New Report Ranks Congestion in America's Cities

The recession has helped some of us forget about our national traffic problem, but the recovery should help us remember it.

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.

Highlights from the research illustrate the effects of the nation's traffic problems:

  • 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.
  • Yearly peak delay for the average commuter was 34 hours in 2009, up from 14 hours in 1982.

"We have a great deal more confidence in the numbers we now have for the chaotic years of 2007, 2008 & 2009," researcher Shawn Turner said. "Thanks to technology, we are using data that simply could not have been gathered a few years ago."

The methodology used to calculate congestion has been improved more than a dozen times since the Urban Mobility Report was first published in 1984. Researchers say improvements made possible by access to hour-by-hour speed data provided by INRIX, a private-sector provider of travel time information, are the most significant improvement yet.

The 2010 Urban Mobility Report, published by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, paints the most accurate picture yet of traffic congestion in the 439 U.S. urban areas. Thanks to the wealth of speed data  the current report offers a greatly enhanced picture of congestion on a city-by-city basis.

"This year's report is a remarkable game changer," researcher David Schrank said. "The new data address the biggest shortcoming of previous reports. The data show conditions for every day of the year and include the effect of weather problems, traffic crashes, special events, holidays, work zones and other factors directly impacting traffic flow."

As a result of the new data, a revised congestion trend has been constructed for each urban region from 1982 to 2009. Eleven new urban regions have been added, including San Juan, Puerto Rico. Finally, three new measures of congestion are calculated for the 2010 report: delay per auto commuter, delay per non-peak traveler, and a Commuter Stress Index (CSI), which is calculated for the worst direction in each peak period to show the time penalty to those who travel in the peak direction.

The congestion reduction benefits of two significant solutions are discussed—public transportation and roadway operations. Without public transportation services, travelers would have suffered an additional 785 million hours of delay and consumed 640 million more gallons of fuel—a savings of $19 billion in congestion costs. Roadway operational treatments save travelers 320 million hours of delay and 265 million gallons of fuel for a congestion cost savings of $8 billion.

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

  • Get as much use as possible out of the transportation system we have.
  • Add roadway and public transportation capacity in the places where it is needed most.
  • Change our patterns, employing ideas like ridesharing and flexible work times to avoid traditional "rush hours."
  • Provide more choices, such as alternate routes, telecommuting and toll lanes for faster and more reliable trips.
  • Diversify land development patterns, to make walking, biking and mass transit more practical.
  • Adopt realistic expectations, recognizing for instance that large urban areas are going to be congested, but they don't have to stay that way all day long.

"There is no rigid prescription – no 'best way' – to address congestion problems," Lomax noted. "The most effective strategy is one where agency actions are complemented by efforts of businesses, manufacturers, commuters and travelers. Each region must identify the projects, programs and policies that achieve goals, solve problems and capitalize on opportunities."

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