wives, parents and children.
When teenagers are in the house, things get even more complicated and tense because teens have different body clocks. They stay up late and sleep in.
‘Stressful’ start to the workday
Families who have younger children face challenges, too. The burden of getting the kids off to school is on one parent’s shoulders because the other parent is already on the road.
“It’s a very stressful way to start the workday,” says Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
There can be an upside to an early commute if it means getting home earlier to take the kids to soccer practice, help them with homework and have dinner together.
That’s the case with Dan and Tina Ahlgren. They used to commute separately from their home on the north side of Indianapolis to jobs near downtown — she’s a math teacher; he works for a shopping center developer.
Rising gasoline prices and Dan’s frustration over spending 45-60 minutes making the 19-mile, one-way trip made them adjust their schedules so they could ride to work together.
The change has cut nearly an hour off Dan’s daily round-trip commute and allows them to reduce vehicle wear and tear, slice their gas costs nearly in half and spend more time together.
“There really isn’t a downside,” says Tina Ahlgren, 24.
“Now we both get home by about 4:30 or 5 and Dan isn’t stressed out or tense from having to spend so much time in traffic. Moving his commute an hour has made an incredible difference in our marriage. We love it,” she says.
There may be another positive in one commuting pattern that’s on the rise: carpooling. After declining the first part of this decade, the percentage of workers who shared a ride began rising in 2005 as gas prices soared. They made up 11.2% of all workers in 2006.
Ever-earlier auto commuting hasn’t affected public transit use. About 6.7 million workers regularly used it in 2006, or 4.5% of workers who labor outside the home. That’s relatively unchanged from the 4.9% level in 2000.
Men are more likely to carpool than women — 11.7% vs. 10.6% — and Coontz says that’s good. Spending time with other men on the road is a form of male bonding that many men don’t find in the office or on the racquetball court. Unlike women, “talking time” is not something men go out of their way to schedule, but they still need it, she says.
Coontz’s husband carpooled before he retired from the airlines and misses the time he spent with car buddies, she says.
In the meantime, commuters such as Barbara Jackson keep hitting the road early. She leaves home in her Atlanta suburb at 5:30 every morning for the drive to the train station and her job as an information technology business analyst.
She goes to bed at 10 p.m. “when 24 ends. That’s all I care about.” She makes it to work by 6:30 a.m.
“I love it,” says Jackson, 64. “I’m at work before everybody else gets there. I like the traffic at this hour, too. It’s real peaceful.”
Copeland reported from Atlanta; El Nasser and Overberg from McLean, Va. Contributing: Laura Bruno of the Daily Record in Morristown, N.J., Tim Evans of the Indianapolis Star, Ben Schmitt of the Detroit Free Press and Lori Kurtzman of The Cincinnati Enquirer
Still the reigning champ of traffic delays
Motorists in Los Angeles and Orange counties wasted an average of 72 hours in rush-hour congestion in 2005. But the Inland Empire and the Ventura area are gaining ground.
By Jeffrey L. Rabin and Dan Weikel
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
September 19, 2007
Los Angeles and Orange counties have retained their infamous reputation as the worst region in the nation for traffic delay, although the area appears to be holding the line on congestion, a new national study shows.
But the findings of the Texas Transportation Institute were immediately challenged Tuesday by some experts who warned that the study significantly underestimates the severity of the region’s traffic congestion.
The intense debate over statistics reflects the enormous influence of chronic traffic congestion on the lives of Southern Californians and the tough policy decisions that must be made to combat it.
The Texas report says motorists in Los Angeles and Orange counties spent an average of 72 extra hours in rush-hour traffic in 2005, the subject of the current study. That’s one day shy of two full workweeks a year and is 20 hours more than in 1985. The delay represents the difference between how long it takes to travel during peak periods compared with hours when traffic flows freely.
“L.A. is still the king of congestion,” said David Schrank, co-author of the institute’s Urban Mobility Report.
In the fast-growing Inland Empire of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the study shows, the traffic delay is dramatically worsening and is beginning to approach Los Angeles-style congestion.
Drivers in the Inland Empire wasted an average of 49 extra hours stuck in peak-period traffic during 2005. But the increase since 1985 — a stunning 40 extra hours — is twice what Los Angeles-area motorists experienced.
Traffic delay in the Oxnard-Ventura area hit 39 hours in 2005, almost five times more than the eight hours in 1985, according to the institute, which is based at Texas A&M University.
Although Los Angeles and Orange counties remain the worst area in the nation for traffic delay, an official of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, the regional planning agency for six counties, sharply criticized the Texas findings.
The study “does a great disservice to the state and the region,” said Hasan Ikhrata, the organization’s director of planning and policy. “I would not make policy decisions based on their data, period.”
Ikhrata contends that the new method used by the institute mistakenly assumes that traffic in Los Angeles County, Orange County, the Inland Empire and Oxnard-Ventura is moving much faster during rush hours than it actually is.
Texas researchers assumed that traffic is traveling at an average of 35 mph during peak travel times. However, SCAG planners say that sensors buried in the pavement of major freeways in the Los Angeles area show that the average speed during rush hours is closer to 20 mph. By this measurement, Ikhrata said the extra delay is roughly 100 hours per year, nearly 40% worse than the Texas estimate.
Ikhrata said the actual data, collected from the sensors by the state Department of Transportation, indicate that all of the Los Angeles region’s major freeways have segments moving at less than 10 mph during the most heavily traveled part of the long morning and evening peak periods.
For more than two decades, the Texas Transportation Institute has prepared annual reports that assess traffic trends across the country and rank urban areas based on delay. It is one of several measures used to gauge congestion.
In previous years, the Texas researchers calculated the amount of delay by assuming that traffic moved about 20 mph in the peak period. This year, they scrapped that approach and substituted 35 mph, which they believe better reflects actual highway conditions in 437 cities and metropolitan areas across the nation.
Schrank said the change in approach also reflects improvements in highway operations and changes in the way motorists drive. He said drivers today leave far less distance between vehicles.
As a result of the change in assumptions, the hours of delay in Los Angeles and Orange counties dropped from 93 hours in 2003 under the old approach to 72 hours in 2005. In the Inland Empire, the delay decreased from 55 to 49 hours.
But Ikhrata said “the average is misleading” because between 2000 and 2005 “our congestion increased tremendously.” He said using an average delay per year for a region as vast as Los Angeles and Orange counties does not reflect the experience of motorists, particularly in highly congested corridors.
Martin Wachs, a transportation expert at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, agreed that average delay is not the best measure of what motorists are experiencing. “I am not interested in arcane indices,” Wachs said. “I am interested in travel time.”
“Traffic congestion is worsening gradually and steadily in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and most other large American cities,” said Wachs, who headed the transportation research centers at UC Berkeley and UCLA for decades.
He had not reviewed the latest Texas study and did not comment directly on its findings, other than to say: “Some will find fault with their methodology.”
Alan Pisarski, a transportation expert and author of “Commuting in America,” a national study done by the Transportation Research Board, defended the Texas study.
“This is the definitive statement on congestion across the country,” said Pisarski, whose own work has found increasing congestion and delay. He said the institute’s new methodology relies on more up-to-date information and more accurately reflects urban growth as well as improvements in highway conditions.
Texas researchers said delay in Los Angeles and Orange counties has remained fairly constant, fluctuating between 67 hours and 72 hours since 1995. The rate of growth in congestion over the last decade has been controlled through a variety of means: expanding highways, adding transit service and sharpening road management skills.
“L.A. still needs to do a lot of work,” Schrank said. “But if you just look at the measures over the last 10 years or so, L.A. has been doing a pretty good job of adding enough capacity, adding operational improvements and adding public transportation to somehow hold the line.”
The study attributed almost half of the delay in the Los Angeles area and the Inland Empire to traffic incidents, including accidents. Such incidents caused 54% of the delay in the Oxnard-Ventura area.
Four California areas now rank among the top 10 worst areas for delay in the country. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana was first. San Francisco-Oakland came in second, San Diego sixth and San Jose eighth.
Caltrans officials refused to be interviewed about the Texas study, saying they had not been provided a copy of the report before it was released. However, Texas researchers relied on data collected by Caltrans for their analysis of traffic congestion in California.
Instead, Caltrans Director Will Kempton issued a statement repeating the arguments that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made last year while pushing for voter approval of nearly $20 billion in transportation bonds.
The Automobile Club of Southern California used the occasion of the report’s release to unveil a website designed to pressure the governor and state lawmakers to stop diverting transportation funds to other uses, as was done with $1.3 billion last month in the new state budget.
Transportation officials in Los Angeles and Orange counties found much to like in the Texas study.
The report “still has us on top but acknowledges that we have done a solid job of curbing congestion over the years,” said Paul Taylor, deputy chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority.
Taylor said Orange County, which has increased its highway system by about 30% since 1990, accounts for much of the reduction in the growth of congestion in the Los Angeles region.
Roger Snoble, chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said the study validates the steps taken in Los Angeles County. Those measures include expansion of rail lines, bus service, carpool lanes, synchronizing traffic signals and deploying a large fleet of tow trucks to clear accidents.
“It takes a whole toolbox,” Snoble said.
Nationally, the study shows that delay caused by rush-hour traffic has steadily risen from an average of 14 hours in 1982 — the first year of the study — to 38 hours in 2005.
Riverside and San Bernardino counties placed 13th in the nation in 2005, up from 52nd in 1985. Both have experienced explosive population growth since 1990 and a lack of investment in highways and transit.
“With the huge growth that the Inland Empire is experiencing, we are not surprised by this report’s findings,” Mike Perovich, who heads the Caltrans Inland Empire district, said in a statement.
Transportation officials in San Bernardino and Riverside counties say substantial investments are under way to help reduce congestion.