March 27, 2008

Traffic Worse On Fridays

Stupid Question ™
Nov. 12, 1998
By John Ruch
© 1998

Q: Why is rush-hour traffic worse on Fridays?

A: Could be that you just notice traffic more when you want to get your weekend started. One Columbus, Ohio traffic cop tells me that Mondays and Fridays are actually lighter because of workers taking three-day weekends.

WOSU-AM traffic reporter Tom Reynolds says Friday morning traffic is usually lighter for that reason, and that Friday evening traffic is “especially bad” only about once a month.

That’s what I’ve always assumed. And that’s why I’m always surprised when I go down I-71 toward downtown and hit a wall of brake lights at Hudson Street.

It’s not that these guys are wrong. It’s just that “lighter” and “especially bad” are relative terms, particularly when used by vets who know what really bad traffic looks like.

The other dozen people I talked to agree that Friday evenings are the worst rush hour of the week. City traffic engineers actually avoid putting up new traffic signals on Fridays because of the extra-big backups it can cause.

However, there’s little agreement about why Fridays are worse. Pet theories abound, and will until somebody can track the movements of each and every Columbus car.

City traffic engineer David Krier, representing the TGIF School, says rush hour is lengthened by nobody working late and many leaving early. Sheer volume is the problem.

The Xenophobic School, on the other hand, blames out-of-town travelers who happen to hit our rush hour.

“Some Friday mornings, I can do 65 all the way downtown, which tells me workers are taking the day off,” says Brian Martin of the Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission’s transportation department. “But in the evening it can be bumper-to-bumper, which tells me it’s people passing through.”

WOSU’s Reynolds, of the Road Trip School, reads the same evidence differently: “If it is worse, it’s people heading out on vacation.” The Ohio Auto Club agrees, saying Columbusites have a lot of out-of-town friends and family. This also seems to explain the Saturday morning backups on I-71 south.

Perhaps the grand unified theory is the Boomerang School of Columbus Police Sgt. Earl Smith, who says it’s a combo of workers leaving early en masse, then heading right back out to party (or travel, etc.).

“Society is now really 24 hours,” he says. “We used to have a really marked traffic hour. Now it’s around 3 to 7 p.m.”

Whatever the reason, it’s exacerbated by the fact that more traffic accidents occur on Friday than any other day of the week.

Of course, the real problem is that thousands of people who know freeway traffic will be awful pile onto freeways anyway, day after day.

Reynolds has a humble suggestion: “People should try to vary their hours or route.”

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