Traffic Problems Tied to the Economy, Study Says
Even though it’s not cited along with monthly job statistics, traffic congestion is a sign of economic prosperity — and it’s also a vivid reminder of how it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
In the wake of several consecutive months of U.S. job growth, the Texas Transportation Institute’s (TTI’s) annual study on congestion suggests that too little progress is being made toward ensuring that the nation’s transportation system will be able to keep up with such growth in a revived economy.
TTI’s 2011 Urban Mobility Report illustrates congested conditions from 2010 on a number of national levels:
- The amount of delay endured by the average commuter was 34 hours, up from 14 hours in 1982.
- The cost of congestion is more than $100 billion, nearly $750 for every commuter in the United States.
- “Rush hour” is six hours of not rushing anywhere.
- Congestion is becoming a bigger problem outside of rush hour, with about 40 percent of the delay occurring in the midday and overnight hours, creating an increasingly serious problem for businesses that rely on efficient production and deliveries.
The typical commuter feels the impact of congestion in the form of stress and wasted time. But for manufacturers and shippers, that wasted time has a direct bottom-line impact. Efficiency suffers, prices go up, and employment weakens.
“If you invest in roads and transit, you get better service and access to more jobs,” says Senior Research Engineer Tim Lomax, one of the study’s authors. “Traffic management and demand management should be part of the mix, too. Generally speaking, mobility investments in congested areas have a high return rate.”
That connection was well illustrated in the 1960s, when the nation experienced its longest uninterrupted expansion in history, fueled in part by federal investment in the Interstate Highway System.
The Interstate Highway System grew rapidly from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, and the U.S. economy grew along with it. Since then, growth in the interstate system has virtually stopped. “The only way U.S. companies have been able to keep their products competitive in the face of increasing traffic congestion and rising transportation costs is to squeeze every ounce of efficiency they can out of their supply chain,” says TTI Research Scientist David Ellis. “But there is a limit to efficiency, and without additional transportation capacity, transportation costs will increase significantly. The result will be higher prices and lost jobs.”
The Urban Mobility Report uses traffic volume data from the states and traffic speed data from INRIX, a leading private-sector provider of travel-time information. The combination produces a thorough and detailed illustration of traffic problems in 439 U.S. urban areas.
The most economical and effective congestion solutions involve traditional road building and transit use, combined with traffic management strategies such as signal coordination and rapid crash removal, and demand management strategies like telecommuting and flexible work hours. Land use and development patterns can play a positive role, as well.
“The solution mix may be different for each city, but the one thing they all share in common is urgency,” Lomax says. “If we want a strong economy, doing nothing is not a productive option.”