A new report by CEO’s For Cities shows how access to destinations is more important than how fast you can drive in your car while you are trying to get there.  The report, titled, “Driven Apart: How Sprawl is lengthening our commutes and why misleading mobility measures are making things worse makes a couple of points, which you can probably guess from the title, but I’ll lay it out anyway: 

1. People who live in sprawling metropolitan areas, spend more time commuting in their cars; and

2. Measuring traffic congestion without considering the length of the trip is not the best way to go about it. 

Yes, you could have guessed that — a 6-year-old child could have guessed that. But not the U.S. Department of Transportation. An “industry-standard” measures for traffic congestion used by the Texas Transportation Institute as part of their annual Urban Mobility Report which is used to help allocate multi-billion dollar infrastructure investments that shape our communities for centuries to come. So it’s kind of a big deal that their methodology shows lower “congestion” and “commuter stress” for cities that are sprawling, than they would if they only used peak traffic travel time. Another Big Oil Conspiracy spawned from Texas to keep us chained to our cars? Probably not, but the effect is similar. 

In an alternate methodology, Driven Apart compares the total number of peak traffic hours in a metro area (how much time we actually spend stuck in traffic, rather than the distance-neutral indices used by the Urban Mobility Report, and comes up with very different results). 

Driven Apart shows that the people in Nashville, Oklahoma City, and Birmingham spend the most time in their cars in traffic, with Chicago, New Orleans, and Milwaukee spending the least. This is in contrast to the UMR rankings that have L.A., D.C., and Atlanta as the most congested and Buffalo, Rochester and Cleveland as the least.

CEO’s for Cities calculates that if all metro regions performed as well as the top tier cities in their report, their residents would drive about 40 billion fewer miles per year, and save about $31 billion a year. And that’s not even counting the increase in quality of life we would enjoy by not having to spend the extra 40 hrs a week in traffic.

In essence, the UMR methodology shows how quickly you move, but not whether you’re getting where you’re going. Perhaps if we planned our cities and roadways for maximizing access to destinations rather than as a way to move cars around efficiently, maybe we’d get somewhere.