The average U.S. resident of the 101 largest metro areas spends 52 hours a year in a car due to congestion. But, as a St. Louis resident, you likely spend less. The average auto-commuter in the St. Louis metro area spends 43 hours a year sitting in traffic.
East-West Gateway’s Where We Stand (WWS) series ranks the St. Louis 15-county Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) among the 50 largest metropolitan regions in the country. The latest WWS Update looks at measures of congestion and the reliability of the transportation system.
The Update includes seven rankings that indicate the amount of congestion on roadways. On all, St. Louis ranks among the least congested major metropolitan regions. The region’s 2.8 million residents total up to be the 20th most populous region, but these residents encounter less congestion than residents in some less populated metros.
Congestion is essentially put into two buckets – recurring and non-recurring.
Recurring congestion is the type that you can count on running into every day, usually during rush hour. For example, in St. Louis, a safe bet would be that an auto-commuter will run into traffic at 8 AM on a weekday on the major interstates – 64, 270, and 170. The “travel time index” is a method used to quantify the amount of recurring traffic an average resident can expect to encounter. For example, consider a trip that takes 30 minutes by car when there is no traffic. A person driving to work during morning rush hour in St. Louis can expect that same trip to take 35 minutes. Comparatively, a commuter in Chicago should expect the trip to take 39 minutes and, in Los Angeles, 56 minutes.
Non-recurring congestion is the type that pops up when you don’t expect it and likely makes you late to your destination. Non-recurring congestion causes an estimated 55 percent of congestion nationally. This type of congestion is due to accidents, weather, and construction. The “planning time index” factors in both types of congestion. Among the 50 peers, St. Louis has the 7th lowest score on the index for morning rush hour congestion and is tied with Kansas City for the 6th lowest congestion in the evening rush hour (4 to 7 PM). According to this index, in St. Louis, if you plan for that 30 minute trip during morning rush hour to take 43 minutes, you’ll only be late 5 percent of the time.
Over the past 20 years, a vast majority of large metropolitan regions have increased the number of roadway miles per capita, and have still seen an increase in congestion. Expansion of roadways and public transit have not proven to be long-term solutions to congestion. This is because people tend to change their behavior in response to wider roads and lower congestion.
Despite relatively low congestion the Missouri and Illinois departments of transportation, East-West Gateway, and other partners are continuously working to reduce congestion that does exist in the region. Many strategies are employed, including responding to traffic accidents quickly and using traffic cameras to monitor traffic conditions in real time. How driverless cars, connected vehicles, and other emerging technologies will affect congestion is uncertain, but they are being considered in the region’s long range transportation planning.
The WWS Update includes a ranking that measures one strategy for addressing congestion – promoting non-single occupancy vehicle travel. On this measure, St. Louis ranks among the regions with the lowest percentage of commute trips by walk, bike, public transit, carpool, and working from home.
Congestion will likely always be an aspect of life in St. Louis, as long as it is a large metropolitan region. This is not an entirely bad thing. As the Update points out, congestion is an indication of a thriving economy. It can also encourage behaviors that are beneficial to the environment and businesses.
If the region experiences a more substantial increase in population in coming years, or wants to take a more aggressive approach to alleviating congestion, it could consider additional strategies taken by other regions. Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution identifies some of those strategies, including adding high-occupancy vehicle lanes, installing ramp metering, restricting low-density development on the peripheral of the region, investing in transit-oriented development, better coordinating transportation and land use decisions, and raising gasoline taxes.
For now, enjoy the (relatively) low congestion in St. Louis.
The full Where We Stand Update on Roadway Congestion & System Reliability can be found along with other reports in the Where We Stand series at http://www.ewgateway.org/research-center/where-we-stand/
1/14/19 Revised to correct for error regarding amount of time spent in congestion.
2/13/18 Revised to correct for error on Figure 3.