Traffic congestion rebounding with economy

According to the just-released 2010 edition of the Urban Mobility Report, published by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A&M University, after two years of slight declines in overall traffic congestion – attributable to the economic downturn and higher fuel prices – leading indicators now suggest that as the economy is rebounding, so too are traffic problems

According to the just-released 2010 edition of the Urban Mobility Report, published by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A&M University, after two years of slight declines in overall traffic congestion – attributable to the economic downturn and higher fuel prices – leading indicators now suggest that as the economy is rebounding, so too are traffic problems.

While 2008 was the best year for commuters in at least a decade, the problem began to grow again in 2009:

  • Congestion costs continued 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.

For motor carriers and shippers hoping to save time by moving freight during off hours, the report offers more specific data on the best such opportunities:

  • Approximately half of the total delays occur in the midday and overnight (outside of the peak hours of 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.) times of day when shippers and carriers generally have expected lighter traffic
  • Midday congestion is not as severe, but it can cause problems, especially for time-sensitive shipments.

The report notes that: “Freight movement has attempted to move away from the peak periods to avoid congestion when possible. But this accommodation has limits, as congestion extends into midday and overnight periods; manufacturing processes and human resources are difficult to significantly reschedule.”

Extensive tables, by city, also translate freight delays into a “congestion cost” using commodity values and delay times to arrive at dollar amounts-- information carriers may find of use when establishing rates that take into account the actual cost to serve particular shippers.

In Chicago, for example, truck delays resulted in a “congestion cost” of more than $ 3,349 million. Slow traffic in New York cost $3,133 million thanks to the time trucks spent stuck in traffic there.

Congestion is a problem in even smaller cities, however, according to the report. In McAllen, TX, for instance (ranked number 97 on the freight delay congestion charts) truck delays cost a total of $14 million.

“Congestion is worse in areas of every size,” the report states. “It is not just a big city problem. Regions of all sizes have problems implementing enough projects, programs and policies to meet the demand of growing populations and jobs.”

Additional charts also rank states according to the commodity value of the goods and materials trucks carry there on an annual basis, in urban regions, in rural regions and overall. California tops the list, with $943,732 million. Trucks in Texas moved $934,959 million worth of commodities in 2009.

The data in the new report also shows conditions for every day of the year and includes 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 also 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.

According to TTI, the 2010 report paints the most accurate picture yet of traffic congestion in the 439 U.S. urban areas. Thanks to speed data provided by Inrix, a provider of travel time information, the current report offers a greatly enhanced picture of congestion on a city-by-city basis.

"This Urban Mobility Report begins an exciting new era for comprehensive national congestion measurement," said researcher Tim Lomax. "By combining the traffic speed data from Inrix with the traffic volume data from the states, we are now able to provide a much better and more detailed picture of the problems facing urban travelers."

Researchers also make recommendations for ways to reduce traffic congestion in the future, proposing “a balanced and diversified approach – one that focuses on more of everything.”

Their suggested strategies include: Get as much use as possible out of the transportation systems that already exist; add roadway and public transportation capacity in the places where it is needed most; change commuter 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; and diversify land development patterns, to make walking, biking and mass transit more practical for moving people from place to place.

"There is no rigid prescription – no 'best way' – to address congestion problems," Lomax observed. "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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