BBC Monster Traffic Jam List Includes Lexington, Kentucky? Really?

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has just published a list of 10 "monster commutes" around the world. Some are to be expected, and are usually found on any list of extreme traffic congestion, such as Jakarta, Bangkok, Manila, Mumbai, Seoul, Nairobi and Dhaka.

Lexington? However, reading further it becomes clearer that the BBC story deserves its own exhibit in the "Ripley's Don't Believe It" Room at the British Museum. BBC lists Lexington, Kentucky as one of 10 with "monster traffic jams." At first I thought BBC might have listed the wrong "L" place, having intended to cite Lagos or Lima instead. Not so, however since BBC quotes a Lexington commuter who claims to have spent an hour commuting to work one morning.

That, surely is not the experience of the average Lexington resident. According to the United States Census Bureau, the average work trip travel time, one way, in the Lexington metropolitan area is 21 minutes. This compares to the US national average of approximately 25 minutes. Researchers David Hartgen and M. Gregory Fields estimated the excess travel time during peak hour in Lexington at five percent in 2003 (traffic congestion has not become serious enough to warrant the attention of the long-standing Texas Transportation Institute's congestion reporting system). A quick review of data supplied by INRIX suggests that about 150 out of more than 180 rated US, European and Canadian metropolitan areas have worse traffic congestion than Lexington.

Austin? Perhaps a stronger case can be made for the inclusion of Austin, Texas on the list. But even so, Austin barely makes the most congested quarter of the INRIX international list. Austin's worse than average traffic congestion is the result of its late development an express roadway system, as this metropolitan area of the nearly 2,000,000 population was the last in the nation to connect two freeways together.

BBC's Austin commuter is quoted as indicating that he commutes by car, for which "I castigate myself daily." He continues: “I see two things that make me feel both guilty and shocked. A vacant city bus inching along my route and an empty tram cutting across traffic at 5pm." He misses the point. If the city bus is a vacant and the tram is empty, it is because they do not meet the needs of a sufficient number of customers (needs, which by the way can only be defined by consumers, not planners).

The proof is the crowded buses and trains that converge on six large downtown areas in the United States, where 40 percent to 75 percent of commuters use transit. This is not because the people who work south of 59th Street in Manhattan, in Chicago's Loop, or the downtown areas of Philadelphia, Washington, Boston or San Francisco have more effectively managed their guilt than the Austin commuter. It is rather because transit meets their needs. Commuters are rational. They take the mode of transport that best suits their needs. Transit's market shares around the country (many of them miniscule) speak volumes about how well transit meets the needs of potential customers.

Finally, BBC's Austin commuter claims that it takes 45 minutes to drive three kilometers (2 miles) to work (walking would be as fast for most people). It is hard to imagine a more unrepresentative commute in Austin. According to the United States Census Bureau, the average one way commute in Austin in 2011 was 26 minutes. Somehow 85 percent of Austin commuters get to work in less time than the Austin commuter, and they travel a lot farther.