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Stuck in traffic -- in Buffalo?; Rush hour congestion in 2010 was worst on record, data shows

It starts when you drive up to a mile-long sea of red brake lights during your evening commute. It builds as the radio warns you to avoid the traffic jam you've been stuck in for 10 minutes.

It boils over as you realize you're missing your kid's Little League game or the reservation at your favorite Italian restaurant.

Now we know what you're thinking: This isn't Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles.

This is Buffalo, one of Kiplinger.com's "10 Best Cities for Commuters," where you can get anywhere in 20 minutes.

That part is all true, but a company that tracks national traffic patterns says our congestion is growing at a faster rate -- more than 50 percent over the past four years -- than congestion in the rest of the country.

In fact, rush-hour congestion in the Buffalo metro area in 2010 was the highest on record. That's according to the INRIX National Traffic Scorecard, which is based on data collected from four million GPS-equipped vehicles.

"It is getting worse," said someone who should know, Kris Boyer, a cabbie with Liberty Cab for 23 years. "Any time between 3 and 5:30, getting out of downtown is a nightmare."

So why is our congestion going up even as the population, work force and number of registered vehicles all declined?

For one thing, none of that has stopped traffic volume here from rising steadily. And whenever the Canadian dollar is strong, Ontario residents flock to this side of the border.

Further, experts believe people are driving greater distances, for work and personal reasons, than ever before as they move farther from Buffalo and the inner-ring suburbs.

But the biggest factor might be two big construction projects that slowed traffic flow in the Northtowns last year, even as drivers flock to the formerly tolled Niagara Thruway.

Congestion takes a toll in a number of ways: it wastes time that could be spent more productively, means more money is being spent on gasoline and adds to pollution due to idling vehicles.

That's why the agencies that manage our transportation system are trying out low- and high-tech solutions to the problem of congestion.

"It's the utilization of lanes, it's managing. There are a lot of nonstructural things you can do to improve congestion," said Hal Morse, executive director of the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council.

Sure, Kiplinger.com said we're the No. 5 big city in the country for ease of travel for commuters. But we do get some congestion, depending on when and where you're driving.

The morning and evening rush hours, in fact, start earlier and are spread out over a longer period of time, said State Police Capt. Michael Nigrelli, who oversees the division that patrols the Thruway system here.

"The traffic piles up on the 90, and the freeway section, the 190, and it lasts longer," he said.

The worst time of the week to drive on area roads is 5:15 to 5:30 p.m. Thursdays, INRIX says.

"That's the biggest problem in transportation, that you have a network that is congested for a few hours a day and underutilized for most of the day," said Adel Sadek, director of the University at Buffalo's Transportation Systems Laboratory.

The time of year is an issue, too, with congestion worst here in December and January, according to the INRIX report, likely because of winter storms.

INRIX uses data from GPS-equipped cars to calculate a Travel Time Tax, an indicator of traffic congestion, which rose 11 percent in the nation's 100 largest metro areas from 2009 to 2010. That figure still was down 27 percent from the pre-recession peak in 2007.

This congestion metric was just 5.6 percent in the Buffalo area, well below the 9.7 percent average for the 100 most populated metros last year.

"I've lived all over the world. We don't have traffic problems," said Robert Robinson, a part-owner of and driver for Buffalo Taxi Cab. "Generally, regular traffic, it doesn't even jam. It just slows down."

Don't ask how much congestion we have compared with other cities, said Dwight A. Hennessy, an associate professor of psychology at Buffalo State College who studies traffic psychology.

" 'Is there more than we want?' is the better question," he said. "It's all about the relative difference and the relative change."

And the stress and other emotional effects of sitting in traffic don't end when drivers get out of their cars, Hennessy said.

"They're really not turned off. It still has an impact, post-commute," he said.

The elements that seem to drive congestion are in decline here. Between 2006 and 2010, INRIX reported, employment here fell 1.6 percent -- keeping more commuters off the roads.

And the population for Erie and Niagara counties fell 3 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the number of registered vehicles in the two counties fell 1.6 percent over the past decade.

Yet congestion in the area rose 54.4 percent between 2006 and 2010, according to INRIX.

With the exception of the recession years, vehicle miles traveled in Erie and Niagara counties have risen steadily since the 1970s -- 8 percent over the past decade and 65 percent since 1980, the transportation council reports.

Some of the increased traffic likely is due to more Ontario drivers on our roads, and Morse said there is a correlation between the strength of the Canadian dollar and traffic on this side of the border.

"Look at the license plates on the vehicles -- a lot of Canadians here," said Buffalo Taxi Cab's Robinson. "We are sort of a tourist destination."

Generally speaking, we don't see serious traffic tie-ups unless there is a bad storm, an accident or construction, said Nigrelli, the state police captain.

The reason congestion was so high last year was construction on two projects: the rehabilitation of the South Grand Island Bridges and work on the ramps connecting the Youngmann Highway to the Niagara Thruway, according to Thomas George, executive director of the Niagara International Transportation Technology Coalition.

In fact, INRIX reported the worst bottlenecks in this area in 2010 were two segments of the northbound Niagara Thruway near the River Road exit, between the South Grand Island Bridges and the interchange with the Youngmann Highway.

"We're seeing fairly constant congestion numbers with the exception of those areas," George said.

NITTEC collects massive amounts of traffic data through its network of surveillance cameras, electronic sensors and police agencies, and the coalition issues a congestion "log" whenever congestion on a route is heavier than normal.

Based on those logs, periods of heavy congestion on the Niagara Thruway rose 35 percent between 2009 and 2010, George said, and they rose 22 percent on the Youngmann.

This region saw a change in its traffic patterns when the Thruway Authority stopped collecting tolls on the Niagara Thruway in 2006 and later removed the toll barriers at Breckenridge and Ogden streets.

Daily traffic on the Breckenridge section of the Niagara Thruway rose 35 percent between 2005, the last full year of the tolls, and 2008, the most recent year a traffic count was performed, according to data from the transportation council.

On the Ogden section, traffic rose 36 percent in those years.

"There was some shift onto those segments that previously were tolled," Morse said.

Overall, we are driving more miles as we move from Buffalo and the inner-ring communities to Clarence, Wheatfield and farther-flung suburbs.

"Nowadays, to survive in Buffalo, you must have a car," said Boyer, the Liberty Cab driver. "Everything's out in the suburbs."

As commuters sit in rush-hour bottlenecks, the thought that volume on local highways will continue to increase is enough to induce road rage.

Officials are taking some high-tech steps to fight congestion.

Electronic message boards that loom over the Thruway system here now list estimated travel times to reach certain destination points, and NITTEC issues congestion warnings via text or e-mail to motorists through its MY NITTEC program.

The transportation council has a Good Going WNY website that offers alternatives to travelers beyond their solo commutes to work in a car or SUV, while a number of GPS-based applications offer traffic updates to drivers.

Further down the road, engineers say vehicles that drive themselves could cut down on congestion because they could travel safely at higher speeds, with less space between each vehicle and less time spent waiting at intersections.

But anyone who wants to feel better about our congestion won't have to travel into the future, UB's Sadek said.

"I think a trip to LA or Washington would make us understand that we're very lucky to have the level of congestion we have here," he said.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com