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Tired of being stuck in traffic? One writer broke down his daily Houston commute using a year's worth of detailed data and inferential statistics, and determined how to beat local traffic using nothing but math.. — Ed.

Traffic: the commuter's bane. It plagues major city drivers around the globe and shows no sign of letting up. The average U.S. commuter spends about 100 hours a year just driving to work -– 20 hours more than an average year's supply of vacation. This personal daily grind uses more than 15,000 miles and 1000 gallons of fuel every year, which might not be so bad if much of it wasn't such a waste: 1.6 million hours and 8 million gallons of gas are burned every day in traffic jams across the nation. Traffic even affects your health, raising blood pressure, increasing stress, and producing more Type-A personalities.

How To Beat Traffic With MathOf course, some places are worse than others. New York tops the list, with Chicago, Newark, and Riverside following, albeit at a distance. L.A. comes in at sixth place, and Houston, where I reside and commute, is fifteenth. Other cities, such as Nashville and Kansas City, Missouri show up much further down the list, but something tells me that even commuters in those relative traffic havens dedicate significant effort and conversation to ‘beating traffic.'

Resources are sometimes available to help in this quest. Houston Transtar provides up-to-the-minute traffic information for all major Houston highways. Average traveling speed and construction and accident information are all available at the click of a mouse, but tips on avoiding the perpetual web of red during the morning and evening rush hours are nowhere to be found. Obvious answers such as public transportation and carpooling are legitimate, but trends show that Americans are meeting the increase in traffic by using such transportation methods less, not more. Also, while online traffic-reporting graphics warn of potential issues, they rarely indicate how long they might persist, leaving the traffic-wary commuter right where he started: guessing.

Tired of the typically inefficient and contradictory workplace chatter on the subject — and feeling the pull of a mild worksheet obsession — I set out to statistically analyze my commute in order to determine how I might minimize my time behind the wheel. If there was a way to figure out how to give myself an advantage over the almost 900,000 other Houstonian workers out there (each of whom averages a 26.1-minute commute), math and a smidgeon of obsessive-compulsive disorder had to be essential ingredients. At the very least, I would be able to ascertain just how much of my commute time was up to me, and how much depended on a "higher power" (e.g., weather, school districts, wrecks, etc.).

How To Beat Traffic With Math

Gathering Data

From March of 2005 to March of 2006, I recorded my departure and arrival times both to and from work, along with whether school was in or out. Other factors, although most likely important, were excluded to keep the scope of the experiment narrow and measurable.

Driving Data
Every morning, I took note of the time on my car clock as I pulled out of my driveway in northwest Houston and then again as I pulled into the parking garage at my office building close to the north-bound frontage road of Sam Houston Parkway and Clay Road In the evening. I followed the same process in reverse. The morning route and evening route differed slightly in length, but data was only recorded when the planned course was followed, allowing for only slight variations.

School District & Government Data
Being suspicious of the influence of the school session, I collected official 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 calendar data from Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District, which covers almost all of my commute route, and took note of all full student holidays (i.e., teacher in-service days, but not student early release days). I also collected official 2005 and 2006 government holiday information from the city of Houston and the federal government, but this proved next to useless as I only commuted to work on one city and two federal government holidays.


To set up the gathered information, I first organized the variables into inputs and outputs as shown in Table 1.

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