The Best Days to Commute in Metro Areas

New data shows what day you chose to drive matters. View data showing the best and worst days for 100 metro areas.
by | August 3, 2012

The typical Los Angeles area commuter with an hour round trip spends a combined 20 minutes delayed or sitting idle during Thursday rush-hour traffic, but only about 14 minutes on Mondays. In Chicago, congestion tacks three minutes onto a similar motorist’s trips on Fridays compared to Mondays.

For many commuters in dense metropolitan areas, the days they choose to drive matter. Research firm Inrix compiled one year of traffic data for Governing, showing a disparity in commuting delays for different weekdays across U.S. metro areas.

If there’s a best day to drive in most major cities, it’s Monday. Of all weekdays, traffic delays were shortest on Mondays in 78 of the 100 metro areas measured.

Alan Pisarski, a travel behavior consultant, said this is because after the weekend some workers take the day off, either while on extended vacations or flex time. People also generally make fewer evening plans on Mondays, freeing up roadways during the evening commute.

“Certainly, those who haven’t thought about this should recognize it,” Pisarski said. “There is much more variation than one would think.”

For some traveling along major corridors, the difference in daily commuting delays is significant. As previously reported, Friday afternoons are the worst time to drive in the vast majority of areas, with out-of-town travelers clogging interstates. Inrix spokesman Jim Bak said the worst day of the week to drive typically fluctuates between Thursdays and Fridays in most cities.

Los Angeles, Honolulu and San Francisco recorded the longest combined morning and afternoon average weekday delays.

Delays are much longer for most traveling along major corridors, while those with shorter local commutes experience shorter delays during peak travel periods.

Smaller metro areas with less-congested roads typically experience much less variation in daily commuting delays, the traffic data shows.

Totals for this report tallied traffic delays from 7 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. on all roadways up through May, including highways, city streets and arterial roads. Inrix receives more than 100 million daily reports via mobile navigation applications, GPS systems in commercial and private vehicles and data compiled by road sensors. Bak said the company’s analytics adjust for cars stuck at traffic lights and other factors unrelated to backups.

In Austin, a trip taking 30 minutes with no congestion is delayed about four minutes during Monday rush-hour traffic. On Thursdays, the busiest day, this jumps to seven minutes per trip.

The difference is particularly noticeable along U.S. 290 and portions of U.S. 183 around Austin, said John Hurt, a Texas Department of Transportation public affairs officer.

“The drive into Austin is a breeze on Monday morning,” he said.

Friday afternoons typically experience the most traffic gridlock along the region’s roadways, Hurt said, while most return home by Sunday night.

Concerts, road races and other major events also require the department to take steps to ease congestion. Construction crews perform roadwork only during the evenings Sunday through Thursday.

Some in Austin and other sprawling metropolitan areas alter their commuting habits to fit daily traffic patterns.

“People are leaving when they think they stand a chance to do well,” Pisarski said.

The Inrix estimates mirror figures reported in the Federal Highway Administration’s 2009 National Household Travel Survey. The FHA’s data indicates morning rush-hour traffic is lightest on Mondays, with the most trips on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Monday was also shown to have more than 8 percent fewer trips between 4 and 7 p.m. than Fridays in the survey.

Along with traffic congestion, rush hour has gradually expanded over the years to accommodate shifts in employment and lifestyle behavior. Decades ago, peak travel times were confined to one hour in the morning and afternoon. This grew to a couple hours in the 1970s and 80s as families migrated to suburbs and began to arrive later to work, Pisarski said. Now, the nation’s largest metro areas typically experience four-hour peak travel periods.

Truckers used to rest during rush hour, Pisarski said, but now can’t afford to wait out the traffic.

Transportation advocates have pushed for added infrastructure investment to help alleviate traffic bottlenecks. But with limited state and federal funding, this isn’t an option for most areas.

Instead, Pisarski said governments should look to encourage carpooling and related low-cost solutions.

“These things are not inexpensive and, more importantly, they are things you can do tomorrow morning,” he said.

Metro Area Traffic Delay Data

The following table shows data measured for peak morning and afternoon commutes in core-based statistical areas, as defined by the federal government, from May 2011 to May 2012. Figures represent the delay, in minutes, for a one-way trip taking 30 minutes with no traffic congestion. The numbers are averages across an entire region, so motorists traveling longer distances on major corridors will likely experience longer delays.

Friday Afternoon Commutes Map

Click a city on the map to display data for its metro area. Larger makers represent a higher Inrix commute delay index, which refers to the percentage of average additional time added to a Friday commute between 4 and 7 p.m. An index of 20, for example, would mean a trip taking 30 minutes without traffic is delayed six minutes.

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