Los Angeles Transportation Facts and Fiction: Driving and Delay

Time to bring the quiz to a close. We’ve seen in past posts that, by the standards of U.S. cities, Los Angeles is not sprawling, has a fairly extensive transit system, and is decidedly light on freeways. The smog situation has vastly improved. The final two stereotypes await.

Thanks to the great distances between far-flung destinations, and perhaps Angelenos’ famed “love affair” with the car, Angelenos drive considerably more miles than most Americans.

Answer: False.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, Angelenos drive 23 miles per resident per day. This ranks the Los Angeles metro area 21st highest among the largest 37 cities. The champions (or losers) are probably Houston, followed by Jacksonville and Orlando, all of which are over 30 miles per day. New Yorkers drive the fewest miles (17 VMT per resident per day), thanks in large part to relatively high transit ridership and lots of walking trips.

Despite our reputation, we Angelenos don’t exhibit any particularly great predilection for freeway travel either. Los Angeles ranks 14th out of the 37 largest metro areas in terms of highway miles driven per resident per day. To be sure, this is above the median, but it hardly points to the sort of unique freeway fetish Angelenos are accused of harboring.

This leaves the answer you’ve all been waiting for: Angelenos spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the nation.


According to the Texas Transportation Institute’s 2005 Mobility Report, Angelenos who traveled in the peak periods suffered 72 annual hours of delay. This was number one in the nation, by a large margin.

The T.T.I.’s methodology has some issues, but it is probably safe to say they got this right. I have studied Los Angeles traffic conditions for an 18-year period. My conclusion, to put it in formal transportation terminology, is that Los Angeles traffic really, really sucks.

Not that this eases our pain much, but San Francisco and New York, cities that supposedly show Los Angeles how transportation and urbanization should be done, are tied for second and 15th respectively in most hours of congestion delay.

Moreover, New York’s situation may be even worse than this implies. Instead of driving, many New Yorkers are riding transit, which is generally considerably slower than travel by private vehicle. Thus the Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey reports that New Yorkers have the longest commutes in the nation, at 34.1 minutes. Angelenos rocketed to work in a mere 28 minutes. By the commute-time criterion, New York’s transportation system could be considered more dysfunctional than ours.

But pointing fingers at others does nothing to change our grim reality. As anyone who’s ever sat on Wilshire Blvd. at rush hour or experienced the frustration of trying to lead police on a high-speed freeway chase during peak travel hours can tell you, Los Angeles’s traffic jams do indeed live up to the legend.

However, the reasons for Los Angeles’s problems are murkier than they may seem. In fact, it’s quite possible to make a plausible case that Los Angeles’s traffic woes stem from the fact that it doesn’t sprawl enough and has overinvested in costly rail transit at the expense of developing its undersized freeway network.

Congrats to those of you who guessed correctly that Los Angeles is a traffic nightmare. Now if you really want to prove your acumen, have a technologically feasible, politically palatable, fiscally responsible solution on my desk by the morning. And for those of you who have stuck with the quiz, I have a special treat: a bonus myth, which will bite the dust in the next post.

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  1. alan says:

    Now if only LA would stop insisting on building car pool lanes that don’t have any effect on people’s commuting habits and instead just clog up the left lanes with minivans going 40mph we could start maximizing the bandwidth of existing freeways by increasing the speed of traffic. oh, and getting rid of speed limits wouldn’t hurt either.

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  2. Jackie says:

    The traffic was reason #2 on my list of reasons to move to upstate NY. I do miss the sunshine, warmth, and mexican food though.

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  3. Jackie says:

    Also, special points to #1 on the speed limits comment. They aren’t there for safety. They’re there for fuel economy, which goes out the window with the traffic jams anyway.

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  4. Allen says:

    I’ve read all of your posts and agree with most of them – however, I’m not biting on your numbers here. I’ve lived and driven in NYC, Houston and Jax. Traffic here is horrible compared to those cities — and its not even close — especially if you’re traveling West. On weekends, the beach (I live in Venice) is horrible and getting out or getting in is ultra-frustrating. Parking lots are overflowing, side streets are littered with lost tourists and the streets leading to the freeways are jammed. Your precious data may hint that we don’t drive “more” — but the drive here in So Cal is definitely “more” frustrating and longer. Don’t judge by miles driven, judge by time in the car — ’cause that’s what matters to most. You can easily travel 50 miles in an hour in Jax — that metric is impossible to achieve here on any road at any time of day. This is the worst city to drive in — next to Tucson no question. Just too many bad drivers and too many people.

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  5. Rob says:

    Smog situation or not, how does LA’s transportation pollution output rank against NY’s?

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  6. Grant says:

    Hmm…my commute is almost exactly that of the average New Yorker. Except when the trains are experiencing hiccups and not coming when they’re supposed to, like today. And a lot of days.

    Still, I walk 20 minutes and ride the subway for 15 each day. Except on the worst days of winter and summer that’s a trade-off I’d gladly make over sitting in a car. Plus I get the benefit of feeling like a do-gooder who is helping the environment. Or something.

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  7. Nathan says:

    “Highway miles driven per resident per day” isn’t the statistic I want to know. Is it an average of *all* residents? I’d like to know the average number of miles driven per resident per day among those who *actually drive,* or even among those who own cars.

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  8. KB says:

    Why is public transit generally considered slower than private? I take the metro (around DC) and the train (up to BWI airport or New York) frequently and always the public transport is faster than driving even with little traffic. I do agree that the bus I used to take to work from Virginia to DC (stopped way to frequently) was much much slower than a car trip. Why the bad rap on subways and trains?

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