Average urban American wastes 4 workdays annually in traffic

The 2010 Urban Mobility Report underscores the need for smart transportation investment.

Sometime later today, I'm going to join the rest of my neighbors in peeking obsessively at the weather forecast, which is currently tracking a potential snowstorm for Tuesday into Wednesday that could make the blizzard that we had just after Christmas look like a snow shower. Then again, maybe not.

Since I make my office right upstairs from my bedroom, I am so blessed not to have to drive in stuff like this anymore, but I used to drive over two congested New York boro bridges to my old job. So, whenever I think about snow, I think about what how it will mess up the New York metropolitan area commute, how much time will be wasted trying to get somewhere when people should just stay put and try to be productive at home. A new report published by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University provides an idea of just how much time is wasted, not by unusual conditions such as snowstorms, but in the course of regular traffic congestion.

The 2010 Urban Mobility Report is full of some fairly dramatic statistics, which cover the state of traffic congestion in 439 U.S. urban areas during 2009. The researchers compile their information using speed data provided by INRIX, a service provider that calculates travel time information. Here are some of the findings:

  • The "cost" of congestion (in terms of fuel, wasted time, and so on) was $115 billion in 2009, compared with $24 billion in 1982. (By the way, 2008 was the "best" year in the past decade, but when the economy began turning in 2009, so did the traffic.)
  • Wasted fuel in 2009 was 3.9 billion gallon -- the equivalent of 130 days of flow in the Alaska Pipeline
  • The per-commuter cost of traffic was $808, compared with $351 in 1982 (adjusted for inflation)
  • Over the course of 2009, the average commuter wasted 34 hours (which equates to four workdays, if you do the math)
  • Without public transportation, there would have been another 785 million hours of traffic delay and 640 million more gallons of wasted fuel added to those numbers.
  • The average rush "hour" in reality lasts up to six hours; there is a much higher probability of being delayed in off-peak hours. In fact, more than half of the delays occur at midday and overnight when things are "supposed" to be more quiet. (Ask anyone who travels the Cross Bronx Expressway in the middle of the night, they can verify this one.)
  • Leave your patience at the door on Fridays, delays are typically the worst on that day of the week.
  • Size actually doesn't matter that much: Highways running through small urban areas will generate more traffic than the local economy will actually cause. (For evidence, look at Austin, Texas; Bridgeport, Conn.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Salem, Ore.)

For city planners and municipal governments, the report advocates ways to address and solve this burgeoning challenge, including:

  • Adding public transportation capacity
  • Changing driving habits through ridesharing and flexible work hour programs
  • DIversifying development policies to encourage more different modes of transportation (such as mass transit or riding your bike)

Says researcher Tom Lomax: "There is no rigid prescription -- no 'best way' -- to address congestion problems. 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."

There are more than 100 pages worth of statistics in the report, including data for your particular urban area, which I suggest you reference if you're a small business owner or a manager with employees who cope with "commuter stress." (Maybe a cause of road rage?)

Here are some other stories on SmartPlanet that address smarter urban planning:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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