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Cost of urban sprawl takes major toll on cities: U.S. study

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For years Los Angeles has had the worst traffic jams in the United States, but these days even the streets and highways in small and medium cities from Brownsville, Tex., to Anchorage, Alaska, are giving rush-hour drivers fits a new study has found.

Traffic snarls up 30% faster than roads were built

WASHINGTON

For years Los Angeles has had the worst traffic jams in the United States, but these days even the streets and highways in small and medium cities from Brownsville, Tex., to Anchorage, Alaska, are giving rush-hour drivers fits a new study has found.

Snarled traffic is costing motorists in the 85 biggest U.S. cities a whopping 3.5 billion hours a year, up from 700 million two decades ago.

The problem has worsened over the last two decades in small, medium and large cities, according to the Texas Transportation Institute’s annual Urban Mobility Report released last week.

The institute, part of Texas A&M University, looked at data from 1982 to 2002.

Over that period, the study recorded the greatest leap in congestion in Dallas, from 13 hours annually in 1982 for the average peakperiod traveller to 61 hours annually in 2002, and in Riverside, Calif., from nine hours annually per rushhour traveller in 1982 to 57 hours on average in 2002.

The average U.S. urban traveller was stuck in road traffic 46 hours a year in 2002, a 187 per cent increase over the 16 hours lost in 1982.

Even more startling is the decline of free-flowing traffic during rush hour. In 1982, 30 per cent of urban highways and arteries were congested.

Twenty years later, drivers were delayed on 67 per cent of those roads.

Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America, said that escaping to a small city no longer means escaping from traffic.

“You’re beginning to see problems in places that you didn’t know had problems— places you’ve never heard of,” Pisarski said.

Even in cities with the least congestion—Anchorage, Alaska, and Brownsville, Tex.—drivers lost five hours a year to traffic. In medium-sized cities such as Honolulu it was 18 hours.

The problem is still most severe in cities with more than three million inhabitants.

The average Los Angeles commuter spent 93 hours snarled in traffic in 2002, the most of any city in the survey.

In the San Francisco- Oakland area, drivers lost 73 hours to rush-hour slowdowns, while in The Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, motorists spent 67 hours stuck in traffic on average in 2002.

The figures were 53 hours for Detroit and 50 hours for the New York- Newark, N.J.-Conn., area.

What’s alarming is how congestion outpaces a city’s ability to handle it.

In 54 urban areas, traffic snarls increased 30 per cent faster than roads could be built to alleviate them.

Tim Lomax, the report’s author, said the news was not all bad. Roads were built fast enough to catch up to spreading populations in some cities, such as Anchorage, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Tampa, Fla., and Charleston, S.C.

“They’ve been getting worse, but they’ve been getting worse slower than everyone else,” Lomax said.

“In the bizarre world of transportation mobility, that’s progress.”

Tampa is a good example of a city that has eased traffic in ways other than building roads, Lomax said. Like many cities, it has co-ordinated its traffic signals, smoothed traffic flow on major roads and created teams to quickly respond to accidents. Such programs have reduced traffic delays in Tampa by seven per cent, or 3.2 million hours a year.

With names like Highway Helper, The Minute Man and Motorists Assistance Patrol, accident response teams are used in 71 cities, where they saved drivers an estimated 170 million hours in 2002.

Lomax said bigger cities are realizing that they can help fix their traffic problems with operational solutions as well as by expanding roads.

“It’s something you can do right away,” he said. The report notes that major highway improvements can take 10 years to 15 years to complete.

Traffic in some cities has actually got better—but that’s because their economies have done poorly.

“In a lot of the places in the past we’ve seen success in cities suffering job declines—Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland,” Pisarski said. “Unemployment is a great solution.”

The biggest time-saver, according to the report, is public transit, which shaves 32 per cent off the time drivers spend sitting bumper-to-bumper.

“If public transportation service was discontinued and the riders travelled in private vehicles, the 85 urban areas would have suffered an additional 1.1 billion hours of delay in 2002,” the report said.

The Associated Press

by Daily Commercial News last update:Jul 18, 2008

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