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Here’s snarling at you: Study identifies Massachusetts traffic tie-ups

Last updated on May 16, 2017 at 02:42 pm

New study pinpoints the 15 neighborhoods causing the most traffic volume (and what you can do to avoid them)

Remember the commuter-crazed opening scene from Office Space when the nonagenarian inching along with a walker is speedier than the main character stuck in his car?

If that’s ever happened to you, take heart: a new study by engineers at MIT and UC Berkeley, “Understanding Road Usage Patterns in Urban Areas,” used drivers’ cell phone signals to create the most detailed map of traffic patterns yet, in hopes of shedding light on who’s causing the endless waits on our way to work.

Turns out it’s only a few drivers that screw up rush hour for the rest of us. (Isn’t it always the way?) During peak traffic hours, a whopping 98 percent of Boston area roads are actually below capacity—which, if you do the math, leaves a mere 2 percent of our roadways with too many cars and not enough lanes. The backups on these 15 “census tracks” (geographic areas defined by the U.S. Census) ripple out to create stressful commutes for thousands, because the same small pack of drivers travel on the same few roads at the same time.

The researchers analyzed anonymous call logs (which identify cellphone transmission towers) for more than one million Bay Area and metro Boston commuters to pinpoint commutes across the two regions from start to finish—creating a new, more comprehensive and accurate way to tackle traffic engineering (earlier methods relied on pen and paper surveys to track traffic patterns and flow). The engineers then compared the call data with metro area census tracks to determine the most egregious hot spots for traffic volume.

Of the 750 census tracks in Massachusetts, the 15 trouble spots are in Everett, Marlborough, Lawrence, Lowell and Waltham. That’s because drivers who commute from these cities are forced to use fewer roads more frequently than residents in cities and towns who may drive less or have more transportation options: more roads, more public transportation, or the ability to commute by walking or biking, for example.

So what’s the solution to our Beantown-area traffic woes? Researchers suggest we start not by building more roads or adding more lanes, but by focusing on alleviating traffic in these 15 hot spots first.

A small shift could make a huge difference. If just an additional 1 percent of commuters left their cars at home and shared a ride, took the train or bus, telecommuted or walked or biked to work, everyone who drove into the city of Boston during rush hour would get home almost 20 percent faster at night. In other words, that 1-hour commute you slog through now would slim down to a more palatable 48 minutes. And while 12 minutes may not seem like a big difference, those minutes add up to a huge chunk of time over the course of your commuting and working life.

If you can’t live closer to your workplace (or in the city itself, where you can often get around faster without a car than with one) you may want to consider other options besides driving to work every day. You’ll reduce your stress levels considerably, and be able to sneak in some precious exercise and fresh air (if you walk or bike). You could also consider sharing a ride or taking the train, bus, or ferry to the office. That way, you can read, text, work, or just chill out on your way to work and avoid the strain on your body, your mind, and your vehicle.

What to learn more?

Dig a little deeper…Kevin Hartnett wrote about this in the Boston Globe last month; you can read his article and check out a detailed traffic flow map here.

Feeling nerdy? If you’re a math and statistics whizz, you can go straight to the source and read the MIT/UC Berkeley study by clicking here.

Headquartered in Boston, Plymouth Rock Assurance Corporation provides auto insurance to personal and commercial auto insurance customers in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Plymouth Rock is a member of The Plymouth Rock Group of Companies, which together write and manage over $1 billion in auto and homeowner’s insurance throughout the northeast.

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