How much has your freeway slowed?

We looked at speeds on 52 commutes over five years

Four years ago, the 35-mile morning commute on the I-5 from Santa Clarita south into Downtown took roughly 46 minutes. This year, it’s an hour.


In one week, that’s an extra 70 minutes of driving time, just one way.


The return trip in the evening doesn’t fare much better.


This year, it takes nine and a half minutes longer on average than it did in 2015. Over the course of one month, someone making that round trip commute spends roughly seven hours and 20 minutes more on the road today than they did in 2015.


We examined the average weekday rush-hour speeds on 52 freeway segments across Los Angeles County for the past five years during the same period: Feb. 1 – March 25. Thirty-one of them had slowed. Of those, the speeds on 11 segments dropped 5 mph or more. 



Lengthening commute times are nothing new to Los Angeles. The steady decline on many routes, however, raises fresh questions about how much more of a slowdown the region can bear, and the toll it takes on the local economy.


“At what point in time is the frustration factor enough that you say, ‘I’m outta here’?” asks David Schrank, a senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.


Daily commutes have increased across the country by an average of eight minutes a day since 1990, according to a study by insurer Haven Life. A survey by recruiting firm Robert Half found that 23% of U.S. workers had left a job because of an unmanageable commute.


The United States Census Bureau reports that as of 2017, almost 9% of Americans were “super-commuters,” spending an hour or more to get to work, up from 8% in 2009.


Jessica Langlois is one of them. Several days a week she travels about 50 miles from her home in Pomona to teach at Loyola Marymount University in the Westchester neighborhood near LAX.


“I never would have thought I’d be working somewhere with an hour and a half commute,” she said. She moved from Koreatown to Pomona and did not expect to return to LMU. “Then they offered me another teaching year and it was a better deal than the other options, doing work that I love.” And a commute she doesn’t.


Langlois tries to travel at off-peak hours and travels with a carpool buddy most days. But the I-105, one of the last legs on her route, has been so jammed lately that she sometimes takes a circuitous route involving three other freeways to avoid it.


What gets her through? “I know it’s not forever,” she said.


There is no easy fix to the problem. Caltrans, the state agency which manages freeways, says that it has pretty much given up on expanding roadways. The costs are exorbitant and the results paltry. For proof, look no further than the Leviathan Sepulveda Pass Improvements Project on the I-405. The work lasted five years, cost more than $1 billion and current rush-hour speeds are for the most part slower than they were before it began. [link to other story]


However, 17 of the 52 routes we analyzed showed improved speeds.  In some cases, that’s the result of public works projects that actually made a difference. The I-10 in the morning, heading east toward Downtown from Santa Monica, went from 44.3 mph in 2015 to 48.3 mph this year. In that time, several projects, such as converting one lane to a carpool lane, have wrapped up, allowing for less congestion. Four commutes stayed roughly the same.


It can be maddening for transportation planners to figure out what can make a busy freeway get faster or slower. “The problems move from one location to another,” said Shafiqul Islam, a transportation engineer with Caltrans. “The 710 might have construction, but then you see the problem pop up on the 5.”


Schrank of Texas A&M, said that the most effective way to improve speeds is to reduce demand on the roadway. A major employer moving away, or an employer that allows people to work remotely or come in on a flexible schedule can reduce peak travel, he said. Caltrans, he noted, is faced with a thankless task, as more cars crowd the same space.


“If you look at the amount of demand they are serving, with the public transportation they have, they are doing lots of innovative things” he said. “It’s just that there are more than 10 million people trying to go to the same places.”



How we did it: We divided freeways into 26 different evening commutes across Los Angeles County. Then, we analyzed the average speeds on those freeway segments between Feb. 1 and March 25 for five years, from 2016 – 2019. We then calculated the average speeds during the peak of the weekday evening rush hour (4 p.m. – 7 p.m.) and morning rush hour (7 a.m. – 9 a.m.)


Learn more about how Crosstown compiles its traffic data here.


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