While most folks like to be No. 1, there’s a dubious honor that residents of Los Angeles are likely pleased to give up.
As anyone who has tried to negotiate Tinseltown freeways like the I-5, 10 and 405, gridlock is a way of life, Los Angelinos measuring distances in time, rather than miles. But after holding the “honor” of being America’s most congested city for the last three decades, LA has emerged from the pandemic way down in the No. 4 spot, at least according to a new study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Based on the number of hours a typical motorist is expected to lose creeping through traffic, the New York-Newark megalopolis took the title. Drivers in and around the Big Apple will clock 56 lost hours a year, according to the institute’s 2021 Urban Mobility Report.
By comparison, the sprawling complex known to researchers as Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim slid to a mere fourth on the list, drivers there losing 46 hours to congestion in 2020.
A silver lining amidst the pandemic
Texas A&M lists Boston as No. 2, drivers losing 50 hours, with Houston listed as No. 3, with motorists stuck in traffic for 49 hours in 2020. San Francisco-Oakland came in just under the LA region, congestion rounded out to a near identical 46 hours.
There was some good news for virtually all of the cities that the Transportation Institute looked at, however. Traffic congestion was down, overall, during 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic due to lockdowns and a shift to work-at-home schedules.
“The underlying elements of traffic problems — too many car trips, too much rush-hour roadwork, crashes, stalled vehicles and weather issues — have not receded,” said Tim Lomax, one of the report’s authors. “What’s different is that those elements have been eclipsed by plummeting traffic volume.”
Government and privately collected data show that traffic dropped to the lowest level seen in decades last spring, when efforts to cope with the pandemic were first put in place. But the reprieve didn’t last long. By autumn, traffic was starting to rebound and congestion started coming closer to pre-pandemic conditions by the end of the year. But not quite, as many employers have continued work-at-home policies into 2021.
Truck traffic increased
California was among the states hardest hit by COVID early on. As TheDetroitBureau.com has reported, the Los Angeles area saw rush hour traffic plunge by as much as 70 to 80% in March and April 2020. The A&M report said that traffic delays in the LA area cost motorists 952,183 hours in 2019, but just 365,543 last year. In the NY-Newark region, traffic delays cost a collective 494,268 hours last year.
Among the 15 American cities with the worst congestion, traffic delays fell from an average 312,680 hours in 2019 to 152,347 last year, noted the Urban Mobility Report.
“Flexible work hours and reliable internet connections allow employees to choose work schedules that are beneficial for meeting family needs and the needs of their jobs.” And that, said co-author David Schrank, ”reduces the demand for roadway space, which is beneficial for the rest of us.”
One form of traffic showed little change in 2020, said another co-author, pointing to the trucks that continued delivering goods throughout the pandemic. If anything, truck traffic may be getting a bit worse because of the shift to shopping from home, with companies like Amazon and UPS fielding larger and larger delivery fleets.
The Texas A&M study is the latest to show shifting traffic patterns during the pandemic. But none provide good news for New Yorkers. A report released in March by traffic data firm Inrix found the region jumped from fourth to first in terms of traffic, though drivers there lost 28% fewer hours to congestion due to the pandemic. In downtown Manhattan, that meant an increase in the typical vehicle’s speed from 11 to 12 mph.
On the Inrix list, Philadelphia and Chicago had the second- and third-worst problems, measured in lost hours.
How much traffic will rebound in 2021 is still unclear and will depend, at least in part, on how many employers shift back to conventional work policies. Many employers are recalling workers, though other companies, notably some major tech firms in Silicon Valley, plan to continue remote work indefinitely. Others, such as General Motors, are using flexible policies that, in many cases, will let workers decide whether to stay at home or report back.
Even with things in flux, “Congestion levels in Texas and much of the rest of the country have rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels,” said Marc Williams, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation.