MassDOT Study Shows It’s Basically Impossible to Predict How Long Your Commute Will Take

A new report found that the Greater Boston area has reached a "tipping point" when it comes to roadway congestion.

Cars in gridlock

Photo via iStock/Grafissimo

No, it’s not just your imagination: Traffic really has gone from bad to worse in the past few years.

Thursday morning, MassDOT released a new report analyzing greater Boston’s traffic congestion patterns since 2013, and the data sheds light on the city’s complex and escalating gridlock issues.

“If the problem of congestion is complicated, the solutions are even more vexing: there is no single, let alone simple, solution to congestion,” the report reads.

Largely, the data confirms what Boston drivers have been feeling for years. Rush hour starts at 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., and many roadways are congested outside of those times, too. Route 28 is the worst offender, but commutes on Fresh Pond Parkway and I-93 are also not smooth sailing. It’s basically impossible to get to the airport at the time you want to.

However, one of the most interesting findings in the report is based upon some surprising data—that on an average day, traffic here hasn’t actually gotten much worse. When you compare an average day of traffic in 2018 to an average day in 2013, the two years for which MassDOT has complete data, the minutes it takes to get from Point A to Point B have increased by only 1-2 minutes on most roadways. Increases of over ten minutes or more over the five year span were relatively rare.

So why does everyone feels like they’re spending half their lives in their cars these days? It’s because the bad days—the days when your commute is horribly, disastrously upended—have gotten much, much worse.

For many hours of the day, Massachusetts’ roads are now carrying the maximum possible number of vehicles. At a press conference announcing the release of the report, transportation secretary Stephanie Pollack pointed out that this increase is a “symptom of success.” The roads are bad because the local population has grown and the job market is good. However, this also means that a simple slowdown, caused by something as small as a fender bender, a construction crew on the shoulder, or even really bright sun, often results in what Pollack calls “cascading congestion,” a ripple effect of traffic that—thanks to the small size of our city and the interconnectedness of our roads—ends up jam-packing multiple roadways.

Take this example cited in the report: According to the report’s findings, a drive from Burlington to Kendall Square can take anywhere from 25 to 75 minutes. The average trip takes 40 minutes—but on one out of every ten days, the commute takes almost an hour.

This is a phenomenon all Bostonians recognize. While you may leave your house at the same time every morning, you might end up at work early, on time, or several minutes late. So, if you know you need to get somewhere punctually, you’re going to plan for the worst, which can mean allotting an hour for a commute that could take less than half that time.

“A new word called ‘cushioning’ has found its way into the commuter lexicon,” Governor Charlie Baker said at the press conference.

During the conference, both Baker and Pollack heavily emphasized the need for greater reliability on the road. To get there, the report suggests a variety of strategies, including updating roads with more nuanced signal timing, expanding bus lanes, increasing MBTA capacity, producing more affordable housing close to public transit stops, and encouraging employers to embrace remote work and telecommuting.

“MassDOT alone cannot make the Commonwealth’s transportation system more reliable—or accessible or sustainable or equitable,” the report reads. “Nothing less than a coordinated and collaborative effort will make a significant difference.”

Access the full report here.