Study Shows True Costs of Congestion

January 22, 2011- Nick Engelfried

If you feel like you spend an unneeded amount of time stuck in traffic jams, you aren’t the only one.  A study released Thursday by the Texas Transportation Institute documents how traffic congestion in 439 urban areas in the United States costs commuters precious time, money, and fuel.  As more people take the road during the economic recovery, traffic jams are unfortunately only likely to get worse.  However by planning urban areas better and investing in public transit, the study also show congestion can be avoided or reduced significantly.

The year 2008 was the least congested for US streets in at least ten years, thanks in part to an economic recession and high gas prices.  However with lower fuel prices in 2009 the roads began growing more crowded again, and the economic recovery is predicted to lead to further congestion.  In 2009 congestion in the US wasted 3.9 billion gallons of gasoline, the amount of oil that flows from the Alaska Pipeline in 130 days.  That year the average commuter spent $808 on fuel consumed while stuck in congestion.

Not all urban areas are equally congested.  The cities where traffic is worst are Chicago and Washington, DC, where commuters spend an average of seventy hours every year stuck in rush-hour traffic.  Coming next in the list of most congested urban areas are Los Angeles, Houston, and the San Francisco-Oakland area in California.  Taken together, the monetary cost of US traffic jams in 2009 totaled out at $115 billion. 

However it turns out that without public transit, congestion would be even worse.  Without public transportation options like buses, street cars, and lightrail trains, an additional $19 billion would be spent on congestion annually.  In 2009 public transit saved US commuters a cumulative total of 785 million hours which they otherwise would have spent in traffic jams.  Widening streets or building new roads, on the other hand, does not always do much to reduce traffic.  That’s because when there is more space available on the streets it often simply tempts people to drive more. 

“There is no doubt that expanding public transportation use is key to reducing traffic congestion,” said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association. “Even if you don’t ride public transportation, it is still in your best interest to support investment in public transit. Better public transportation in your community means less congestion on the roads.”  According to APTA public transit already saves 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline each year in the United States. 

In addition to increasing public transportation infrastructure, suggestions for reducing congestion in the Texas Transportation Institute study include carpooling more, using telecommuting to avoid the need for traffic, and planning urban areas to make it easier to get around without a car.  By reducing the need for long commutes and minimizing traffic during rush hour businesses, government agencies, and individuals can all contribute to less crowded streets. 

The federal government also has a role to play in making public transit options readily available and reducing congestion.  Groups like the American Public Transportation Association are calling on Congress to provide funding and other resources for expanding the national public transit network.  According to Millar, “Reducing traffic congestion is one of many reasons why the 112th Congress needs to move on passing a well-funded, multi-year, surface transportation authorization bill,” that provides people with additional public transit options.  “Each passing day means a delay in addressing congestion problems which impact individuals and undermine business productivity.”

As economic recovery prompts larger numbers of people to take to the road in a car, the costs of congestion will increase further.  Thus the economy gathers steam it makes more sense than ever to consider traffic’s impact on fuel consumption, pollution, and time which commuters spend stuck on congested roadways. 

Photo credit: Ernesto Andrade