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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.