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Does Boston Have Its Worst Traffic Jams of the Year in August?

According to a WBZ NewsRadio reporter, it's impossible to predict.


Welcome to “One Last Question,” a series where research editor Matthew Reed Baker tackles your most Bostonian conundrums. Have a question? Email him at [email protected].


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Question:

As everyone knows, driving really sucks in Boston. But every time the college students come back to town, the congestion always seems to get even worse. Does the end of August really bring the worst traffic jams of the year? —A.G., Brighton

Answer:

Don’t take this the wrong way, A.G., but your question filled me with the existential dread typically reserved for my afternoon commute. Our hideous gridlock has caused despair for generations, even more so since the traffic-analysis company INRIX named us the most congested city in the United States this spring. It’s also a topic about which there are plenty of clear opinions, but no clear statistics: In researching your question, I found out that city and state transportation departments don’t compile total daily traffic volumes. Out of luck in getting official numbers for Greater Boston, I soon felt I had steered myself into an I-93 bottleneck with little chance of reaching an answer for you.

So for a view from above, I turned to Kristen Eck, who’s logged more than 5,000 flight hours as WBZ NewsRadio’s helicopter traffic reporter since 1997. From her extensive anecdotal experience, Eck says she’s found that the big student move-in is actually spread out over a two-week period, so unless you live in a college-kid hotbed like Brighton, you don’t see that much more traffic on a daily basis unless a moving truck hits the underside of a river-road overpass (ah, the joys of “Storrowing”). Instead, she cited the drive home on Mother’s Day as well as Columbus Day as the most persistent traffic offenders. But Eck also says the worst days are the unexpected ones: A good example was October 11, 2018, which earned the designation of Boston’s worst traffic day of the year from GPS maker TomTom when a thunderstorm caused power outages and downed trees during the commute.

If the end of summer isn’t really the worst time of year for traffic, then, why does it feel like it? Eck suggests it’s more the result of everyone returning to a regimented fall schedule. “When people are done with vacation, [traffic] is much heavier again,” she says. “You’ve been used to having a little bit of an easier time of it for the past couple months, but it’s really only been a 6-mile backup out of Reading and Woburn instead of the usual 8-mile backup.” And thus endeth the lesson: Why compare, if it sucks no matter how you quantify and analyze it, any time, anywhere? And on that defeated note, I’m going to finally get off at this exit here…I was supposed to be home eons ago.