Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The traffic will only be getting worse. Here’s what AAA, Inrix, and Waze have to say about avoiding Christmas jams.
Too bad we can’t all travel by flying sleigh: Based on trip data from previous years gathered by INRIX, the transportation analytics firm, this season’s holiday-related car traffic in U.S. metros could slow down drives by as much as three times the normal duration.
More than 107 million Americans are expected to mobilize via plane, train, and automobile between December 23 and January 1—the highest year-end travel volume on record, according to the American Automobile Association. Roughly 97 million will be going by car.
As a general rule, holiday drivers in major metros can expect easier drives in the early morning or right after the a.m. rush hour. Traveling on Christmas Day itself (and New Year’s Day for the return trip) might be the best bet. Though it may be a sad or hungover journey, the roads tend to be much quieter.
The worst congestion is predicted to hit, well, right about now—on the weekdays before Christmas, as commuters sneak out of the office in the late afternoons on Wednesday, December 20 and Thursday, December 21. AAA broke down the ugliness further for ten major metros, based on historical and contemporary traffic data. In parentheses are expected “delay multipliers”—that is, how much longer trips can be expected to take, on average:
New York, NY: Wednesday, Dec. 20 3:30 - 5:30 PM (3x)
Los Angeles, CA: Wednesday, Dec. 20 3:30 - 6:00 PM (2.5x)
Washington, D.C.: Thursday, Dec. 21 3:00 - 6:00 PM (2.5x)
San Francisco, CA: Wednesday, Dec. 20 3:00 - 5:30 PM (2x)
Chicago, IL: Thursday, Dec. 21 4:00 - 6:00 PM (2x)
Boston, MA: Thursday, Dec. 21 2:30 - 4:30 PM (2x)
Seattle, WA: Wednesday, Dec. 20 4:00 - 6:00 PM (2x)
Atlanta, GA: Thursday, Dec. 21 4:30 - 6:30 PM (1.5x)
Houston, TX: Wednesday, Dec. 20 5:30 - 7:30 PM (1.5x)
Detroit, MI: Thursday, Dec. 21 3:00 - 5:30 PM (1.5x)
Yeesh. If Wednesday and Thursday look bad, you might want to avoid Friday, too, at least based on last year’s patterns. Waze, the crowdsourced traffic app owned by Google, pulled trip data from users in 130 metros between December 22, 2016 and January 4, 2017, and found that December 22, from 3-5 p.m., was the absolute worst time to drive. (According to data analytics firm Hopper, it is also the busiest day to fly.)
While these traffic forecasts highlight the least-ideal times to travel, it’s rarer to see specific recommendations for the best times. In the past, Waze published drilled-down predictions for the smoothest holiday rides, in keeping with the app’s basic service: using crowdsourced data to navigate drivers through less-trafficked bypasses. But, in a less-than-stunning turn of events, it seems what’s best for the individual isn’t what’s best for society. On holidays (sort of like every day!), “best time” predictions seemed to have the effect of worsening traffic compared to historic patterns, said Terry Wei, a Waze spokesperson. “Given our penetration and influence over mobility, we no longer provide the best times to drive,” she said. (This holiday season, mull wine as well as tech’s penetration and influence over our most basic movements.)
What if we all asked Santa for traffic-free cities on future holidays? The gift would probably come in the form of high-capacity transit. Here’s a fresh take that old chestnut: Research published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances studied how “resilient” road networks in 40 major U.S. cities are in the face of, say, bad weather or big sporting events. Sprawling cities known for having an excess of surface streets (like Los Angeles and Phoenix) turn out to be a lot more capable of absorbing those shocks, while more compact cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are more easily brought to a standstill, relatively speaking. The outlier was New York City: historically speaking, the city’s extensive mass transit options (seriously flawed as they are) have helped the city absorb spikes in traffic.
Congestion-wise, until cities maintain what trains and buses they have and build more, we’ll just keep getting coal in our stockings—and burning its fossil fuel cousins too.