Saturday, September 29, 2007

Traffic Patterns

For years, my wife has claimed that the traffic gets worse every September in Boston. Not worse compared to the admittedly low-volume summer traffic, when many residents are on vacation and the 300,000 college kids are away. But worse compared to the previous September.

Each year, I disagree, saying that it just feels that way compared to the summer, and that you can't really remember what it was like a year previous. But this year, I am moving in her direction. Something is going terribly wrong this September. There are massive traffic tie-ups, randomly assorted throughout the metropolitan area. The "secret" routes the locals would usually take to avoid these are also congested.

If the Center for Short-Lived Phenomena were still around, I would send the query to them. But they seem to have disbanded. So, being a trained urban planner, I looked for the answer in the data.

If the number of miles of roads has stayed about the same, perhaps the number of vehicles on the roads has risen. Alas, it is really hard to get those numbers. Here is what I found on the web:

Total vehicles in operation in Massachusetts
2000 -- 4,933,209
2001 -- 5,198,221
2002 -- 5,406,846
2003 -- 5,479,394
2004 -- 5,456,267
2005 -- 5,420,206

Not good enough. I'm looking for a recent uptick and the data aren't there. Maybe I could dig up the number of new vehicles registered more recently. Here are those figures:

New Cars and Light Trucks Registered
2004 -- 329,941
2006 -- 291,556

But as new vehicles are registered, others are scrapped. The two charts seem to indicate that these may cancel out in any given year. For example, even though there were 300,000 new registrations in 2004, the 2005 total number of vehicles really didn't change very much.

But perhaps the use of vehicles has gone up even if the number has stayed about the same.

Maybe there is a hint from transit ridership. If that has gone down, more people would be driving their cars more often. We sometimes read articles about a decline in ridership. Did it happen this year?

Again, official current data are hard to find. Here are the latest published numbers I found.

Average weekday ridership on the MBTA
2000 -- 664,000
2001 -- 697,000
2002 -- 663,000
2003 -- 664,000

Not helpful at all.

Well, enough city planning for a Saturday morning. It is time for me to go referee some kids' soccer games. While I am away, perhaps someone out there can submit a good answer to this question. Or even just suggest some other theories.


Anonymous said...

Has the number of employees and/or patients in Longwood Medical Area institutions increased? It certainly feels like it has, and I'd think that's a very easy explanation for some massive traffic crunches...

Anonymous said...

yo, dude, how's it shakin'? ur hsptl = siiiiick [it's a compliment]...


High Priest Levy,

Perhaps, says the optimist, it's a good sign and Bob Putnam is wrong. We're not bowling alone. We're all busy driving to meet face-to-face, celebrating, and being close.

With deepest regard for your esteemed position,

Lowly writer jessica

Ronald Diver said...

Hi Paul,

I believe the Transportation Research Board highlights single-oc cupancy, a decline in car-pooling (especially in the NE) and commute distances as a significant factor.

Hope the soccer games went well. I enjoy your posts.

Ron Diver

Anonymous said...

More and more people now have GPS units in their cars -- perhaps those "secret" back routes aren't so secret any more?

I'm surprised we don't hear more about third parties trying to influence the routes that are chosen by the GPS units.

Anonymous said...

The figures for last few years do not indicate any significant increase in the number of vehicals.If this perception is to be confirmed ,we would need to study (a) the increase/decrease in total fuel sold/supplied in similar seasons in past few years in Boston region vis-a-vis the increase in vehicals available(City Air Pollution Data may also co-relate marginally);(b)Increase in floating population by Hotel-occupancy rate for conferences or by out of town parents & Kids for college admissions etc;(c)Any on-going process of Infrastructure development leading to relocation of residents from downtown high-population-density city-center Areas to other near-by, less commercial neighbourhoods, within the city.resulting in increased movement frequencies(Driving for Lunch instead of Walking),(They are familiar with the short-cuts);(d)Any increase/or recent spurt in new commercial activity(more offices of oil companies/enhanced Troop supplies/real estate consultants/market speculators/etc;

It is rather complex, but by now you must have zeroed on to the most likely reason besides the normal annual growth.
Kindly, Do disclose.

Anonymous said...

A few things come to mind:
1.MBTA fares are up, meter rates are a bargain and Big Dig construction is all but wrapped up. So its now fairly easy to drive into the City, park, and avoid the T.

2.The BRA & BTD continue to permit parking spaces like wildfire - though once in a blue moon, they tighten up. Take three major developments adjacent to or on top of great transit: 1.Filene's redevelopment (Few sites have better transit proximity) is approved for 300+ spaces. 2.Russia Wharf which is 1 block from S. Station will have 200+ spaces. 3.BUMC just built a mammoth garage off of Albany/Mass Ave and it serves as a visual focal point for drivers coming up the Expressway. I could go on but you get the point.

3.BPW & BTD for all their talk about multi-modal / complete streets are still focused on cars & throughput. For example: The redesign of Commonwealth Avenue makes it more dangerous for pedestrians likewise for Mass Ave. Scarily, despite two BU students being hit last week and Professors complaints, BU still seems to happily accept 35+ mph traffic going through what is essentially its living room!

Now that the Mayor has forced cycling on them, BTD & BPW will squeeze some bike lanes in here/there but still won't embrace pedestrian safety & traffic calming. Heck, even the Mayor hates the term traffic calming and has yet to make substantial commitments to Safe Routes for Seniors & Safe Routes for Schools.

4.We could also mention the pending redesign / reconstruction of Cummins Hwy, VFW pkwy, Rutherford Ave, Tremont St & Beacon St. Each are missed opportunities. Likewise, the City permits the use of brick and cobble on swks which makes for tripping hazards and is disliked by seniors, parents w baby prams, rolling briefcase users, and persons with disabilities.

One last example: Try walking on a sidewalk from MGH to Cambridge via Longfellow. You can't bc the City, DCR and MBTA couldn't coordinate construction of a sidewalk during the reconstruction of Charles Circle.

5.The Mayor's recent trip to Bogota & other cities seemingly didn't enlighten him about the value of public space.
- Someone who was on the inside and now fighting an uphill battle from the outside

Anonymous said...

Have you tried researching the number of construction working around the city this year compared to previous years? our area alone dana farber and brighams are expanding making those area congested, we will soon have our own expansion and would add up to the congestion around the area...Along BU, the roads are 1-2 lanes compared to 3 lanes last year because of road construction that is taking forever....

Hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

I too have found the traffic to be much more congested than in the past. In fact, I didn't find my commute up Rt 3 and the Expressway to be any easier during the summer except on Fridays. Since the beginning of September my average commute has increased by about 15 minutes. Rt 3 is consistently backed up from the Braintree split to Rockland and beyond, the Expressway is backed up its entire length and the HOV lane is slow and heavily congested. There seems to be more vehicles on the road and the jams are starting very early in the morning. I have left at 6:30 on a couple of ocassions and its taken me 1 1/2 hours to get to work. The biggest factor to me must be that there are far more people working in Boston then there were a year ago.

Neponset River Bridge Dig said...

As much as I hate driving into BIDMC I hate taking the T even more. So I drive and your are right the back road shortcuts are no shorter anymore.I'd rather sit in my car than be squashed in between a bunch of hot sweaty people on a green line train.

Anonymous said...

It may not be the number of cars, but maybe it's longer cars on average causing more congestion? Bigger cars take up more space & take more time to get through intersections.

I don't really mind increased congestion. I bike, and cars which are not moving are less likely to hit me.

Anonymous said...

Regardless of the cause, more of them need to start caring about global warming ASAP. Probably 75% of the people in the city who drive to work don't really have a legitimate reason to be driving instead of walking/biking/taking the T.