FHWA’s 2015 Urban Congestion Report uses big data to show slight improvements

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Big data is a popular term used to describe the massive amounts of information being produced by contemporary systems. These large data sets often require advanced analytical tools to process the data into information for decision making. One of these examples of a big data source is now being used by the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) to assist regional agencies in monitoring their transportation systems.

The USDOT’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has published its 2015 Urban Congestion Trends Report (UCR), which provides the current state of road congestion and reliability in the largest urban areas of the USA. The new report marks the second year of calculating congestion and reliability metrics with the National Performance Management Research Data Set (NPMRDS), which is an example of a big data source, created from vehicles on the transportation system. It includes actual, observed travel times on the National Highway System (NHS) and is available for use by state departments of transportation (DOTs) and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) for their performance management activities.

The UCR documents several examples from state and local agencies using NPMRDS to better understand how their transportation system is operating. The report also highlights relevant successful operational strategies and performance management approaches implemented by state and local transportation agencies.

Operational strategies provide proven methods for improving the performance of the transportation system, whether through reducing congestion, improving reliability, or creating options for travelers. Operational strategies often result in other benefits, such as increased safety, and improved environmental outcomes, such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The report includes highlights of innovative ways states and local agencies throughout the country have implemented effective operations and measured the impacts of congestion.

The report concludes with a discussion of the importance of traffic volume data when aggregating performance measures. The report offers detailed analyses of three examples of state and local transportation agencies that are using the NPMRDS to compute performance measures and evaluate their transportation systems: the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).

Overall, the Urban Congestion Report shows that congestion has slightly decreased between 2014 and 2015. Hours of congestion declined by 23 minutes from 5:03 (2014) to 4:40 (2015) and the planning time index declined slightly from 2.68 (2014) to 2.65 (2015). The travel time index increased one point from 1.33 (2014) to 1.34 (2015). For the 52 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) studied, congestion: improved in 35% (18) of the MSAs; had no change in 63% (33); and worsened in only 2% (1). The time penalty for a trip on an average day decreased or remained unchanged in 67% (35) of the MSAs, and travel time on the worst day per month decreased or remained unchanged in 75% (39) of the MSAs.

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since he joined the company in May 2014. Prior to this he worked on some of the UK's leading consumer magazine titles including Men's Health and Glamour, beginning his career in journalism in 1997 after graduating with a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).

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