Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Gridlock

The media is once again going crazy over the annual gridlock survey by the Texas Transportation Institute. That's because not one reporter takes the time to do a little math and gather some perspective on how bad our commutes really are, and why.

This year's report doesn't take into account that people are moving further and further away from downtown areas, so that outlying counties (e.g. St. Charles, Missouri) are now considered bedroom communities. People are willing to sacrifice a few more minutes in the car to and from work in exchange for more houses and larger property at lower prices. It also doesn't address the phenomenon of suburb-to-suburb commuting, which is on the increase across the country.

Do our roads desperately need work? Absolutely. But it would be nice if someone dialed back the panic a little bit and put this annual Texas report in context. Here's what I wrote on the subject four years ago:

Pardon me while I slip into my alter ego, who I call Mr. Perspective. In that guise, I have no super powers other than the ability to apply rational thought to news stories that are otherwise swallowed whole by the media at large, and then blown way out of proportion.

Let's start with this headline in today's paper: “Study Ranks Area Among Worst For Road Congestion.”

It’s based on a new report from the Texas Transportation Institute about how much time we’re spending in our cars going to and from work everyday. According to this report, St. Louis is the 9th-worst metropolitan area for road congestion. You know it’s an important report because it’s not written in real, everyday English -- they call us “motorists” instead of “drivers,” as in “motorists, use caution” rather than “drivers, be careful!”

The report says that St. Louis drivers lose an average of 44 hours a year to traffic delays -- or “more than one workweek.” That sounds like a lot. Here’s where Mr. Perspective comes alive, applying simple math to the claim.

If you lose 44 hours a year on the road, that’s less than an hour a week. It actually works out to about 10 minutes a day. That’s five minutes in the morning, five minutes in the evening. Not so much anymore, is it?

But no one would print a headline based on the real story: "You Spend Less Time In Traffic Than You Do in Line Waiting For A Mocha Latte At Starbucks!"