The average distance traveled during rush hour by Richmond drivers jumped 56.8 percent between 1982 and 2001 — the largest increase in pavement-pounding among 51 U.S. cities and the result of the Richmond region's aggressively sprawled development pattern, according to a recent report by the national group CEOs for Cities.
“Measuring Urban Transportation Performance,” paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation, ranks Richmond the fourth-worst city for time spent in the car during peak travel periods. The report found that the average Richmond-area motorist spends 242 hours behind the wheel annually between the hours of 6 and 10 in the morning and 3 and 7 in the evening.
More than 500,000 commuters hit the road during metro Richmond's rush hour, traveling an average of 22.5 miles per trip, according to the report. Regions with spread-out, less compact development patterns — such as Birmingham, Ala., Nashville, Tenn., Oklahoma City and Richmond — rank worst for traffic because drivers travel longer distances, the report found, and log more total hours of driving.
The rankings offer a new perspective on traffic congestion, says Trip Pollard, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. The more commonly cited Urban Mobility Report, an annual study by the Texas Transportation Institute, measures traffic congestion based on time spent in bumper-to-bumper traffic. This report focuses on the distances traveled.
“It's a different way of looking at congestion,” Pollard says.
Indeed, rush-hour delays aren't really Richmond's problem. Area drivers spend 20 extra hours in the car because of backups every year, compared with 70 extra hours for drivers in Los Angeles. But the lack of actual congestion, coupled with an elaborate road network and few regional transit options, in essence leads to more driving. Richmond drivers spend more time in their cars annually than Los Angles motorists — 242 hours versus 213 — during peak travel times, according to the report.
Pollard says the problem is the political approach to dealing with traffic congestion. Improving roads and expanding them to alleviate traffic delays is likely to lead to just as much driving, if not more. Richmond is a case in point.
“As we worry about congestion and getting around the region, we need to focus primarily on land use in our region,” Pollard says. “What we've learned over time is expanding the [road] supply is not a good long-term solution. You end up with just as long a commute and a longer commute per capita.”