Charlotteans are terrified we're going to end up like Atlanta – a sprawling, ozone-choked, congested city of massive 12-lane highways.
And there's evidence we're almost there.
The Committee of 21, a local group studying the region's road needs, notes that the average Atlanta commuter wastes 60 hours a year stuck in traffic. The average Charlotte commuter fritters away 45 hours.
Considering we're much smaller than Atlanta, that's more than alarming.
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The data come from a respected group, the Texas Transportation Institute, which ranks cities based on congestion. TTI gives Charlotte its lowest possible grade for managing congestion, and it ranks the Queen City as one of the most traffic-clogged cities among its peers. The Observer and other newspapers regularly report on TTI's findings.
The problem is that the Charlotte-Atlanta comparisons are flawed. A TTI researcher recently admitted its methodology inflates Charlotte's congestion and that Charlotte is a “statistical anomaly.”
Here's why: The institute uses data on traffic counts and average speeds to estimate the total hours commuters spend in delays. In Charlotte, that's 21,204 hours. It then divides those hours by the number of rush-hour commuters based on a city's “urbanized area.”
The problem is that Charlotte is one of the nation's most sprawling, most low-density cities. The census says 1.7million people live in our six-county metro area, and 2.3 million people in what's called a “combined statistical area,” which includes counties such as Iredell and Lincoln. But our “urbanized area” in 2005 was only 860,000, according to the TTI study.
When TTI analyzes total congestion on roads such as I-77 and I-85 – highways filled with thousands of commuters from Rock Hill, Mooresville, Gastonia and Kannapolis – it might get an accurate picture of how much total time we're wasting. But it then assigns that congestion only to Charlotte drivers.
“Your urban area is half of your metro area,” said TTI researcher David Schrank, whose research is funded by both transit and road-building advocacy groups. “We are going to fix that in our next release.”
The institute struggles with calculating traffic in sprawling cities like Charlotte, Austin and Atlanta. Here's a problem with Atlanta:
In 2000, TTI estimated the total delay hours in Atlanta was 112,140 hours – nearly eight times the Charlotte total delay that year. For the average Atlanta commuter, that meant a 73-hour annual delay. Five years later, TTI estimated the average Atlanta commuter wasted only 60 hours a year in traffic.
What did Atlanta do to achieve such a miraculous reduction? Rapidly expand its highway system? Convince more people to car pool? Force them onto transit?
The dramatic change was because of TTI expanding the “urban area” of Atlanta, from 3.1 million to 4.2 million. That spread the delay hours among more commuters, making the city's congestion problem look less severe.
“That 73 to 60 drop is tied to the fact the we added a bunch of people,” Schrank said. “We already had their travel captured. But our denominator was too small.”
So what's the correct number for Charlotte?
If our urban area were drawn in a similar way to Atlanta's – capturing most of our suburbs and outlying cities and towns – our average per-person delay would be between 23 and 31 hours – not 45. That would put us in line with cities such as Memphis, Tenn.; Cincinnati; and Salt Lake City. Not in the same league as Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
There's little doubt that congestion here has gotten worse, as tens of thousands of people move here annually. We don't have enough transit or roads to accommodate them.
The TTI study says the average commuter wasted 25 hours annually in 1990 and 12 hours in 1982.
“Is the delay worse than in 1980? Probably,” said Norm Steinman of the Charlotte Department of Transportation. “The outerbelt has almost been finished. But in other areas of town, there hasn't been very much capacity added.”
Ned Curran is president of the Bissell Companies, and he chaired the Committee of 21. He advocates charging tolls on the region's interstates, increasing the vehicle registration fee by $30 and having a new half-cent sales tax dedicated toward roads.
There is little doubt Charlotte needs more road funding, he said. One-third of Charlotte's intersections have a failing grade at peak times, he noted. The county has $12 billion in unfunded road needs over the next 25 years, he said.
“Just look at Providence Road and Fairview at 5:15,” Curran said. “Walk up and ask someone, ‘How long have you been there?' It's gotten worse.”