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October 24, 2023Episode 69. We Rank the 2,138 Most Congested Roads in Texas. Is your daily drive on the list?
FEATURING: David Schrank
Traffic congestion is relative, because what constitutes gridlock depends a lot on where you live. Clearly, though, it’s no longer just a big city problem.
About Our Guest
Senior Research Scientist
David Schrank has worked in urban mobility research for more than 30 years. He assesses congestion levels and costs throughout the United States to help transportation officials, policymakers, and the public understand the impacts of traffic changes on America’s roadways.
Bernie Fette (00:16):
Hey, everyone. Welcome to Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The population of Texas is growing — mostly a result of people moving from other states. In almost all cases, those people are bringing their cars and trucks with them, and the result is predictable. Demand for roadway space is growing far faster than the supply of that space. The problem is especially acute in the state’s, major cities, where traffic delays are costing the state more than $10 billion a year in lost time and wasted fuel. Addressing that problem requires a clear and precise understanding of exactly where the biggest trouble spots are. So TTI researchers keep a close watch on how conditions might be changing on each of more than 2,000 roadway sections across the state. Here to help us understand those year-to-year changes, and why they matter, is David Shrank, who leads TTI’s annual research on the most congested roadways in Texas. Welcome back to the show, David.
David Schrank (01:35):
Thanks for having me, Bernie.
Bernie Fette (01:38):
You have been measuring and ranking the most gridlocked roadways in Texas for more than a decade. The new listing that you’re working on now, uh, will be out relatively soon. You don’t have the exact rankings just yet, but it seems like there’s rarely much change in those rankings, not at least in the top 10 or top 20 or so from year to year. The lead on the press release that you and I work on every year seems kind of predictable. Most years, it says traffic’s bad and it’s getting worse. So my first question is, without regard to which road segment is the worst in Texas or what the top 10 might be, what is the research telling you more generally?
David Schrank (02:26):
Well, when we take a step back and look at things broadly in Texas, one of the underlying currents is that the population growth that’s happening statewide, especially in our large metro regions, where many of those top 100 locations are situated, that population growth is happening, traffic is happening, and it’s not just that new person who moves to town. It’s that new person who needs goods and services for them to be in that town. So a plumber or trips to the grocery store or the trucks delivering to the grocery store. So there’s a cumulative effect for every time a new person moves into an area. Also, with our current situation, current coming out of the pandemic, we have a lot of changes in travel patterns across the state and and across the nation. And that is that not only do we have this new hybrid work environment, a lot of workers don’t go into the office five days a week anymore, and some of them don’t go in or rarely go in at all. And so that has changed travel patterns and also in the pandemic and coming out, we’ve had a significant change in our commercial vehicle travel and traffic patterns. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and new distribution centers that popped up during Covid and, and a lot of warehousing growth in the state of Texas and all of the truck trips that are generated from those types of facilities. So all of those things, the growth, the hybrid work environment and also the commercial travel all have an effect on every one of these road segments and each one of them differently.
Bernie Fette (04:23):
So the bottom line of what’s happening with congestion, how much of it there is et cetera, isn’t changing. It’s just more so that the conditions and the circumstances that collectively cause that congestion. It’s those things that are changing more from year to year.
David Schrank (04:42):
There are a lot of factors that are affecting that congestion and some of them did not or were not as large or did not even exist four or five years ago. And so those factors are now more in play that obviously the hybrid work environment is a big one that is affecting certain metros and like in Austin, more on percentage-wise maybe than they affect a Houston or San Antonio because of state employees and the high tech industry and other things that play such a prominent role in the labor force in in Austin.
Bernie Fette (05:22):
This has come to be known internally, I think as the Texas 100. Is that because the list was originally limited to the most congested 100 roads in Texas?
David Schrank (05:35):
Well, in 2009 when the Legislature asked the Texas Department of Transportation to inform them where the worst locations were for traffic in the state, the agreed upon number was, find the hundred most congested locations.
Bernie Fette (05:51):
David Schrank (05:52):
We, as of the next list coming out are tracking over 2,000 sections of road in the state that go into that list. And again, the the top 100 from that list then are scrutinized a little further and then more attention paid to those locations to ensure that we are doing all we can to try to improve those locations in the state.
Bernie Fette (06:17):
So you started out with a hundred, but you’re doing more than 2,000 measuring and ranking more than 2,000 now. Why so many additions over the years?
David Schrank (06:26):
Well, what we’ve seen is from a motorist standpoint, you don’t have to be in Houston or downtown Austin or downtown Dallas to have traffic congestion. You can be in Amarillo, you can be in College Station, you can be in Corpus Christi or the Valley. So we want to make sure we are tracking congestion across the state. And those smaller regions don’t typically occupy too many slots in the top 100, but it’s still congestion and motorists in those locations still want something done about congestion in their smaller urban area, even though it’s not a metro with 3, 5 million population.
Bernie Fette (07:13):
And if they want something done about the traffic in their area, then that’s more practically accomplished if they know exactly the degree to which the congestion is happening. And your list helps them do that, right?
David Schrank (07:25):
Well, the purpose for this list is to monitor traffic congestion over time. And so you take a snapshot in a given year, some of those locations have construction going on, some of them will have construction going on in the future, but at some point in time you wanna see what happened to this location. That was number three or five or 20 on the list after we went in and tried to do things about it. Did it drop to number 10, 20, 30 later on so we can see the benefits we obtained from doing this work?
Bernie Fette (08:00):
Right. You mentioned the pandemic a minute or two ago. Let’s talk a little bit more about that and how it affected how we get around. Covid is still somewhat fresh in our minds, so it’s still relevant to any discussion that we have about traffic. Can you walk us through, from a traffic analyst perspective, but keeping in mind the commuter perspective, can you walk us through the last three years in terms of our everyday commuting and roadway travel experience?
David Schrank (08:34):
Sure. The, let’s start pre-Covid. Pre-Covid, the majority of the time we were working eight to five in an office as a whole. Yes. Sometimes we would work remotely for a day here or there, but it wasn’t part of our normal routine coming into Covid. Then when we were all working from home, all of these advancements happened in the various technologies so that we could have our teleconferencing and meetings remotely. Those kind of things have continued to evolve to a point and become accepted to a degree that now they are part of our workplace. And so coming out of covid now, what we have done is that we are now relying on that technology to do our work. Oftentimes couple three days a week from home. And that is, you know, it may be that on any given day, 10 20 percent of the workforce might not be driving into an office because they’re working remotely. Mm-hmm.
Bernie Fette (09:47):
David Schrank (09:47):
The couple of things that come with that is increased volatility in the traffic volumes. So on any given day of the work week, everybody might go into the office that day and when that happens, it’s going to look like from a traffic perspective, almost like a snow day or some really bad weather event that happened across the whole area because no one is expecting, everyone is on the road that day. And so you’ve gotten into a new habit of pre-Covid. I would leave my house at, let’s say six o’clock so that I could get in and be comfortable when I arrived to work.
Bernie Fette (10:33):
David Schrank (10:34):
Coming outta Covid, maybe that was seven o’clock. Now, you know, I don’t have to leave quite as early; traffic’s not as bad. And so I can stay home a little longer. I can sleep a little longer or I can even log in from the house before I get in the car.
Bernie Fette (10:49):
And then we get out on the streets and it’s big surprise.
David Schrank (10:53):
Big surprise because all of a sudden everyone’s hitting the road at seven because they think this is a normal Tuesday.
Bernie Fette (11:00):
David Schrank (11:01):
And oh, by the way, there’s 20 percent more traffic today. And so that’s happening. There’s a couple of other things that have occurred coming out of Covid as well. We also have this new hybrid work situation that it appears that some workers are remotely working from home in the morning for a couple hours and then commuting into work at 9, 10 in the morning for a meeting or two or three that they need to have midday and then turn around going home before the peak period in the evening and working remotely to finish their day. So that’s this combination of telework, but also working in the office on a given day because we’re seeing a little bit more congestion in the middle of the day than we did pre-Covid. And lastly, another thing we’re seeing is that the congestion is more spread around across the facilities in a region that is, there’s more congestion on the arterial streets than there was percentage-wise pre-Covid versus now.
David Schrank (12:13):
And so it looks like some of those remote, some of those hybrid workers who used to get in the car, drive on a freeway, go into the workplace, maybe working remotely, maybe get in the car, drive a few miles, get a coffee and a donut in the morning, go back home or get in the car and drive on that arterial street maybe to go all the way to work on it. And so there is a change in both the temporal, the time that these trips are happening, but also the spatial in where they’re happening in our road system. And so all those things I I, I mentioned earlier, there’s lots of sort of new moving dials that may not have been there pre pandemic that appear to still be trying to settle in on what the traffic situation’s gonna look like as we move forward.
Bernie Fette (13:09):
So it sounds from what you’re describing, like the driver experience or driver behavior piece of this and what choices they’ve made from when they go to the office when they work at home, doesn’t seem to have as much of a pattern as the much more predictable patterns that you saw pre-Covid where traffic was really heavy in the morning peak. You know, what we used to call rush hour, that’s now three hours or more in the morning and the same thing in the afternoon, but at least you had some degree of predictability that it was gonna be worse at those two times and somewhat less during the middle of the day. And you don’t have that same degree of predictability now. Is that what I’m hearing?
David Schrank (13:55):
Yeah, I think that’s a fair statement. We still have the peak periods. They may be a little shorter in duration than they’ve been.
Bernie Fette (14:02):
David Schrank (14:03):
But where that congestion is occurring in the system and exactly when it’s occurring in the system looks a little different, feels a little different than what we saw pre-pandemic.
Bernie Fette (14:15):
To what degree were you surprised by any of that experience in your analysis? Were there any moments while you were studying this during and post pandemic when you said, huh, well I did not see that coming.
David Schrank (14:31):
I think probably the biggest takeaway in the traffic congestion world is, you know, we’ve been studying traffic congestion for 30 or 40 years here at TTI nationally with our Urban Mobility Report. And then for the last decade or so with the Texas 100 list, the one thing that really struck was nationally when we saw a 15 to 20 percent reduction in travel, we got a 50 percent reduction in traffic delay. So it was interesting that a small tweak in travel can have a larger effect on traffic delay depending on when and where that travel was occurring. So what I’m getting at is the traffic that came out of the travel patterns in Covid was commuter travel. It was that peak period travel that morning and evening rush traffic that didn’t occur anymore. So when we got the biggest bang for that traffic not being out there because it didn’t compound things during that morning and evening peak period, that’s where that 15 to 20 percent came from. So going forward into the coming years, every one of those one or two or 3 percent of traffic that’s not in the peaks is having a three, four, or five six percent reduction in delay because traffic is avoiding the peak periods when conditions are at their worst.
Bernie Fette (16:14):
And that difference was not something that you were expecting would you have normally expected? Well, a 10 percent reduction in traffic volume is gonna give us a 10 percent improvement in congestion relief.
David Schrank (16:26):
Something like that. We just didn’t know what the cumulative effect of a 10 or 15 or 20 percent reduction in traffic would be. On the delay side of things. And you know, what we’ve been doing forever is we’ve been growing traffic, right? That’s what we did pre pandemic, it was every year it’s one or two or 3 percent more traffic than the previous year and we would get a little bit more delay. But now we got to see the flip side of that when you pull it all out, what was the net gain?
Bernie Fette (16:55):
And so we learned some lessons there. Some of the changes that we experienced, you mentioned remote work for instance. Some of those changes have been swinging back in the other direction to the way things were before, at least somewhat. But we can surely remember what that particular change taught us, what we learned about how a pandemic can eliminate traffic congestion, at least temporarily and to a limited degree. So in the absence of having a public health crisis to bring about a reduction in traffic, how else can we apply what we’ve learned from that experience? How else can we put those lessons to use?
David Schrank (17:38):
Well, I think we have to realize, I mean we always have, but we just didn’t know sort of to, again, to what extent of benefits we would get with reduction in traffic. And so we kinda have that now in our hip pocket. So going forward, we need to embrace that. Part of the solution set is to encourage as much traffic as possible to not be on the road system on any given day. Now again, that creates volatility because when everybody knew that Monday through Friday was gonna look the same pre-pandemic, you could plan for things, right? As we are going forward on any given day, 5, 10, 12, whatever percent of traffic may not be out there compared to the previous day or the previous week, then it becomes harder to plan ahead. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But at the same time, the real problem from a traffic perspective is again, not knowing what any given day’s gonna look like.
David Schrank (18:43):
And that becomes hard to plan a system and operate a system. But the travel demand management side of things is definitely in play going forward. And especially in Texas where we have massive amount of population growth. Some of the fastest growing counties in the country are right here in the state of Texas. And even if every other person who comes to Dallas or Austin works from home, well that’s only one of those two people. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, the other person’s gonna be on the roads needing transportation. Uh, and so they are going to occupy some space on the transportation network. And so as we continue to grow, we’re going to continue to need more transportation options in the future.
Bernie Fette (19:37):
And more transportation options goes hand in hand with what you mentioned about traffic demand management.
David Schrank (19:45):
They will, because as you’re adding extra miles, as you’re building more public transportation, as you’re doing other things to provide more system to be used, you can also look at opportunities to encourage some hybrid work or telecommuting such that you’re not only working on the supply side of the equation, you’re also dealing some with the demand side going forward.
Bernie Fette (20:15):
The supply side being just the amount of roadway space that we have out there,
David Schrank (20:20):
The amount of transportation options, roadway, public transportation. Hike and bike trails, those sorts of that allow people to move.
Bernie Fette (20:28):
Okay. So I’m thinking of the everyday commuter at the moment who might read about this study and they might say, okay, traffic’s bad and it’s getting worse. Why do we keep measuring this from year to year? What’s your answer to that?
David Schrank (20:46):
Well, as I mentioned earlier, when you monitor traffic congestion like this, it allows you to see how much benefit you get from doing things about the problem. Our number five on the list dropped down to number 12 after we made improvements to the location, we did this kind of improvement there. Our number eight on the list only dropped three places when we did this other improvement there. And so you can get an idea about sort of what benefits did you get from trying this kind of option here, that kind of option over there. And you can compare those and hopefully going forward, make more informed decisions about the type of treatments that we wanna apply at any given location.
Bernie Fette (21:34):
And to those who would say, what’s the big deal with traffic? Let’s just build more roads. What do you say to them?
David Schrank (21:43):
Well, I think every department of transportation in the United States, in the world, would love to say, let’s just build more transportation. Let’s do more things. But with limited budgets, that’s not really an option anywhere. You have to be thoughtful and try to get the most benefit or the most bang at every dollar that you spend. And so it’s important that we do some study to find out again, what benefits we did get. So going forward we can squeeze as much outta every dollar we put into our system.
Bernie Fette (22:20):
Okay. What might you expect, or what might you predict could happen on this topic over the next 12 months? I’m not asking you to pick a number, a number one or a top ten, but just more generally, what might you expect to happen in Texas in terms of roadway congestion over the next year?
David Schrank (22:42):
I think the things that we’ve been talking about all come into play here. Let me take a step back. So the road sections that typically traditionally have been in the top five and top 10 on the list, they’re in that portion of the list for a reason. These are critical links in these metro areas that are moving people moving goods and services and they’re doing so 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Mm-hmm.
Bernie Fette (23:11):
David Schrank (23:11):
There’s probably not going to be a day when those aren’t somewhere toward the top of the list because of the role they serve in these metro areas. I’m talking about the West loop in Houston or I-35 in Austin that have been near the top of the list for many, many, many years now. But what may change and continue to kind of ebb and flow a little bit, some of these commuter corridors, you know, it’s not the downtown section of I-35, it’s I-35 down near Buda or at Pflugerville. And those are locations where traditionally there’s been sort of a, an inbound flow in the morning and an outbound flow in the afternoon.
Bernie Fette (23:53):
For people not familiar with Texas, that would be a section of roadway to the north or to the south of an I-35 or a another major freeway like it.
David Schrank (24:03):
Yes. So we have a I-35 north of downtown Austin, I-35 south of downtown Austin, both feeding the job market in Austin. And so they would have an inbound flow in the morning and an outbound flow traditionally in the evening. As workers went into work and out from work with this hybrid work environment, they may continue to again, ebb and flow in the ranks a little bit because depending on how quickly those commuters return more to a five day in the office work environment versus this hybrid work will may hold the congestion growth a little bit at bay there for at least a while until the population growth in the state of Texas helps to carry it forward and push it up the ranks. The one thing I will add to that though that doesn’t seem to be letting up is growth in commercial travel in Texas. Mm-hmm.
Bernie Fette (24:59):
David Schrank (24:59):
And that is truck traffic. So truck traffic, as we grow, there’s more traffic to feed and clothe and house Texans, but we also have traffic going through Texas for the rest of the country. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so not only are these arteries in the state of Texas important for Texans, some of these arteries are important for the United States. So because the commercial traffic, the truck traffic, it’s not going to slow down. It’s not going to go back to some sort of pre-pandemic level because we continue to grow and we continue to have an increased demand for goods. You know, getting on your computer and asking for this to be delivered to your house and that to be delivered to your house. Those kind of things don’t seem to be letting up.
Bernie Fette (25:53):
So assuming that you and I might be having this same conversation again a year from now, now we have an official record to check against to see, to see how your prediction may have turned out. Sounds like it’s gonna be pretty reliable though.
David Schrank (26:07):
I don’t know that I’ll take it to Vegas, though, Bernie.
Bernie Fette (26:09):
Okay. <laugh>. Uh, last question. What is it that motivates you to show up to work every day?
David Schrank (26:16):
Well, I do find the work like this Texas 100 list very interesting because yes, parts of it are predictable, but it always seems there’s something new happening. And right now that new is, I’m not really sure when this hybrid work environment, when we’re gonna settle in on that and know, okay, next year it’s gonna look like this and the year after it’s gonna look like that. And so right now we’re sort of in a learning mode about what’s this going to look like six months from now, a year from now, five years from now. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, because looking back pre-pandemic, we talked about this stuff, we theorized about hybrid work and, but we sure didn’t really think it was going to be a reality a few years later.
Bernie Fette (27:07):
Or at least not to the extent that it has.
David Schrank (27:10):
Correct. It’s definitely in play and I don’t know, um, and maybe, I think I’ve read like 30 percent or something like that of workers potentially have some sort of telework option for part of their job. Well, that’s a lot of of workers out there who are in play for this ebb and flow situation I’ve talked about. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>,
Bernie Fette (27:32):
We have been visiting with David Schrank, a senior research scientist at TTI and head of the agency’s mobility division. In other words, Dave’s our chief expert in all things traffic gridlock-related. I always learn something whenever we talk Dave, and I’m confident that our listeners have learned a thing or two as well today. So thank you for sharing your insight with us.
David Schrank (27:58):
Thanks for having me, Bernie. Maybe one of these days we’ll get on here and I’ll talk about a lot better news that traffic congestion’s heading in the other direction.
Bernie Fette (28:08):
Covid 19 affected just about every aspect of our lives, including our daily travel experience, as well as an increased reliance on delivery of the products we needed from day to day. But as traffic conditions are making their return to pre-pandemic levels, we’re reminded of how roadway congestion is relative. How much it affects us depends a lot on where we live, but it’s definitely not just a big city problem. Thanks for listening. Please take just a minute to give us a review, subscribe and share this episode, and please join us again next time for another conversation about getting ourselves and the things we need from point A to point B. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for joining us. We’ll see you next time.