Austin’s traffic rank improves, even as its congestion worsens

Austin traffic is the fourth-most congested in America? Not so fast.

Texas A&M transportation researchers, in the latest of their periodic looks at U.S. traffic in more than 400 cities and towns, now rank Austin’s rush hour delays as the 10th worst in the nation.

The Austin area’s “travel time index” for 2014 was 1.33, according to the Urban Mobility Scorecard released Wednesday. That means that on average, a rush hour trip takes 33 percent longer than that same trip would require in free-flowing traffic.

However, the report shows Austin traffic worsening by a number of measures. The travel time index, for instance, inched up from 1.32 in 2013, a continuation of a steady climb over the past three decades.

“Even if the ranking has changed, conditions on the ground are getting worse,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “We have to act, and everyone knows this.”

Tim Lomax, one of the report’s authors, credits Austin’s change in the rankings not to improved traffic conditions but rather to improved data. The researchers use real-time traffic data, gathered from the global positioning systems of millions of cars (with the drivers’ permission) to calculate traffic times and delay.

“We have more complete coverage on the bigger streets, and more coverage on the local streets,” said Lomax, a research fellow at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

The travel time index, a primary feature of the periodic reports that Texas A&M has produced since 1982, had Austin at No. 4 when the last report came out in February 2013 (which reflected 2012 traffic). That unhappily lofty status for the nation’s 34th largest city was a go-to statistic for people pushing for light rail in 2014. Highway construction fans also like to use the figure to justify greater transportation spending.

With each new report, Texas A&M researchers recalculate all of their scores from past years using new ways of massaging the data. Under that revised math, Austin in 2012 would have had the nation’s 11th worst travel time index, not the fourth.

The latest report shows Austin generally ranks in the 20s and 30s among U.S. cities for other measures of traffic congestion, including wasted fuel, lost time and other variations of travel delays.

Only by one of those rankings, what the researchers call the “freeway commuter stress index,” does Austin remain at No. 4. Austin’s 1.59 score on that measure means that for commuters using an expressway to get to work and going in the primary direction of travel — northbound on Interstate 35 from Kyle to Austin in the morning, for instance — a trip would take 59 percent longer than at off-peak hours.

Austin’s scores in virtually every category of the report have degraded since 2012, as have traffic conditions nationwide. The report declares that “the national congestion recession is over. Urban areas of all sizes are experiencing the challenges seen in the early 2000s — population, jobs and therefore congestion are increasing.”

The authors note that the U.S. Transportation Department reported more than 3 trillion miles driven in 2014, surpassing the previous record set in 2007, before the recession. On average, the report says, each automobile commuter wastes 42 hours a year in congestion and uses 19 more gallons of gasoline than would be needed in light traffic.

Austin-area commuters in 2014 wasted 52 hours and 22 gallons apiece, according to the report. Austin’s rush hour actually spans five hours, taking both morning and afternoon periods into account, with 28 percent of the area’s highways and streets congested during that period.

Ward Tisdale, president of the Real Estate Council of Austin, said the change in Austin’s ranking shouldn’t be taken as a signal to back off plans for road and transit expansions, or for fostering dense development to shorten commute distances.

“Anyone who has lived here for a number of years knows that traffic and mobility are much worse than they were 20, 30 years ago,” Tisdale said. “We as a region have been behind the eight ball in building our infrastructure.”

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