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The True Cost of Rush Hour

RP Siegel | Monday January 24th, 2011 | 1 Comment

A recent study out of Texas A&M called the 2010 Urban Mobility Report studies the patterns and consequences of traffic congestion in 439 urban areas across the US.

This year’s report had the most complete view of traffic flow yet, as it was based on a great deal of direct speed measurement data provided by INRIX. According to researcher Shawn Turner, “thanks to technology, we are using data that simply could not have been gathered a few years ago.”

The results, while perhaps not terribly surprising are certainly interesting. According to the report. “After two years of slight declines in overall traffic congestion – attributable to the economic downturn and high fuel prices – leading indicators suggest that as the economy rebounds, traffic problems are doing the same. While 2008 was the best year for commuters in at least a decade, the problem again began to grow in 2009.”

Some of the highlights of the study include the following:

  • Congestion costs continue to rise: measured in constant 2009 dollars, the cost of congestion has risen from $24 billion in 1982 to $115 billion in 2009.
  • The total amount of wasted fuel in 2009 topped 3.9 billion gallons – equal to 130 days of flow in the Alaska Pipeline.
  • Cost to the average commuter: $808 in 2009, compared to an inflation-adjusted $351 in 1982.

The worst cities last year were Chicago and Washington DC, where commuters gave up 70 hours of their lives, above and beyond the time they would have spent in free-flowing traffic, sitting on freeways and boulevards, waiting.

NYC did well, primarily due to its public transportation system which saved commuters $9 billion and over 350 million potential lost hours. Across the nation, public transit saved 785 million commuter hours and 640 million gallons of fuel over the year, for a total cash savings of $19 billion.

The study also attempted to quantify a “Commuter Stress Index” which was directly correlated to the number of additional hours spent in traffic. Los Angeles took the trophy in that category, racking up a score which represents a 54% increase in hours commuting when compared to the hypothetical time required on un-congested roads.

Public transportation is a primary focus for a group called Complete Streets, which describes a complete street as one which allows for multi-modal transportation, as opposed to incomplete streets, designed for cars only. Incomplete streets breed congestion. That is one of their mottos. Their website highlights progress that has been made on this front in San Francisco where bike-friendly street redesign has reduced accidents and increased ridership, Boulder, CO, where the use of single-occupancy vehicles in work commutes has declined 13.9% since 1990 as more people walk and bike to work, and Vancouver, BC where auto lanes across the Burrard Bridge have been transformed into bike-only lanes brought an additional 70,000 bicycle commutes over the summer.

If this wasn’t motivation enough, it turns out that building bike lanes creates more jobs than just about any other road related project. A case study in Baltimore compiled by the Political Economy Research Institute of Amherst, MA found that the addition of bike lanes created 14.4 jobs per million dollars spent when indirect and induced effects are included. That compares favorably with 7.4 jobs for road repair and upgrading and 6.8 jobs for road resurfacing. Bike boulevards and pedestrian projects created 11.7 and 11.3 jobs, respectively.

Why not consider an alternative way to get to work? You’ll reduce your impact on the planet, experience less stress and you just might get there quicker.

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor TrailsLike airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

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  • http://www.ArchitectureWeek.com/ Kevin Matthews

    Yes, sitting in jammed traffic is frustrating. But attacking congestion is a double-edged sword, and the Texas crew is still a long way from compiling the “true cost”.

    From their press release:

    “Researchers recommend a balanced and diversified approach to reducing traffic congestion – one that focuses on more of everything. Their strategies include: …

    “Add roadway … capacity in the places where it is needed most.”

    To reduce the U.S. carbon footprint at the same time as we reduce congestion – and make no mistake, the carbon footprint is the far more significant of the two – it has to be done by reducing VMT, reducing the amount of driving.

    Adding road capacity tends to have the opposite effect. It tends to increase driving – especially in areas where driving is being limited by congestion.