- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

Something deep in the American soul suggests if a place is easy to get to, it’s probably not worth going. Hence we come to the celebration of the Great American Traffic Jam.

We even have an organization that studies traffic and offers an annual evaluation, the Texas Transportation Institute — an affiliate of Texas A&M; University located, perhaps by design, in College Station, a town noted for the absence of traffic and much else.

Its annual list of cities with the worst traffic has just come out. You can bet it was awaited eagerly by city officials everywhere.

Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles area topped the list: The average commuter spent 93 hours a year in traffic. That’s almost four days. You can bet Los Angeles is secretly pleased at being No. 1. To be big league, you must have big traffic.

L.A. is comfortably ahead of No. 2, the San Francisco Bay Area, which registered an average of 73 hours a year spent stuck in traffic, but L.A. authorities undoubtedly keep a close eye on their in-state rival. If San Francisco starts creeping up the charts, look for Los Angeles to send out the guys with the orange cones to close freeway lanes until L.A. regains it edge.

Civic pride shines through the report. The Texas authors note Dallas made the biggest jump in jammed traffic, going from 13 hours annually in 1982 to 61 hours annually in 2002 and fourth on the list. The folks in Dallas won’t let Houston forget its commuters waste only 58 hours a year, sixth on the list after No. 5 — oh, the shame of it all — Atlanta.

Third on the list is Washington D.C., with 67 hours. Traffic lovers should be proud of the national capital because it starts with a handicap. There is longstanding disposition against high-rise buildings — the city itself bans them — and so there isn’t the density you might need for really bad traffic.

But Washington has that gung-ho government spirit, where traffic-saving projects are infinitely planned and eternally postponed and lying about the speed of one’s commute is a local folk art, like whistling or whittling.

Washington has something else going for it — police roadblocks, Jersey barriers, blocked-off streets and traffic-stopping motorcades for even minor dignitaries. All this is passed off as “security,” but the likelier explanation is that local resident George W. Bush hates California so much he wants to see Los Angeles knocked off its perch.

The average for being stuck in urban traffic was 46 hours a year; so if you live in a big city and your average annual commute is faster than that, someone in authority isn’t trying.

The big cities with the fastest commutes tend to be those in the Rust Belt that have experienced major job losses — Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo, N.Y. There’s nothing like unemployment to cut commuting time. In that sense, traffic jams are a sign of economic vitality, another reason for civic pride in jammed roads.

Buffalo, which lays claim to big-league status, is last on the list of big cities, with only 10 hours of traffic congestion each year. Note to Buffalo’s city managers: You’re on the fast lane to gooberdom. If you’re not wasting time, time is a-wasting; just 11 places on the list separate you from such bucolic outposts as Brownsville, Texas, and Anchorage, Alaska.

See you in traffic.

Dale McFeatters is a Scripps Howard News Service columnist.

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