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L.A.-Area Road Delays Dip a Bit

But the Southland still ranks first in U.S. in traffic congestion, a transit study finds.

October 01, 2003|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

First, some good news for Southland motorists: The traffic congestion you've long endured could be waning -- or at least leveling off.

But that may be small consolation, considering that the Los Angeles area again has been ranked the most gridlocked in the nation, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute.

Congestion-related delays, per person, totaled 52 hours in the Southland in 2001, down from 55 hours the year before, according to the study, which analyzed federal and state data.

"Maybe people are traveling a little bit less. Maybe the economic downturn we're experiencing has affected the L.A. area," said research engineer Tim Lomax, who co-wrote the survey of 75 metropolitan areas across the nation.

In contrast to the Los Angeles region, which includes Orange and Ventura counties, the average delay per person in the San Francisco, San Diego and the Inland Empire areas rose by two hours in 2001 -- to 42, 25 and 35 hours respectively.

The figures exclude benefits from public transit and efforts like ramp-metering, which the study analyzed separately without comparing them to prior years.

Nationwide, congestion cost motorists $69.5 billion in 2001 in wasted time and gas, according to the study, which was sponsored by the American Public Transportation Assn., American Road and Transportation Builders Assn. and the Transportation Development Foundation.

Since 1987, the annual study has ranked Los Angeles as the nation's worst-congested region. This year's top 20 includes: San Francisco (No. 2), San Jose (No. 7), San Bernardino-Riverside (No. 13) and San Diego (No. 18).

Life in the slow lane could be worse. Nationwide, the average person saved eight hours a year because public transportation removed vehicles from roads, according to the study.

In the Southland, buses and trains saved each resident 9.8 hours a year, even though only about 3% of trips are taken on public transit.

The study probably overestimates the benefits of transit, said Brian Taylor, director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies. Taylor said riders are often low-income people without cars.

When Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus drivers and train operators went on strike three years ago, Taylor said, most riders "didn't jump into their Honda Accords and start driving around. They walked. They were ride-sharing with people already driving."

The study found that innovations such as ramp metering, freeway service patrols and synchronized traffic signals saved the average person 1.5 hours a year. In the Los Angeles region, where such measures now cover more than a third of freeways and major streets, the average driver saved 2.4 hours a year.

"What the reports say is we're beginning to make some headway," said Jeff Morales, director for the California Department of Transportation. "It validates that steps we're taking are making a difference."

For a Southland resident who would have a 25-minute commute on clear roads, the study found that congestion added 90 hours per year in travel time.

The next-worst commute was in San Francisco, where congestion added 68 hours to travel times.

Since 1990, overall travel times in the Los Angeles area grew by 3.8%. In comparison, the fast-growing Inland Empire, San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas have seen travel times skyrocket by 50% or more.

Some experts say the slowing growth in the Southland's travel times means that the region's infrastructure can't handle more traffic.

"We're seeing a maxing out of our system," said Steve Finnegan, principal transportation policy specialist for the Automobile Club of Southern California. "Our percentage change may not be great, but we're still so badly off. Our numbers are off the charts."

Others wondered whether new trends might be at play.

"Anecdotally, I've heard that you have people in the L.A. Basin moving because they want to be closer to work" said James Corless, California director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project.

"Because you can't get any worse, people are making lifestyle changes," he added.

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