The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Spinning Data, Spinning Wheels


Traffic congestion is actually worse than stated in the widely touted 2004 Urban Mobility Study. And the only real solution -- fundamental land use reform -- is downplayed for reasons of self interest.


The headlines announcing the annual analysis of automobile traffic congestion plaguing the 85 largest urban areas in the United States are clear and compelling:


“Traffic Costs Billions of Hours a Year” heads an AP story picked up by CNN.


  “... Congestion Heavier, Costlier” notes the front page lead in The Washington Post.


“...Losing the Race Against Traffic Gridlock Growth,” proclaims the press release by the study sponsors.


These headlines represent one of the rare instances when more information is in the headline than in the body of the story. This is because when it comes to traffic congestion, “spin” is king.


The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), a research center at Texas A&M University, has been publishing annual congestion reports for 20 years. The latest survey released two weeks ago, compares the levels of congestion in 2002 with those for the prior 19 years.  The number of regions in the study have expanded over the years, and the current roster of 85 urban areas include all those with over 500,000 in population. The decline in automobility in urban regions where over 90 percent of the citizens of the United States live and work is dramatically portrayed in Exhibit One from the TTI study.


The National Capital Subregion retained its place as one of the most congested areas in the nation by scoring 3rd or 4th in most of the congestion measures: hours of delay per driver, wasted gasoline per driver, etc. By various measures, other very large-scale New Urban Regions -- New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston –- scored worse. The National Capital Subregion ranked 9th in population, so this Subregion “moved up” to reach its 3rd or 4th worst position on the chaos roster. When "Washington, D.C.," and "Baltimore" are considered together they rank 4th in population. This suggests there is a Natural Law that relates traffic congestion to New Urban Region population. This is consistent with other applications of Regional Metrics. In general, the larger the region, the greater the level of congestion as demonstrated by Exhibit Two from the TTI study.


The New Urban Regions which fall mainly within the Commonwealth of Virginia fared better. In Tidewater, traffic congestion grew, but mobility deteriorated less quickly there than it did in the average large-scale urban area. In Richmond, traffic congestion also grew, but again less fast than the average medium-scale urban area. Both Tidewater and Richmond had better congestion rankings than their population would predict.  Exhibit Two documents the relative levels of congestion in very-large, large- and medium-scale urban areas.  

The bottom line:  The part of the Commonwealth with very severe traffic congestion as defined by TTI is in the National Capital Subregion.

VDOT and pandering politicians should stop the foolish prattle about needing to address congestion Commonwealth-wide. Either that or they must come up with better measures for congestion than TTI has done. For 80 years, the statewide allocation of resources has been based not on real need but on VDOT’s district-based Six Year Plans and municipal jurisdiction wish lists. Planning for mobility and access must be more than pricing out wish lists and looking for pots of money to fund wish lists.


The current VTRANS 2025 "planning" process continues this practice. It does not even attempt to crate a balance between trip demand of existing and planned land uses with transport system capacity. It also fails to optimize the function and interconnection of transport modes. Most important, it does not support the economic prosperity, social cohesion and environmental sustainability that VDOT's own citizen polls and focus groups demanded from Virginia's access and mobility system.

The good news is that TTI provides the best numbers available to document deteriorating automobility in the Untied States. The bad news is that the TTI analysis is tragically flawed by geographical and methodological limitations and by the authors failing to “tell it like it really is.”

Beyond the geographical and methodological problems with the TTI urban mobility study, each year the results are spun to meet the objectives of the interest groups that cite the annual report. The reporting of TTI conclusions can be characterized as “a spinning elephant as described by a committee of blind lobbyists.”


Before we get to the spin, it is important to understand just what the congestion rankings represent. The biggest problem with the numbers is that they do not address all the automobile congestion in any logical “region.” The numbers for what TTI calls “Washington, D.C..” demonstrate the problem.


According to TTI, the 2002 population of “Washington D.C.,” is 3.8 million. Those conversant with population data know that the federal District of Columbia had a population of a little over 580,000. It is clear TTI’s  Washington, D.C..” must be something else. That is good because traffic congestion is, as almost everyone agrees, a regional problem. But what is TTI’s definition of a “region”?


In 2002, the Washington Metropolitan Area’s Council of Governments (WashCOG) jurisdictions had about 4.7 million citizens. In 2002, the Washington Primary Metropolitan Statistical Area (PMSA) had roughly 5.3 million  citizens, and the National Capital Subregion of the Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region had around 6 million citizens. Clearly, “Washington, D.C.,” does not mean the federal District of Columbia or any of the easily identified multi-jurisdictional groupings that are centered on the federal District of Columbia, Alexandria and Arlington. (To understand the impact that geographical illiteracy has on population and land area and thus on mobility and access, see “Where is Northern Virginia?", August 11, 2003.)


It turns out that the TTI data is collected for an “urban area” in each of the 85 regions. This limitation is justified on the grounds of data availability and an attempt to compare apples with apples. The TTI “urban area” in most cases approximates what the US Census Bureau calls “the intensively urbanized area.” In its reports, TTI states that the criteria for boundaries and the schedule of updates to reflect ongoing changes varies from region to region. 


The bottom line is that up to 2.2 million citizens of the real area of concern -– the National Capital Subregion –- live outside the area where the data was gathered.  

It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that, given the center weighting of job locations in the Subregion, citizens living farthest from the core travel the longest distances. (See “Where the Jobs Are,” 24 May 2004.)

There is a factual basis for the assumption that scattered urban development generates more vehicle miles of travel and more congestion. Within 20 miles of the centroid of the region, there are 800,000 acres.  There are, in round numbers, 6 million acres in the National Capital Subregion. Scattered over 5.2 million acres, the 2.2 million residents left out of the TTI study will generate a lot of miles of travel and even more congestion than the 3.8 million included in the study. (I document this conclusion in detail in The Physics of Gridlock, SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., 2003. This PowerPoint presentation also explains how the spacial distribution of travel origins and destinations renders it impossible to devise a fiscally responsible system that will provide Subregional citizens with an acceptable level of mobility.)


You do not need to be a traffic reporter to know that traffic jams are often found at the edges of the Subregion or that congestion almost always extends far beyond the area covered by the TTI analysis. More important, many of the transportation demand management tools that are suggested by TTI and others are not relevant to (and/or are exorbitantly expensive to provide for) those living, working or seeking services and recreation in widely scattered locations.  


From a practical perspective, the outer edge of the “urban area” is the approximate location of a Clear Edge between the Urbanside and the Countryside. This demarcation is far from the edge of the area now being urbanized in prosperous regions –- especially in the National Capital Subregion. For example, most of Loudoun County is outside the “urban area” in the TTI study.


It is common knowledge that much of the new urban development is scattered across the Countryside outside the Clear Edge. (See “Scatteration,” September 22, 2003. These residents are among those who are most heavily impacted by growing Subregional congestion, not just in the morning and afternoon peak travel but during evening and weekend trips when they use the automobile in an attempt to to access and assemble the elements of a satisfactory lifestyle. The TTI numbers do not address the access and mobility of these citizens.) 

The fact that there are 2.2-million residents of the National Capital Subregion not accounted for in the TTI data is not just a detail.  The New Urban Region is an organic system and any realistic measure of congestion must address the region as a whole as well as the organic components of the region.  The National Capital Subregion is an organic component; the arbitrary “urban area” is not.

Beyond the question of geography, there is the problem of the way TTI assembles data within the limited area it addresses. Because TTI does not have a uniform way to identify the “urban areas” or to gather the required data, they rely on the information gathered by state and municipal agencies through a federally-mandated program. Which agencies gather the data? Why it is the very same agencies which are responsible for providing access and mobility. No one knows how many fox-in-the-hen-house problems exist in this arrangement, and it is not in the interest of anyone beholden to automobility -- the automobile, roadway, land development lobby -- to open this Pandora’s Box to find out. It is possible that the VDOT data gathering contributes to the seemingly low congestion levels that TTI has found in the Tidewater and Richmond New Urban Regions. The vagaries of a similar method used by the U.S. Census Bureau to gather building permit information which has been documented to be flawed gives pause to anyone concerned with the accuracy of the data. 


There is also a maddening misuse of the term “city.” The “urban areas” are frequently termed “city” throughout the report and in the press coverage. In the case of what TTI calls “Washington, D.C.,” less than 15 percent of the population is in the federal District of Columbia,  and less that 25 percent is in any “city.” Calling the urban core of the Tidewater/Hampton Roads region “Virginia Beach” is confusing. So is the heading that leads web browsers to the tables for “your city.”


There is a clear aversion to geographic reality, spacial analysis and quantification and to maps at TTI. In the report, one finds lots of tables but no study area maps or any application of regional metrics. 


The study text and tables are not easy to read. Do not take our word for it; go to the web site and see for yourself. There are several reasons that the text is so opaque:  

  • First and foremost, the authors must write around the whale on the beach. They avoid even mentioning that there must be a balance between the vehicle-trip demand generated by human settlement patterns and the transport-system capacity if there is to be mobility and access.

  • Second, the report has been pre-dumbed down to help reporters get their stories into a fourth-grade vocabulary. The misuse of “city” and the failure to map the study areas is an example.

  • Finally, the text must be obfuscated to insure that the federal and state agencies that pay for the study are not offended. The same agencies that fund the research are also responsible for delivering a transport system that provides citizens with access and mobility. The TTI data document a complete failure to achieve that objective. One can only imagine what the data would show if the numbers reflected the real region.

TTI learned which side its bread is buttered on several years ago. After more than a decade of producing data that showed steadily deteriorating mobility, the TTI annual report started to get more strident in its criticism of Business As Usual. This upset some sponsors who, after all, did not want to help pay for a study that undermined the core mobility strategy these agencies were in business to support. (See “Self Delusion and Fraud,” June 7, 2004).


As far as we know, there has been no comprehensive analysis since 2001 of the numbers by any group that is not part of the automobility lobby, those who support the myth of private vehicle mobility. The 2001 outside analysis demonstrated that the TTI data made it clear that whether a region built more roads or less roads made little difference in the growth of congestion. Four key findings of the outside analysis are examined in Physics of Gridlock, SYNERGY/Planning, Inc, 2003.


In spite of all this, the TTI numbers are the very best numbers that exist. The reason is that no one is willing to pay for better data or more comprehensive analysist. The TTI survey is funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation and state transportation agencies.  Because citizens do not demand a change, the study staff takes direction, directly and indirectly, from those who make money from automobility –- designing and building roadways, selling cars, gasoline and oil –- and those who profit from scattered urban land uses and the systems that support them.


This provides a segue to the topic of “spin.” As suggested above, the TTI report itself avoids speaking clearly about real solutions to congestion in order to avoid offending sponsors or clients of TTI. In the late 90s, one solution TTI listed was to “put jobs, shops and homes close together.” This smacked of addressing the issue of the pattern and density of land use as a transportation demand management tool. Carried to its logical conclusion, putting jobs/housing/services/ recreation/amenity in close proximity becomes advocacy for Balanced Communities. 


In more recent reports, the language in the TTI press releases and the “what to do” portion of the reports has morphed to the more opaque “diverse set of land-use options.” This option is listed after the traditional transportation engineering “solutions” which TTI is paid to design and help implement. TTI avoids suggesting that fundamental change in human settlement patterns would be a way, in fact the only effective way, to decrease demand for vehicle trips and improve access and mobility. 


TTI sells transportation “research.” The Institute meets its payroll by seeking and spending federal and state transportation dollars to help transportation agencies.  There is nothing inherently wrong with helping these agencies. However, instead of focusing on the real path to less congestion –- functional human settlement patterns -– TTI promotes as “solutions” the services that TTI provides: traffic control enhancements, incident management, improved pavement maintenance, etc.

All citizens and organizations benefit from functional human settlement patterns and a balance between the trips generated by the pattern and density of land use and the capacity of the transport system.  However, no one directly earns money from this balance in the short run, so there is no support for this strategy.  For this reason, TTI pushes system demand management and other band-aids which are the services they offer to clients.  (See “Out of Chaos,” July 24, 2004.)

A more general variety of spin comes from both TTI and the major media outlets. Both support the proposition that finding more money to build more facilities will result in mobility and access without instituting a fundamental change in human settlement patterns. This is, of course, ridiculous. (See “Clueless,” January 19, 2004; “No Context," February 2, 2004; “Self Delusion and Fraud," June 7, 2004; and “The Perfect Storm," July 12, 2004. TTI also implies that congestion is an inevitable result of prosperity. Another unfounded proposition. 


The worst form of spin comes from the road and bridge advocates. The Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance (NVTA) provides a perfect example. NVTA would like to find a way to justify paving every desire line that has ever appeared on any map if a new roadway in that location will would provide access to the land NVTA’s sponsors and friends own or would like to develop. 


Six hours and three minutes after the TTI report’s release, NVTA issued an “Alert” stating that the TTI data demonstrated that the laundry list of roadways and bridges that NVTA champions would improve mobility and access.


Countering this blatant attempt at spin is why an understanding of the geography of the urban areas that TTI profiles is so critical. Almost all of the improvements that NVTA would like to see built are outside the areas where TTI measured traffic congestion. The roadways and bridges on NVTA’s wish list would have little impact on the measured congestion. Instead of promoting Balanced Communities, these facilities would primarily foster patterns of development that result in greater disaggregation of demand, more vehicle miles of travel and in the long run more congestion.


Exhibit One and Two document that the current automobility strategy in the United States is a road to Sao Paulo. In the Brazilian New Urban Region of Sao Paulo:  

  • The extremely rich travel by helicopter

  • Daredevils ride motorbikes

  • The very poor walk

  • The vast majority of the region’s 20-million citizens who attempt to travel in buses, jitneys or cars are stuck in traffic jams that stretch for 60 miles.

Think how much worse the graphics in Exhibit One and Two would be if in each case the whole region was considered and the study was not run by a research center that makes its living by selling band-aids.


A clear eyed review of the TTI data supports the headlines but not the Business As Usual spin found in the report or echoed in the press coverage.


-- September 20, 2004












































Ed Risse, and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


See profile.