Traffic congestion: The drama of little numbers

MPR Photo: Bill Alkofor/file

The people who want to dramatize the traffic congestion in the Twin Cities are doing it again — making big numbers out of trivial little numbers.

“Motorists wasted 24.5 hours behind the wheel” the Star Tribune headline blares today in its story about the Twin Cities being the 16th worst city in the country for traffic congestion, which isn’t that bad considering we’re the 14th largest city in the United States, and we spend a fair amount of time driving in winter weather.

But a whole day wasted? Just sitting there, putting our makeup on, texting our friends, and singing “Freebird?”

The story itself tells a slightly different tale. Traffic is growing here because a lot of people weren’t driving a few years ago; they didn’t have any jobs to drive to. The Twin Cities is becoming an economic success story.

“The big picture is that that the total amount of travel peaked in the U.S. a few years ago and it’s been declining ever since,” says David Levinson, the transportation guru at the University of Minnesota, told the Star Tribune. “We have some ups and downs during any given year depending on the price of the gas and whether the economy is doing a little bit better or not. Certainly [congestion is] more than in 2009 during the depths of the recession.”

You can’t make a headline out of that.

How about this one: “We’re commuting 12 hours less now.”

Or so another report last year would seem to indicate. A Texas A&M study — the Urban Mobility Report — said we wasted 34 hours of time in our commutes. Which is it?

In the big scheme of thing, it doesn’t matter because 24 hours or 34 hours is fairly trivial. As I wrote last year, assuming you take two weeks of vacation a year, you’re “wasting” 4 minutes per commute. Twenty-four hours of wasted time a year is less than 3 minutes per trip.

How can we get some of that time back? Easy. Here are some methods:

Watch fewer commercials: If you watch two hours of TV a day, you’re wasting 242 hours just watching the commercials.

Take shorter showers: On average we spend 43 hours a year in the shower.

Go on a diet: We spend 406 hours a year eating.

Learn to love dust: We waste 218 hours a year cleaning the house.

Curiously, Americans are supposed to good at multitasking, so this shouldn’t be a problem: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend only 20 minutes a day “thinking or relaxing.” If everyone just relaxed during their commute, we can increase that number by 30 percent.

  • John

    “If I leave here tomorrow . . . . . .”

    I improved my commute considerably a year and a half ago, when I moved from a house that was 65 miles away from my job to one that is 20 miles away. In essence, i got back 10 hours a week – or 520 hours a year – a part time job.

    in the 2.5 years I was doing the long haul commute, I probably listened to Freebird at least once.

  • jon

    I’ve probably “wasted” more time on news cut than I have on my commute…
    But my commute is 4-5 miles, were it not for some poorly designed roads I could probably save some time multitasking by exercising and commuting at the same time.

  • John O.

    It’s easy to categorize studies like this alongside those attempting to compare nebulous items like “business climate,” “best colleges,” etc. One size usually does not fit all.

    It would be interesting to see what (if any) analysis was done with respect to telecommuting.

  • MrE85

    I start my drive to work early (5:30 a.m.). While the drive is still just as long, the traffic flow is almost always better. Not getting stuck in traffic on a daily bonus is a big plus to me.

  • See_BS

    Seems like we should have sheltered freeways and sheltered bicycle paths — why not install solar farms above some of the busy freeways in the downtown area. Something that shelters the freeway from snow, rain, sun and ice.

    We should also have sheltered bicycle and walking paths.