Starts & Stops

Boston ranked among worst in nation for hours stuck in rush-hour traffic

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / January 23, 2011

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The Urban Mobility Report is the leading annual ranking of congestion across the country, and the news in the latest version, issued Thursday, is not great. Among 439 urban areas, the Boston metro region — stretching from Rhode Island to Southern New Hampshire, and home to nearly 4.3 million people — placed seventh for most time stuck in traffic during peak commuting hours.

In 2009, the average Boston-area commuter lost 48 hours to congestion, a figure the researchers came up with by comparing the amount of time drivers spent getting to work with the time those same trips would have taken if they had been able to travel at the posted speed limits. The Chicago and Washington, D.C., areas tied for most congested, with the average commuter losing 70 hours to traffic each year, ahead of frequent winner — er, loser — Los Angeles (63 hours), followed by Houston (58), Baltimore (50), and San Francisco-Oakland (49). Boston tied with Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, followed by Denver (47 hours) in ninth and Atlanta and Seattle (44 each) tied at 10th.

Things would have been even worse without the MBTA. If everyone who took the T was on the roads, the average commuter in the Boston area would have been stuck in traffic another whole workday, 8 hours apiece, according to the report. The total cumulative annual savings attributed to transit (32.9 million hours) in Boston was fifth best nationally. Operational treatments to roads, such as coordinated traffic signals, saved us 5.1 million hours, 14th best.

The rankings, compiled by Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute, have grown increasingly sophisticated in data collection and analysis, and the annual standings have been revised back to 1982. In that time, Boston has ranked as poorly as fifth — in 2004, at 56 wasted hours per peak commuter — and as high as 19th (13 hours, in 1983, and again with 15 hours in 1984). In that time, congestion everywhere has worsened.

The report defines congestion in a variety of ways, including annual excess fuel consumed (36 extra gallons per peak Boston commuter, ranked 10th); total congestion cost for the region ($2.7 billion, ranked 11th); and a commuter stress index (ranked 21st).

Nationally, congestion was worse in every measure in 2009 than in 1982. “Rush hour’’ swelled to about four hours in the morning and three in the evening; the inflation-adjusted annual cost for congestion more than doubled per commuter, to $808; and nearly quintupled as a total national cost, to $115 billion.

The new report drew a flurry of responses from advocacy groups. The American Road & Transportation Builders Association criticized elected leaders at all levels for not investing more in infrastructure of all kinds and called on Congress to pass a robust, long-term highway and transit bill.

The American Public Transportation Association hailed the report as overwhelming evidence in favor of public transit.

CEOs for Cities said the report presents “an exaggerated and incorrect picture’’ of urban transportation problems because it fails to note the importance not just of highway and transit construction but of land-use planning in influencing traffic congestion.

And Transportation for America, a progressive-transportation organizing group, challenged the underlying assumption “that everyone should be able to speed as rapidly down the highway during rush hour as they could in the middle of the night.’’ It called on Congress to target crumbling infrastructure, technology enhancements that can improve traffic on existing freeways, and cost-efficient transit projects in high-density areas.

T to look into conflicting bus schedules for holidaysA perplexed reader wrote in to vent about the MBTA’s 502/504 express buses, which run on the Massachusetts Turnpike from Watertown to either Boston’s Copley Square or the Financial District. On weekday mornings, one bus leaves about every three to five minutes. On Saturday mornings, the buses leave every 35 minutes. On Sunday, the buses rest.

What about holidays? Here’s where it gets mysterious. An entire column of the updated winter schedule — also available online — is devoted to a “Holiday’’ timetable showing peak morning buses that leave Watertown about every eight minutes. Underneath it, the schedule says that the holiday service will only run on Martin Luther King Day (Jan. 17) and Presidents’ Day (Feb. 21). Sounds good, until you keep reading the schedule and see a conflicting note nearby under the heading “Winter 2011 Holidays.’’ This note says Jan. 1 will be treated like a Sunday (i.e., no service) but Jan. 17 and Feb. 21 will operate with a Saturday schedule. Huh?

So the reader, heading to Boston last Monday, hoped for the more frequent holiday schedule — but wound up waiting in the cold for half an hour before a bus on a Saturday schedule arrived. She e-mailed, “Why would they go to the trouble of printing a holiday schedule that they never plan on using? This is truly maddening!’’

MBTA spokeswoman Lydia Rivera could not explain the discrepancy but said the scheduling team would take a closer look before printing the next timetable. “If it seems like customers are confused, we’ll be happy to revisit it,’’ she said.

Lost hours

The average number of hours that commuters lost in 2009 while driving in traffic.

1. Chicago: 70 hours lost
1. Washington, D.C.: 70
3. Los Angeles: 63
4. Houston: 58
5. Baltimore: 50
6. San Francisco-Oakland: 49
7. Boston: 48
7. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington: 48
9. Denver: 47
10. Atlanta: 44
10. Seattle: 44

Source: Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute