The Growing Price of Congestion

Many commuters have had to double the amount of time they allot to get to work. 

Many commuters have had to double the amount of time they allot to get to work. 

A rebounding economy has led to more sluggish traffic commutes, highlighting the need for increased investments in roadways and public transit, according to the latest Urban Mobility Scorecard. The 20th iteration of the scorecard comes just before Congress returns to take up stalled federal transportation legislation.

Some of the data in the scorecard, which relies on traffic speed data to calculate delays, is staggering. The annual delay per commuter is 42 hours and is expected to grow to 47 hours by 2020. Total delay nationwide will grow from 6.9 billion hours to 8.3 billion hours in the same period. The cost of congestion, which is borne by motorists and businesses that depend on moving goods on highways, will jump from $160 billion to $192 billion.

Commuting delays subsided during the Great Recession, but a stronger economy has returned mind-numbing delays. The U.S. Department of Transportation cites data indicating Americans drove more than 3 trillion miles in the last 12 months.

Slowing traffic hasn't gone unnoticed by increasingly exasperated motorists. According to the scorecard's authors, many commuters have been forced to double the amount of time they allot to get to work. Others have worked out arrangements with employers to adjust when they arrive or leave from work, or to skip commuting altogether and tele-commute.

“Our growing traffic problem is too massive for any one entity to handle – state and local agencies can’t do it alone,” says Tim Lomax, a report co-author and Regents Fellow at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “Businesses can give their employees more flexibility in where, when and how they work, individual workers can adjust their commuting patterns, and we can have better thinking when it comes to long-term land-use planning. This problem calls for a classic ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach.”

The all-hands-on-deck approach includes substantial road and transit improvements. Scorecard authors say it is smart economics to make those investments. Drivers stuck in traffic waste 3 billion gallons of fuel and 7 billion hours of non-productive time, which adds up to $960 per commuter annually.

Portland isn't among the worst congested cities in America, but the cost of congestion is still notable, even though vehicle miles travelled has decreased from what it was in 2011. In 2014, the average congestion cost for a peak-time auto commuter was $1,273, which includes the price of 29 gallons of wasted gasoline. 

The average cost of congestion for a peak-hour commuter in Seattle, who wastes 63 hours each year in a highway parking lot, is $1,491.

The scorecard observes that traffic congestion is no longer just a big-city problem. Smaller urban areas face mounting congestion. For example, delays in Salem in 2014 cost $175 million, which worked out at $876 per peak hour commuter.