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Yes, Twin Cities traffic is sucking more lately, and it's about to get worse

MnDOT says freeway congestion is the worst its been in 25 years.

MnDOT says freeway congestion is the worst its been in 25 years. David Joles, Star Tribune

It is a truth universally acknowledged in the metro Twin Cities. The sky is blue, the lakes are many, and the traffic sucks.

But if you’re stuck somewhere on 494, perhaps idling in a bumper-to-bumper chain in Bloomington, you may have asked yourself: Has it been sucking worse lately?

Yes it has, confirms the Minnesota Department of Transportation. And there are numbers to back it up.

Last year, just over 24 percent of our freeway system was congested. Drivers were caught in traffic about a quarter of the time during their morning and afternoon commutes. It’s the highest level of congestion since 1993, when annual surveys began. (Note: It’s hard to compare from year to year before 2017, because that’s when we added 12 more miles to our freeways.)

For some perspective, the department takes these measurements only during October, and it defines freeway congestion as any time you’re creeping along at 45 miles per hour or less. That’s the magic speed at which you start seeing higher risk of crashes, or “shock waves” – those terrifying moments when entire chains of cars slam on their breaks in rapid succession.

And it gets grimmer. Because we have data going back to 1993, we can see the trendline. Based on the past five years – and on rising construction costs, population, and economic growth – we could be seeing around 35 percent congestion by 2030.

The department is trying to find ways to mitigate this. It already uses ramp meters to control the flow of cars getting onto the freeway, and MnPass lanes for carpools and buses. Completing construction on I-35 in downtown Minneapolis might make things a little better… for a while. But Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher has been advocating for more funds to improve the freeway system since the study’s release.

Of course, sucking is all relative. The Twin Cities are still a far cry from, say, Boston, where drivers spend an average of 164 hours sitting in traffic annually, burning nearly $2,300 a year doing it. A 2017 Access Across America study, which estimates accessibility to jobs by car for each of the 11 million U.S. Census blocks, actually ranks Minneapolis as having among the Top 10 least congested drives to work.

Yet studies also show Minneapolis had more accidents per 100,000 people than New York City, and that they disproportionately injure and kill pedestrians, low-income residents, and people of color, which means congestion may very well be the least of our worries.

So remember this next time you’re crawling down 169. As bad as things suck, they can always suck worse.