AskPablo: Commuting

traffic.jpgThis week Calvin Tran wrote to AskPablo about commuting. He wrote: “I spend a lot of time in traffic because of bottlenecks in the highway system (three lanes going to two lanes). How much gas (and $) could be saved in removing these bottlenecks?” What a great question. I have been pondering this on my own commute since I frequently get stuck at one such bottleneck. Let’s explore the numbers…

Almost two million commuters clog the concrete arteries of the San Francisco Bay Area with their carbon-spewing monster trucks. Sadly, 64% of these people drive alone. This not only makes for a lonely commute, but it wastes gas, and adds unnecessary vehicles to our transportation infrastructure. But more on that later…
According to the 2005 Urban Mobility Study by the Texas Transportation Institute the average annual Bay Area traffic delay per person was 72 hours in 2003 (nationally it was 47 hours). With two million commuters that adds up to 144,000,000 hours stuck in traffic. This time could be spent much more productively at work, with the kids, or volunteering. If the average hourly pay per commuter was $25 we are looking at $3.6B in lost productivity, but how do you put a price on quality time with your family, or having the time to exercise before work? The same study found that the San Francisco-Oakland area consumed 97 million gallons of excess fuel in 2005. By today that figure is probably over 100 million and, at today’s fuel prices ($3.00/gallon) that adds up to $300,000,000 is wasted fuel money.
It seems that highway projects that alleviate bottlenecks are well worth it. But one problem with expanding freeways is that you induce demand. Since there is a certain acceptable average commute time (which has held constant throughout time, regardless of transit mode) a reduction in traffic congestion may actually lead to more people abandoning mass transit and carpooling. So perhaps a lot of those freeway dollars could be better spent in developing mass transit that both costs less and gets you there faster.
Until politicians get the will to improve our outdated mass transit infrastructure we will need a interim solution. That solution could be in promoting carpooling. Roughly 720,000 people in that Bay Area carpool, but the remaining 1,280,000 don’t. If we could get these people into a two-person carpool it would cut the number of cars on the road from 1.5 million to under 1 million. And such a radical increase in transportation efficiency can be achieved for a relatively low cost, through informal carpool, additional carpooling incentives such as free bridge toll, preferred parking, and HOV lane use, and through a formal carpool system. I once learned about a carpool system in Europe that was essentially a high-tech hitch-hiking network. Both driver and passenger are registered, passengers’ travel is fully insured, and safety is not an issue.
Will our society ever file for a divorce from our adulterous love affair with personal vehicles? I couldn’t tell you. But I do know that there are plenty of solutions out there, just a lack of political will and courage to implement them.
Pablo Päster, MBA
Sustainability Engineer

5 responses

  1. Nice post – I’ve always thought that adding highway lanes to solve traffic problems was sort of like loosening your belt to solve obesity. Still, in some cases, it’s a good idea.
    The worse problem is that it’s not just the mass transit/bikes/etc that need to be improved, but entire neighborhoods. Most new neighborhoods have been built in such a way that even if there were mass transit, you couldn’t get to it without driving. So we could spend zillions on fancy rail projects and no one would use them even if they wanted to… Only by rezoning development to require walk-a-bility and the ability to walk to transit will there be enough options for people to avoid this kind of problem.

  2. The answer is telecommuting. Rather than carpool lanes or widening freeways, let’s just get people off the roads. A LOT of people just drive to an office and sit in front of their computer all day (I’m a lawyer, and 9 days out of 10 I really don’t need to physically be in the office). The technology is already in place, but people can’t wrap their minds around it yet. Still, I think it’s our only solution for this problem – public transportation can only do so much. If a worker HAS to have an office, there are also work centers where people can use rented offices that are close to home and telecommute with other people in their office. It doesn’t have to be from home, but the tax write-off would be nice.

  3. Road bottlenecks are one thing, but what about those drive-thru lanes at fast food joints, pharmacies, banks and dry cleaners? Has anyone evaluated how much crap is dumped into the atmosphere because we’re too lazy to park the car and walk inside? I often park my car, walk inside and find it actually takes less time than waiting in the drive-thru lane.

  4. Check out Presenters at this years conference have some good ideas about how to solve some of the problems presented in your blog post. I believe parts of the conference will be podcast. Also, there is a company in Portland offering more “luxurious” rides to and from work. Companies like theirs can help change the way people think about commuting.

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