WASHINGTON, D. C. (Monday, September 3, 2018)–– On that dreadful day after Labor Day, “Terrible Traffic Tuesday,” a doomsday scenario unfolds on area freeways and roadways. It is a shock to the system of millions of commuters in the region, as severe congestion, some say it is the worst in the nation, returns to area freeways. Collectively, Washington area residents and motorists will once again experience the hell that is Washington metro area traffic. They will be mired in high volume traffic along the area’s clogged road network, and will have to navigate around major vehicular congestion near schools and in neighborhoods.
It is a day of reckoning fraught with traffic delays and rampant congestion for the first time since the summertime respite on area freeways when many Washington area residents were away on vacation. For example, last “Terrible Traffic Tuesday” area commuters experienced a 15 percent increase in average time wasted sitting in traffic delays, at a collective cost of $3.5 million that day alone, compared to 21 days earlier on the second Tuesday in August. Previous years have shown a 20-25 percent increase for the same period.
Beginning the day after Labor Day, and on each successive workday, most commuters will again experience a significant increase in travel delays from what they saw during August. This is especially true of seven major freeways in the region each and every year, according to data from the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology Laboratory (CATT) at the University of Maryland and the Metropolitan Area Transportation Operations Coordination (MATOC) Program. Without fail, September after September, year-in and year-out, travelers along these freeways see dramatic increases in travel times and travel delays after summer comes to an abrupt end on Labor Day. Let’s “round up the usual suspects” and name names.
· I-270 in Maryland from Capital Beltway (I-495) to I-70.
· I-66 from Potomac River (DC) to US-17.
· I-395 from the Springfield Interchange or the “Mixing Bowl” (I-495) to the Third Street Tunnel.
· Virginia State Route 267 from I-66 to the Leesburg Bypass.
· The Capital Beltway Counterclockwise (Outer Loop).
· The Capital Beltway Clockwise (Inner Loop).
· I-295 (including I-695) from I-495 to the Third Street Tunnel.
These seven freeway segments also have another thing in common. Travel times and congestion delays are consistently longer in October than they are even in September. Interstate 95 in Virginia and Maryland and US-50 in Maryland also see increases, but these are variable as the roadways are still subject to thru travelers and late summer/beach traffic. The Transportation Planning Board (TPB) calls it the “September Shock” a term it uses to describe “the month-long phenomenon in which traffic delays on the region’s roadways bounce back in a big way from their annual summertime lull.”
“How terrible is it? The day after Labor Day marks the ramp-up of the post-summer recurrence of severe congestion on area freeways that continues well into autumn. With summer in the rearview mirror, congestion delays will mount and travel times will diminish regionally with each passing day,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs. “Terrible Tuesday signals the return of 60 percent of area commuters driving to work alone at least three days a week, and the return of 1.9 million vehicle trips per workday in Washington, D.C., which ‘tops the list of gridlock-plagued cities.’ On the day after Labor Day, and throughout September, and then into October, the breathing space we enjoyed in our egressions on area freeways during the workweek and weekends in July and August will be in short supply.”
Starting tomorrow, area commuters will encounter markedly more traffic on the region’s major networks of freeways and experience clearly noticeable longer trip times at much slower highway speeds than in August, as we once again compete with the whole world, or so it seems, for road space during peak hours. The Tuesday after Labor Day is not the “worst of the worst,” it simply marks the “beginning of the beginning,” serving up a harbinger and precursor of the autumnal surge in traffic overloads on area freeways and arteries and peak-hour traffic congestion throughout September, and it peaks in October.
We will feel it in our bones and marrow as we while away the hours in returning gridlock and “fall”-ing travel speeds during peak periods along “different routes and times.” To measure the extent and impact of the post-summer congestion that reappears on area roadways in September and October, the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology Laboratory (CATT) at the University of Maryland and the Metropolitan Area Transportation Operations Coordination (MATOC) Program, which monitors in real time occurrences that generate major traffic tie-ups or transit delays, tracked aggregate delays on the region’s freeway system during the 31 days of August 2017 and the 30 days of September 2017.
“As summer turns to September and millions of children across the metro area head to school, traffic worsens on area freeways, as area motorists face twice the delays they experienced on some freeways a month earlier, especially during the evening rush hour,” said Michael Pack, Director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology Laboratory (CATT) at the University of Maryland. “After a summertime respite, it is a shock to the system. Each year, morning travel delay consistently jumps by 15 to 45 percent between August and September. That is likely to happen this September too.”
“With area freeways brimming with congestion and delays, come September it only takes little things such as road work and lane closures to increase travel delays, and so can ‘one-off events,’ such as bad weather, a stalled vehicle, or a crash on a freeway segment during the height of rush hour. That’s when things go from bad to worse,” said Taran (Hutch) Hutchinson, Facilitator at the Metropolitan Area Transportation Operations Coordination (MATOC) Program. “The ripple effects of a temporary 50 percent reduction of roadway capacity during rush hour can have long-lasting impacts on the area’s roadway network, not to mention other transportation modes. By integrating technologies, improving procedures and planning, and providing more accurate and timely information to public, regional transportation agencies are working together to make travel smoother and safer on area freeways and all our roadways.”
Approximately half of all delays are attributed to non-recurring congestion caused by events such as collisions, disabled vehicles, work zones, weather and special events. Other variables, including the beginning of a new school year, also contribute to increased travel times and delays as students return to the classroom. In Maryland, public schools now begin after Labor Day. Most public schools in Northern Virginia open the week before Labor Day, while Washington, D.C.’s schools open one week before their Virginia counterparts. Inevitably, with more commuters utilizing the transportation network during morning and afternoon rush, capacity issues are all but certain. The reality is, we cannot all occupy the same fixed space at the same time.
Starting in September, “up to 20 or 30 percent of morning traffic can be generated by parents driving their children to school,” according to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. “In 2009, American families drove 30 billion miles and made 6.5 billion vehicle trips to take their children to and from schools, representing 10-14 percent of traffic on the road during the morning commute.”
MATOC’s member departments of transportation and public transit agencies have their work cut out for them as they work together to reduce travel delays. Transportation management centers, highway safety patrols, quick clearance initiatives, move over laws, integrated public safety centers, ramp metering, synchronized traffic signals, reversible/managed lanes, and bus/bike lanes are just some of tools in transportation agencies’ toolkit used to keep commuters moving.
In contrast, during mid-August, the region’s freeways were less busy and demonstrably less congested, as the “summertime lull” manifested itself. From midnight to midnight on August 15, highway users on the region’s freeway network suffered $3 million in travel delay costs. The scorecard also shows they had to cope with over 122,000 person hours of delays and over 100,000 vehicle-hours of delay four days after the end of the Dog Days of Summer during 2017, according to MATOC’s analysis.
The day-to-day variations between travel times and peak-period speed reductions on area freeways in August and September are striking. The slower speeds that recur on area freeways in September, is ample proof it takes area residents, motorists and travelers, longer to make the same trip than it did in mid-summer. Even so, traffic congestion patterns were more diffused and spread out during the morning and afternoon hours and more constricted during the late afternoon and evening rush hours on major freeways throughout the Washington Metro area, according to the roadway inventory data from MATOC and CATT.
To ascertain the difference and variance from July and August to September and October, including workdays and weekends, CATT and MATOC analyzed patterns, incidents and comings and goings on the busiest and most congested freeways in the region, such as the Inner Loop and Outer Loop of the Capital Beltway (I-95/I-495); I-270; Virginia State Route 267; I-66 inside and outside the Capital Beltway; the general purpose lanes on I-395 in Northern Virginia; and I-95 in Virginia from I-495 to the Rappahannock River crossing, where a major $132 million project is underway to reduce Interstate 95 congestion at Fredericksburg.
The experts at MATOC and CATT also monitored the nature of the commute on the Maryland and District of Columbia side of the Potomac River, including I-95 in Maryland, between the two Beltways or from I-495 to I-695; I-270 from I-495 to I-70; U.S. 50 in Maryland from the D.C.–– Maryland line to the Bay Bridge. They also tracked traffic delays along hot spots “experiencing severe congestion,” such as I-395 from I-495 to the Third Street Tunnel in the nation’s capital; and along I-695, I-295, and the Anacostia Freeway.
In layman’s terms, “travel delay costs” refers to the “value of a person’s time” spent or squandered sitting in congestion. The idiom “person-hours of delay” describes “the total amount of time” all drivers and passengers on freeway segments in the Washington metro area were delayed due to congestion, vis-à-vis or compared to the time required to make the same trip at free-flow speeds. The rubric “vehicle-hours of delay” is a yardstick measuring “the total amount of time all vehicles” on freeway segments in the Washington metro area were delayed. Once more, Washington area residents will feel the brunt of 20 million trips daily.
So brace yourself. “Half of these 20 million trips are made during rush-hour,” warns the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance (SMTA). It will take all of us longer to reach our destinations as we resume the post-summer routines of dropping off the kids at school, heading to work or going to the market. Yet as “Terrible Tuesday” returns, we will all “wish those halcyon days of summer could come back once more.”
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