There’s no congestion in Cleveland, so why are we adding capacity?

480-271 junction

The junction of Interstates 480 and 271 near Warrensville Heights (courtesy of Google Maps).

Most people probably recognize TomTom as a company that manufactures and sells GPS units and fitness trackers. But developing these tools has allowed the company to develop considerable information regarding road networks and traffic conditions worldwide. TomTom uses these data to produce its annual Traffic Index, and the firm released its much awaited 2015 edition of the report earlier this week.

The report includes a wide array of information on congestion across the globe, from the amount of time that drivers spend in traffic to the individual day in 2015 when congestion was worst in each city. Many of the cities notorious for their soul crushing congestion topped the rankings, with Mexico City taking over first place from Istanbul, which fell to third behind new entrant Bangkok. Surprising no one, Los Angeles has the worst traffic in the United States, coming in 10th. Brazil, which has some of the worst gridlock in the world, had more cities in the top 10 than any other country. Rio, Salvador, and Recife ranked fourth, seventh, and eighth respectively.

The pros and cons of congestion for cities

TomTom ranks cities using a metric it terms “congestion level.” It defines this variable as the “increase in overall travel times when compared to a Free Flow situation.” In other words, it indicates how much longer a given trip will take in a city, due to congestion, compared to a situation in which the flow of traffic was completely unobstructed. In Mexico City, for example, traffic ensures that the average trip takes 59% longer than it would otherwise. Capitalinos spend 219 hours – more than 9 full days – per year waiting in traffic.

Sitting in traffic sucks. There’s no question about that. It consumes time people could spend doing something more productive or fulfilling, it wastes substantial amounts of fuel,  exacerbates air pollution, interrupts economic output, and discourages people from entering congested areas. As Yogi Berra famously quipped, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

But, congestion also hints that a city is succeeding. If a lot of people are trying to get into and around your city, that probably indicates that the city is doing well – at least up to a certain threshold. It’s when your roads are totally empty and you can get around town without tapping the brake that you should be worried.

cleveland congestion level history

Cleveland’s congestion level history from 2008 to 2016 (courtesy of TomTom).

Congestion? What congestion?

If you ask the average commuter in Greater Cleveland, s/he is likely to complain that we have issues with traffic. After all, many of our major interstates, particularly the Innerbelt, have been under construction for years now. This constant construction, combined with the ballyhooed revival of downtown must be making the streets more crowded, right?

LOL. The TomTom index ranked 174 cities based upon their respective levels of congestion. Cleveland came in 168th with a congestion level of just 11%. In other words, of the 174 cities for which TomTom had traffic data, just 7 of them have less traffic than Cleveland. What’s more, traffic actually eased somewhat from 2014 to 2015, falling from 12%. In the eight years that TomTom has been publishing its index, Cleveland has had congestion levels of 11% six times and 12% twice. That’s it.

According to the report, travel times for the average Cleveland commuter increase by just 20% and 25% during our morning and evening “rush hours,” respectively. The single worst hour of the week for travelers is 5:00-6:00pm Wednesdays, when the congestion index tops out at 27%. For the sake of comparison, there are 78 cities that have an average congestion level of 27% or more.

Expanding capacity to solve a nonexistent congestion problem

Given the fact that Cleveland has little, if any, traffic problems, one would expect our local and state transportation planners to avoid adding capacity. We clearly have enough roads as it is.

And this is exactly NOACA has done. The NOACA Board of Directors officially adopted a “fix it first” policy last September, indicating that it would prioritize funding to repairing our existing road network, rather than adding to it. Every lane mile that we add simply increases our financial liabilities, because it’s extra pavement to lay, repair, clear from snow and ice, etc.

There have been some rumors floating around the interwebs that ODOT would adopt a similar policy. This would be a huge deal, albeit one reportedly driven solely by financial realities, as opposed to enlightened self-interest. And yet, when the agency announced $2.1 billion in road and bridge projects it plans to complete this year, the list included plans to widen three separate freeways in Greater Cleveland:  I-271, I-77, and I-76/77. Granted, these projects have been in the works for a long time, and it was highly unlikely they’d be scrapped, regardless of whether or not we really need them. It is what it is.

Yet, we know that widening urban highways has directly contributed to the sprawl and population loss that has plagued Cleveland for 50 years. In a 2007 study, Brown University economist Nathaniel Baum-Snow concluded that every new highway that passes through a center city cut its population by 18%. According to Baum-Snow, “had the interstate highway system not been built, instead of declining by 17 percent, aggregate central city population would have grown by 8 percent” from 1950-1990.

We have entirely too much pavement in this region. NOACA (PDF) has indicated that there are 670,795,906 square feet of federal aid roadways in Northeast Ohio. That’s equal to just over 24 square miles of pavement, roughly the size of the City of Strongsville. But here we are again, adding capacity, even as this pavement falls into disrepair. NOACA estimates that 46% of the region’s pavement falls short of being in a state of good repair. The cost of just bringing that roughly 308 million square feet of pavement into good repair is somewhere on the order of $1 billion.

But hey, that’s for another day! Why fix what we already have when we can widen highways so that “motorists [who] are putting on make-up or even shaving” don’t have to worry about keeping their eyes on the road. That’s just good public policy.

Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.