Study: Area commuters lose 41 hours to traffic

Traffic coming off Interstate 26 (foreground) waits for traffic along Ashley Phosphate Road.

Lowcountry commuters spent an average of 41 hours delayed in traffic last year, and highway congestion is only expected to get worse, according to a national urban mobility study.

Charleston-North Charleston ranked ninth among the 33 medium metro areas with populations between 500,000 and 1 million, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, which conducted the study.

And we're stressed out about it.

Of the 101 metro areas in the country included in the study, the Charleston area ranks 13th on the institute's “Freeway Commuter Stress Index,” a measure of the commuter's extra travel time in the peak direction and period.

That puts us above such urban metros as New York-Newark (18th) and Chicago (17th) on the Stress Index. While they are in the top 10 nationally for the number of hours commuters are stuck in traffic — about a full day's more in their vehicles — those drivers appear to expect it.

And delays cost the average Charleston area commuters more than a $1,000 last year, which is 33rd nationally, the study said. That figure includes the value of delay time and wasted fuel.

Commuters in Washington topped all areas and spent double the time delayed in traffic as Charleston commuters, coming in at 82 hours. Drivers in Indio-Cathedral City, Calif., spent the least amount of time commuting among cities in the study at 1.32 hours for all of 2014.

Charleston drivers are no strangers to gridlock. The average commute in the tri-county area is 23.6 minutes, which falls below the national average of 26 minutes, according to an Associated Press report released in June.

Local officials are working on solutions to Charleston's growing population and traffic issues, but warned it's going to take time, a change in travel habits and a lot of money.

Kathryn Basha, planning director for the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, told The Post and Courier in July that the tri-county region's traffic and transportation problems have grown worse in recent years, as people continue to flock here from other parts of the country.

“If we're going to do a cultural shift and avoid gridlock, we better do it now,” she said.

Basha said that cultural shift involves people being willing to change their minds and habits about how they get around. People have to be more open to carpooling or using public transit instead of driving alone in their cars, she said.

The shift also involves improving roads and public transit systems so they better serve people, she said.

The Texas A&M report predicts urban roadway congestion will continue to get worse without more assertive approaches. By 2020, with a continued good economy, it states annual delay per commuter will grow from 42 hours to 47 hours; total delay nationwide will grow from 6.9 billion hours to 8.3 billion hours; and the total cost of congestion will jump from $160 billion to $192 billion.

“Our growing traffic problem is too massive for any one entity to handle — state and local agencies can't do it alone,” said Tim Lomax, a report co-author and Regents Fellow at the institute. “Businesses can give their employees more flexibility in where, when and how they work, individual workers can adjust their commuting patterns and we can have better thinking when it comes to long-term land use planning. This problem calls for a classic 'all-hands-on-deck' approach.”

Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughtonPC.