• U.S.

America: Still Stuck in Traffic

3 minute read
Randy James

Urban Mobility Report 2009
By the Texas Transportation Institute
134 pages

The Gist:
It’s the small silver lining to the twin scourges of high gas prices and economic turmoil: traffic congestion has eased. But only a little. One of the nation’s most comprehensive studies of traffic delays and “urban mobility” found a slight drop-off in traffic tie-ups in 2007, the latest year for which data are available. In its study of 439 urban areas around the country, the Texas Transportation Institute, part of Texas A&M University, found American that travelers are spending about one less hour per year in traffic. But we still spend plenty of time staring at the brake lights ahead of us — about 36 hours per year, on average, and much more in the nation’s largest cities. This all comes with a heavy price in terms of wasted productivity and fuel. All the gas burned as we crawl along clogged roadways could fill 370,000 18-wheelers, the study says — enough to stretch from Houston to Boston to Los Angeles.

(Read a review of Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic.)

Highlight Reel:
1. The totals: Collectively, Americans spent nearly 500,000 years stuck in traffic in 2007 — nearly 4.2 billion hours. That’s a slight decrease from the year before. The difference amounts to about an hour per person, accounted for by high gas prices and the start of the economic slowdown. That’s well over double the per-person average of 14 hours in 1982, when the annual survey began. Those in urban areas with more than a million residents have it even worse; they spent an average of 46 hours in traffic.

2. The cost: The cost of traffic congestion hit $87.2 billion in wasted fuel and lost productivity, or $750 per traveler. By contrast, the cost of congestion in 1982 was only $16.7 billion, adjusted for inflation, or $290 per person.

3. The victims: Perhaps unsurprisingly, the nation’s most congested area is greater Los Angeles, where travelers spend an average of 70 hours per year in traffic, wasting 53 gal. of fuel. Next up is greater Washington, at 62 hours; Atlanta rounds out the top three, at 57 hours. Of the areas studied, Wichita, Kans., and Lancaster, Calif., had the shortest delays, about six hours per year.

The Lowdown:
Despite its modest good news, this report offers little cause for celebration. Traffic problems in the country have worsened dramatically over the years, and solutions like greater investment in mass transit may not be effective in the long term for our population boom. What’s more, the study’s authors say, history shows that after a recession, traffic growth often comes roaring back. In other words, they write, “Anyone who thinks the congestion problem has gone away should check the past.”

The Verdict: Read.

Read a story on Bangkok’s traffic problem.

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