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Boston ranks worst in US for rush-hour traffic second year in a row

Traffic congestion in Boston again topped a national ranking in 2019.
Traffic congestion in Boston again topped a national ranking in 2019.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It’s back-to-back titles for Boston, which for the second year in a row ranked worst in the US in a highly watched ranking of congestion in global cities.

Boston’s rush-hour drivers lost 149 hours commuting in 2019, worse than any other city in the US and ninth-worst in the world, according to INRIX, a Washington state-based Microsoft spinoff that analyzes travel patterns through smartphones, GPS devices, and other data sources.

While few who brave Boston’s roads would dispute that things are ugly, the top-spot ranking last year was something of a surprise to many who have seen bird-eye videos of the epic traffic jams in Los Angeles, and given that Boston is relatively small compared to other metropolises like New York or Chicago.

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But the distinction is a result of what is being measured: Not who has the worst traffic outright, period, but who sees the most severe impacts from rush hour. The typical Boston driver loses 149 hours during rush hour that they might not if they drove during free-flow conditions.

INRIX analysts said that may be a result of geographic boundaries like the Atlantic Ocean and Boston’s largely non-grid street layout that developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, causing backups as drivers plow into the city from the highway.

“A city’s age is the best predictor of congestion, followed by geography,” said INRIX transportation analyst Trevor Reed. “That level of density and those small streets lend poorly to automobile use.”

Chicago ranked second with 145 lost hours, Philadelphia third at 142, New York fourth with 140, and Washington, D.C., fifth at 124. Washington saw a major improvement from last year, largely attributable to the 2019 government shutdown, Reed said.

Bogota, Columbia, topped the international rankings with 191 lost hours, with Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City rounding out the top three.

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Though Boston was still tops in the US, the data did show some progress — about 15 hours’ worth. In the previous year, the analysis found, Boston drivers 164 lost hours.

INRIX also made a slight tweak to how it presented the data this year to account for another criticism of its rankings: that driving isn’t the only way people get around. The company noted Boston as having relatively good access to transit, and OK bike infrastructure.

It bears some mentioning that INRIX is not the only company to develop these types of rankings, and Boston doesn’t always fare so poorly. The GPS company TomTom, for example, pegged Boston as 13th worst in the US and 184th in the world last year. Its ranking found Boston drives take 26 percent longer than they would in free-flow conditions.

But the idea that Boston traffic has gotten bad isn’t particularly controversial around here. Last year, the Baker administration issued a report analyzing congestion and found that the state had reached a “tipping point.”

The report made several recommendations, from finding strategies to clear traffic more quickly, increasing remote work, adding more housing near transit, and potentially allowing higher-capacity services, like buses, to run in highway shoulders. The state also said it would consider putting tolls on some highway lanes to allow fast access to the city, but stopped short of calling for more comprehensive congestion pricing strategies that put a price across the board on commuting into downtown.

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Some aspects of these recommendations are included in pending legislation on Beacon Hill or in studies at the state Department of Transportation.

“There is no single silver bullet solution to congestion and easing traffic will require collaboration among state agencies, municipal leaders, employers and developers," said Jacquelyn Goddard, a spokeswoman for the transportation department, adding that officials would work to improve public transit as one primary strategy.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.