In L.A. and Other Gridlocked Cities, Rush-Hour Traffic Never Reaches the Speed Limit

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 23, 2016

We knew urban traffic congestion was bad, but did we know it was this bad? In cities like London and Los Angeles, average rush-hour traffic speeds never reach the speed limit. That’s right, never.

HERE's study averaged all the highways in L.A. County; it would be worse if just the gridlock was studied. (HERE)

Those sad conclusions are contained in a study of city traffic by HERE, which compiles information for GPS systems. You know those red highway squiggles you see when looking at a traffic map on your phone—that’s HERE.

If there’s a bright spot, it’s in Munich. In the heart of Bavaria, where the local rides are Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Audi and BMW, the lowest average speed at peak times is actually significantly above the posted speed limits.

Basically, says Alex Gordy, director of product management for HERE, the study will confirm your worst suspicions. Yes, Los Angeles has bad traffic. The average speed on the scary Interstates there is 62 mph (at 5 a.m.!) and a crawling 50 at 7:30 a.m. Even that sounds optimistic, because it’s based on highways all over L.A. County, not just in the heart of the city. At 5:30 p.m., the speed drops down to 41 mph.

Drivers in Munich actually manage to exceed the posted speed limits at rush hour. (HERE)

In Munich, things are much better. At 7:30 a.m.—usually considered peak morning congestion time—they’re moving at 53 mph. The speed limit thing is funny, because here in the land of “I Can’t Drive 55” we pride ourselves in setting high limits. But we often don’t get near them because of traffic. In Munich, there are low limits in the city—but it’s routine to exceed them at any hour of the day.

HERE’s Joe Guthridge, a senior product manager, told me that evening rush hours are usually worse than their morning equivalent, because at the start of the day people are intent on getting to work, while on the way home they often make one or two traffic-slowing stops. I’m not sure if this says anything about American family life—me, I’m eager to get to home and hearth.

The bright side of the recession—and high gas prices—was a reduction in travel and traffic congestion. But the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, the most recent available, reported that gridlock “has returned to pre-recession levels.” We drove more than three trillion miles in 2015, a new record. Traffic is now worse than at any time since 1982.

We’re back to wasting more than three billion gallons of fuel annually, and spending seven billion extra hours in traffic (42 hours for every rush-hour commuter). This costs us $160 billion annually ($960 per commuter).

Rush-hour traffic on LA's 110 freeway. It's second in ghastliness only to Washington, D.C. (Prayitno/Flickr)

The worst city in the U.S. is Washington, D.C. (82 hours of delay per commuter) followed by Los Angeles (80 hours), San Francisco (78 hours), New York (74 hours), and San Jose (67 hours). Drivers on America’s top 10 worst roads spend 3.5 extra days in traffic, compared to what their lives would be like on lightly traveled roads. Six of the worst Interstate roads are in L.A., including the 101, the 5 and the 10. Population growth exceeding the national average (0.7 percent annually) makes it worse.

It’s all expected to get worse, unless deadlocked Congress and state legislatures get off their duffs. Average annual delays per commuter are expected to grow from 42 to 47 hours by 2020, when the total national delay will reach 8.3 billion hours annually (from 6.9 billion) and cost will reach $192 billion (from $160 billion).

A more upbeat assessment from Streetsblog in 2015 says congestion won’t get much worse, only delaying the average daily commute an additional 25 seconds by 2030. But then that conclusion is based on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) continuing a population-adjusted decline that began in 2005. But, alas, VMT is growing again. Check the chart here. “VMT rose substantially again in 2015 largely because the U.S. economy recovered from the Great Recession and petroleum prices dropped,” the Department of Energy reports.

In a clearly related development, Dr. John DeCicco, a research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, reports that the average rate of carbon dioxide from tailpipes exceeded those from power plants for seven of the last eight months. “These trends indicate that transportation will overtake electricity as the nation’s largest source of CO2 emissions this year,” he said.

Why is this? VMT is up, and that’s more than enough to offset efficiency and emissions' gains in modern cars. And Americans are moving back to gas guzzlers, too.

DeCicco told me, "For controlling CO2 emissions, gains in vehicle efficiency don't do enough to offset increased driving, and the amount of driving by both cars and trucks is rising again as the economy recovers. Stronger fuel economy standards are crucial to keep CO2 from climbing as much as it did during the "'roaring 90s' of cheap fuel and big SUVs. But much more will need to be done to seriously cut carbon in the face of rising vehicle miles of travel. "

Here's some neat time-lapse video of rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles:

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One