Traffic Congestion Could Cost $4.4 Trillion

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 17, 2014

Ever gotten stuck driving in Atlanta? As a veteran of traffic jams in New York, the legendary Washington, D.C.-area “Punchbowl” and, last week, Los Angeles’ 405, I feel your pain. How bad is Atlanta? With only the seventh-worst gridlock among our major metros, Atlanta’s jams cause commuters to waste an average of 51 hours in traffic each year, burning 23 extra gallons of gas. Their bottom line: $1,120 per commuter.
 Atlanta commuter Craig Allen describes this photo as a view "from the inner circle of hell." He now comes home tired and exhausted. "Pulling out of the driveway, my heart sinks." (Flickr/Craig Allen)That’s just one city. A new study from Britain’s Centre for Economics and Business Research and Inrix offers the macro view, concluding that congestion in the U.S. and Europe could rachet up to $4.4 trillion in cumulative costs between 2013 and 2030.
 
Americans will pay the bulk of that bill, $2.8 trillion, with the average family burdened with $2,301 annually in 2030, the study said. In Los Angeles, where I struggled with the 405 and traffic is among the worst in the nation, the bottom line could be a staggering $8,555. I can say with experience that in LA, everybody talks about traffic. And where to park. We got towed away from a supermarket lot near the Farmer’s Market because we didn’t read the fine print on the sign.
 Nothing like hitting the open road . . . And the Los Angeles traffic experience is nothing like it. (Flickr/Luke Jones)Before you get too alarmed, blogger Todd Litman (founder of Victoria Transport Policy) at Planetizen claims that the Inrix study exaggerates how bad congestion will actually be in 15 years, and how much it will cost. Such studies, he says:
…are intended to make congestion appear to be a more serve problem than it really is in order to justify more political support for congestion-reduction efforts. I don’t see it being very successful. Apparently, motorists like to complain about traffic congestion but only a minority are willing to put down money to address it.
I agree with Litman that studies often cite worst-case numbers. We won’t necessarily be heading to two billion cars on world roads, though that certainly makes headlines. But keep in mind that electric cars, while zero emission out of the tailpipe, take up exactly the same space on highways as gas guzzlers do. We can’t reduce congestion by plugging our cars in; only public transportation solutions like vanpools, light rail trains and car sharing can do that. And telecommuting, of course. Working from home is a great idea if you can get away with it (as I do).
 
It’s heartening to learn, here from The Transport Politic, of the many light rail systems (and extensions) that are going up all over the U.S. and Canada in 2014. Even Atlanta is getting some relief with its Streetcar project—but don’t expect too much, since it’s only 1.4 miles long (and will cost $92 million). The irony here is that, until it was finally dismantled in 1949, Atlanta had a huge streetcar network. Just look at this 1946 map:

In 1946, most Atlantans didn't have cars but they did have these go-everywhere trolley lines to serve their neighborhoods. Now we have to claw back to where we were with transit, starting from half the rail lines we had in 1910. The good news is that cities are getting better at taking their commuters out of cars, and building in-town housing so they don’t need to live in the suburbs. Every little bit helps with the congestion nightmare. Here's the alarming infographic from the Inrix/Centre study:

And as a special bonus, yet another infographic on "Highway Robbery"!


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