Being stuck in traffic ranks as one of life's most miserable experiences, according to researchers who study happiness, and unfortunately too many Americans find themselves spending more time stuck. A new report by urbanist Joe Cortright for CEOs for Cities provides a new ranking of the nation's 51 largest metro areas, based on the length of peak-hour commutes and the time commuters spend in peak-hour traffic. Americans living in large metro areas spend an average of 200 hours in peak-hour traffic. But peak-hour travel time varies from more than 250 hours to less than 150 hours across these metros.
The new ranking generates some surprises, especially when compared with other measures of commuting and congestion. Large metros do much better than expected. Even though their roads are notoriously congested, Chicagoans have the least onerous peak hour commute, according to this new metric, and New Yorkers fare well too because their average commutes are shorter. Residents in smaller, more sprawling Sunbelt metros like Nashville, Oklahoma City, Birmingham, Richmond, and Raleigh spend more time in peak-hour traffic because their average commutes are much longer. D.C. ranks 14th and L.A., with its always-clogged freeways, ranks 17th.
To illustrate this point, the report compares the components of the travel time of typical commuters in Chicago and Charlotte. The average Charlotte commuter spends an average of 48 minutes on the road—38.4 minutes in free-flowing traffic and another 9.6 minutes in traffic delays. The average Chicago commuter spends just 32.6 minutes in total travel time—22.8 minutes in free-flowing traffic and 9.8 minutes in delays. The reason for the difference boils down to a simple factor: Chicagoans live closer to where they work, with an average commute of 13.5 miles, compared to an average commute of 19 miles for residents in Charlotte.
The key lies in urban form, the report concludes. Denser metros enable more commuters to live closer to where they work, while more sprawling regions cause residents to endure longer trips. The report estimates that if "the top 50 metros followed suit with Chicago" residents would drive "about 40 billion fewer miles per year and use two billion fewer gallons of fuel," and generate a total cost savings of $31 billion per year.