Abandon all hope, ye who drive in Boston By Barbara De Lollis, USA TODAY Boston's bridges, aging roadways, missing signs and crowded arteries have complicated trips for business traveler Ray Thomas. They've made him late for meetings, made him miss a flight and raised his stress. So it comes as no surprise to Thomas and others that a new national study ranks metropolitan Boston as the USA's most difficult area to navigate by car. (Related rankings: Driving in metro areas) "And it was horrid before The Big Dig ever started," says Thomas, an anti-fraud consultant from Tampa, referring to a massive public works project to modernize the downtown highway system. In a study to be released Tuesday, author-researcher Bert Sperling, known for ranking cities on a wide array of criteria, lists the USA's 75 biggest metropolitan areas according to how difficult they are to drive in. (Related background: Criteria used in the rankings) Tailgating Boston are Washington, D.C., San Francisco-Oakland, Baltimore and New York/northern New Jersey. Car rental company Avis and electronics giant Motorola commissioned the study as Avis rolls out its navigation system in new markets. For $10 a day, Avis offers Motorola's portable, satellite-based navigation system, with live operator assistance, in the 60 largest markets. Competitors, including Hertz, offer comparable systems. Most of the trickiest metro areas to navigate are in the East, where many communities developed before the automobile. Even though cities such as New York are laid out in a straight-forward grid, factors such as bad weather, congestion, bodies of water and sprawl hurt the score, Sperling says. The study rates metro areas based on factors such as street layout; sprawl; obstacles such as rivers, lakes and bridges; and congestion data calculated by the Texas Transportation Institute. Each year, the institute rates cities with the most congestion. Last year, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Miami and Chicago topped the list. To a lesser degree, the scores in Sperling's study reflect an area's rain and snow days, and the simplicity of its route between downtown and the airport. Sperling rated metro areas on a 100-point scale, assigning the highest scores to those that are hardest to navigate. Among his findings: Boston scored 86.9, the highest. Bakersfield, in California's flat Central Valley, scored 9.2, the lowest. Florida had six metro areas in the upper half of the list. They include Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood (No. 6), Jacksonville (No. 14) and Orlando (No. 15). Texas has nine metro areas rated, the most of any state. Most, however, rank relatively low. Houston placed highest (No. 19), meaning it's the hardest to navigate. Tourism expert Parker Smith of Scottsdale, Ariz., says cities can help visitors by investing in signs to identify airports, downtowns and other popular destinations. Local sign committees should look at their communities as a tourist or business traveler would, and adjust signs accordingly, he says. More than half of travelers bicker with a companion when they get lost, according to a separate survey of 1,000 consumers also commissioned by Avis and Motorola. Women are more likely to stop to ask for directions: 64% vs. 41% of men. To avoid the situation, some frequent travelers have traded in their paper maps for technology. They say global positioning satellite devices ease confusion quickly. "Car rental maps are the pits, and heavy traffic is not the time to be learning a new city," says sales consultant Jim Pancero of Eden Prairie, Minn. He spent about $300 on GPS software for his laptop and a small portable GPS receiver, giving him access to directions in most cities. Still, John DiScala of Los Angeles says, it's important to have a backup handy: a paper map or an Internet mapping site. Twice last year when he was driving along St. Charles Street in New Orleans (No. 40) to get to his hotel in the French Quarter, the GPS system in his rental car gave him bad directions. "Twice it took me to a bad part of town," says DiScala, who runs the JohnnyJet.com travel Web site. Not everyone wants technology to steer through a busy city. Sales engineer Ed Groom of Taylors, S.C., simply surrenders when he's in Manhattan: "Just get a taxi and relax. There isn't enough money to get me to try to navigate (New York) there on my own." Boston doesn't expect to be in Sperling's No. 1 spot for long. "When the Big Dig is completed next year, it will make a dramatic impact on how easily you are able to navigate the city of Boston," says Doug Hanchett, Big Dig spokesman.