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 July 02, 2010
Top 10 cities with the worst commute, global edition

  If you live in New York, Los Angeles, Montreal or Paris, you might think you have the worst commute in the world.

After all, most New Yorkers, Los Angelenos, Montréalais or Parisians think nothing of sitting in a cloud of smog on the way to work each morning.

Guess what: those cities didn't even break the Top 10.

Residents of Beijing, China can officially say that their city has the worst commute in the world, according to a new study.

In the IBM study, which polled 8,192 motorists in 20 international cities on five continents about their "global commuter pain," traffic has gotten worse in the past three years, reported participants.

Researchers developed an index that factors in commuting time, time stuck in traffic, price of gas, if traffic has gotten better or worse, stress levels and affect on work.

The Top 10 cities with the worst commute in the world:

  1. Beijing (99)
  2. Mexico City (99)
  3. Johannesburg (97)
  4. Moscow (84)
  5. New Delhi (81)
  6. Sao Paolo (75)
  7. Milan (52)
  8. Buenos Aires (50)
  9. Madrid (48)
  10. London (36)

Rounding out the Top 20:

  • Paris (36)
  • Toronto (32)
  • Amsterdam (25)
  • Los Angeles (25)
  • Berlin (24)
  • Montreal (23)
  • New York (19)
  • Houston (17)
  • Melbourne (17)
  • Stockholm (15)

Of course, the survey didn't include all world cities, of course --- what's important is not the absolute number, but the relative index score.

To wit: Houston is only two index points worse than Stockholm, and New York is only two points worse than that; meanwhile, Paris and London are almost twice as bad as New York, and Beijing, Mexico City and Moscow (two-and-a-half hour traffic jams, on average) blow everyone else out of the water.

The big takeway from such a survey is that the above list is comprised of international cities that are vital to the global economy --- and yet utterly inefficient as systems, with grueling commutes and a failing transportation (read: automobile) infrastructure that's not keeping up with urban growth.

More takeaways from the study:

  • 57 percent of respondents say that roadway traffic has negatively affect their health.
  • That percentage rises to 96 percent in New Delhi and 95 percent in Beijing.
  • 29 percent of respondents say that roadway traffic has negatively affected work or school performance.
  • That percentage rises to 84 percent in Beijing, 62 percent in New Delhi and 56 percent in Mexico City.
  • On the flip side, just 14 percent of drivers in Stockholm said that roadway traffic negatively affected work or school performance. Must be all those bicycle lanes.
  • Across all cities, 49 percent of drivers think that roadway traffic has gotten worse in the last three years; 18 percent think it has gotten "a lot" worse.
  • 87 percent of respondents said they've been stuck in roadway traffic in the last three years.
  • The average commuter's delay is one hour.
  • The best cities for traffic delays: Melbourne, Stockholm, Buenos Aires. The worst: Moscow, by far.

What's so bad about Beijing and New Delhi, you ask? It's actually a matter that gets to the core issue of urban planning: growth.

The cities experiencing extreme congestion are the ones developing the most rapidly. Thanks to economic booms, those cities haven't had time to build out infrastructure the way cities with more gradual growth --- New York, London, Los Angeles --- have.

Without time or resources but facing an influx of residents, urban planners and city officials simply can't keep up.

More statistics:

  • If commuting time could be reduced, 16 percent of those surveyed said they would choose to work more. In New Delhi, that figure is 40 percent. In Madrid, that figure is five percent. (They'd rather take a siesta, I gather.)
  • 31 percent of respondents said that traffic has been so bad that they simply turned around and went home. In Beijing, that figure rises to 69 percent; in Berlin, that figure is only 15 percent.
  • 38 percent of respondents worldwide said they decided not to make a driving trip in the last month due to anticipated traffic.
  • Economic ramifications abound: Of those trips, 27 percent were for work or school, 22 percent for recreation, 21 percent for shopping, 10 percent for entertainment, 7 percent for vacation and 6 percent for dining out.

So what can be done? I spoke with Naveen Lamba, IBM's global industry lead for "intelligent transportation," on the phone about his team's survey.

Speaking from Washington, D.C. --- a commuting nightmare in its own right --- Lamba said that building more roads won't fix the problem alone.

Here's what he had to say:

There is only so much you can do in terms of changing the physical network --- it takes a lot of money, a lot of time --- and many times there is no physical space to add. Take New York City as an example. You can't widen the streets. There's very limited ability to change the network itself. Then the focus changes to, how do we get more utilization out of the assets we have?

You have to look at the whole system holistically. You have to do everything very aggressively to make a measurable improvement to the system.

Today, each tries to get the most out of their individual modes --- the subway system, the street system, the bus system. There can be a lot of tools that can be built for each of these modes that can further improve their operations. But how can we integrate those assets and optimize the operation of one integrated multi-modal system, as opposed to five separate individual modes?

All these systems produce a lot of data. Some of it is captured, some of it is lost. You know where trains are, buses, taxis. Cameras are taking photos in places. How do you pull all of this together? What analytics can be done on it?

Can the public transit system ramp up in real time to pick up the slack? We are building tools to improve and make easier the real-time integration of multi-modal data. All this in real-time is great, but there's very limited value in working with real-time information, and the value falls off very quickly --- within a few minutes, that data is almost worthless. The real challenge is to get ahead of the curve and get ahead of real time.

We've built some very very accurate traffic prediction tools, up to 60 minutes ahead of time. Once you can predict that accurately, then it gets very interesting. You can think about and analyze all sorts of interventions.

Instead of 15 areas getting congested, you can get eight areas congested. Instead of a 40-minute delay, you can have an 18-minute delay.

We can measure convenience. Length of commute. The carbon footprint of your journey.

There's a lot of interest in building smarter transportation solutions. These types of surveys provide very valuable insight in what's on the customer's mind. Our customer might be the city, but at the end of the day, the actual user is the traveler. What are their pain points? What is bothering them most?

This is the third survey we did. The first two were U.S.-focused. There are different cultural insights for the same set of circumstances, people in different parts of the world react differently.

How do we take the solutions we have? Something that works very well in New York or Stockholm may be useless in Bangalore. How do tweak these assets.

IBM is a large company. We have a significant presence in each of these cities. The local team is there and actively looking at the challenges. We get some insight from that, but surveys like this provide another perspective.

Cities like New York and L.A., in previous surveys, showed up as one of the most congested cities. But when you compare that to some of these other cities, they almost seem very, very efficient in terms of transportation. It's all relative.

Automobile ownership and the rate at which it's growing in cities --- infrastructure cannot grow at those rates. In the U.S., the infrastructure has been gradually growing. But if you look at the developing countries, automobile ownership, the rate of increase has been incredible. The situation is really bad now, but at the rate they're increasing, they're going to break down if something is not done. It's almost at a crisis now where they have to be reacting right now.

Places like Beijing: it's very congested now, but at the same time, people also say that the traffic congestion has improved dramatically over the last few years. We keep hearing of all these massive infrastructure projects in Beijing. They've realized that they have to do something now, [such as] putting in high-speed rail. People have started to feel the difference.

The idea has been, given these local insights that we get, how do you pull together these building blocks? What combination works best for this city?