Stuck in Traffic: Dealing With The High Cost of Congestion

According to research released earlier this year by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), traffic congestion on the U.S. National Highway System (NHS) added over $63.4 billion in operational costs to the trucking industry in 2015. Here are some additional details from the press release:

Utilizing a variety of data sources including its unique truck GPS database, ATRI calculated delay on the NHS totaling more than 996 million hours of lost productivity, which equates to 362,243 commercial truck drivers sitting idle for a working year.

As expected, traffic congestion tended to be most severe in urban areas, with 88 percent of the congestion costs concentrated on only 17 percent of the network mileage, and 91 percent of the total congestion cost occurring in metropolitan areas.

In related news, the Wall Street Journal reported this past weekend that “New York City officials are rolling out new initiatives to try to speed up travel times on the city’s traffic-clogged streets,” including implementing new restrictions for loading trucks. According to the article:

The traffic-improvement plan includes a six-month pilot program beginning in January that will restrict curbside loading for deliveries. The pilot will cover parts of Midtown Manhattan, the Queens neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Corona and the Brooklyn neighborhoods of downtown Brooklyn, Park Slope and Prospect Heights.

Curbside loading will be banned on both sides of the street in these areas from the peak hours of 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Additional police staff will monitor these locations to keep curbs clear.

All of this follows research published in February 2004 by the Brookings Institution and RAND Corporation on behalf of the U.S. Federal Highway Administration. Here’s an excerpt from the report titled The Impact of Congestion on Shippers’ Inventory Costs:

We have found that by accounting for all sources of delay that a shipment incurs from its origin to its destination that highway congestion imposes substantial annual costs on shippers throughout the United States. Our best estimate of this cost is some $7 billion. Estimates by the Texas Transportation Institute suggest that the annual cost of congestion to motorists amounts to more than $50 billion, but they are based on a high value of travel time. If we assume that travel time equals half the wage, a plausible estimate given the existing empirical literature, then the cost of congestion to motorists amounts to roughly $25 billion. Thus, the total annual cost of congestion to shippers and motorists exceeds $30 billion, with the cost to shippers accounting for nearly 25 percent of this cost (emphasis mine). Although truck traffic represents roughly 5 percent of all vehicle traffic, shippers’ share of the total cost of congestion is considerably greater than 5 percent because freight shipments are exposed to more sources of delay than most auto traffic and because the cost of delay for some shipments may be extremely high.

In sum, our estimates indicate that it is important to include the cost of congestion to shippers in any discussion of congestion policy—preferably the impact of congestion policy on shippers and motorists should be jointly analyzed.

Is traffic congestion a solvable problem? Restricting traffic or activities during certain times of the day, such as NYC is proposing, is one approach. Implementing congestion pricing, like in London, is another tactic. You can also increase capacity (add more lanes) and encourage more telecommuting, use of public transportation, carpooling, walking, cycling, and collaborative shipments (co-loading of goods from multiple shippers into a single truck). A bit further down the road, widespread use of autonomous vehicles could alleviate traffic congestion via more optimized vehicle spacing, speeds, and routes.

Then again, many of these tactics have been promoted and tried for years and the problem has only gotten worse. So perhaps Anthony Downs from Brookings was correct when he wrote the following in January 2004:

Several tactics could [slow the rate of traffic congestion], especially if used in concert, but nothing can eliminate peak-hour traffic congestion from large metropolitan regions here and around the world. Only serious economic recessions — which are hardly desirable — can even forestall an increase.

For the time being, the only relief for traffic-plagued commuters is a comfortable, air-conditioned vehicle with a well-equipped stereo system, a hands-free telephone, and a daily commute with someone they like.

Congestion has become part of commuters’ daily leisure time, and it promises to stay that way.

What do you think? Can we solve the traffic problem or is this an issue that we just have to learn to deal with (maybe alleviate in smarter ways but not fully solve)? Post a comment and share your perspective!