U.S. Has Heaviest Traffic Among Nations Surveyed; London Ranks as Most Congested City

INRIX’s 2015 Traffic Scorecard is out, and it confirms an equation we’ve been seeing for a while now: Strong metropolitan economies + robust job markets = more traffic.

The study focused on the highly developed economies of the U.S. and Europe, and congestion trends within those markets seemed to link up pretty closely with economic growth and job creation.

Just look at the metro areas that ranked highest (in other words, worst) for traffic congestion.

The most gridlocked metro in the entire study – by far – is London. The study measures congestion in terms of hours spent by the average commuter in traffic over the course of an entire year. For the average London commuter, that figure is 101.

As in, 101 hours.

As in, just over four entire days out of the year.

London thus earns a kind of dubious distinction, becoming the first city on record to surpass the 100-hour threshold.

But as the opening of this post indicates, high levels of traffic represent something of a backhanded achievement – they tend to occur in places that are growing, and where the economy and the job market are vigorous.

London certainly matches this description – a particularly notable mark of the city’s vitality is the fact that its population topped 8.6 million[1] last year – the highest since its 1939 peak.[2]

But the fact that the British capital held the congestion crown among metro areas cannot obscure a simple fact: The United States has the worst traffic of all nations surveyed.

Not only did the U.S. have the highest number of hours spent in traffic of any country in the Scorecard (50, well ahead of second-place Belgium’s 44), but the next five most congested metro areas in the survey after London are all in the U.S.

The Los Angeles metro area ranked highest among U.S. metros, with 81 hours spent in traffic. It was followed by the metro areas of Washington, DC (75), San Francisco (75), Houston (74), and New York City (73). The rest of the Scorecard’s Top 10 consisted of metro areas in Germany and Belgium: Stuttgart, Germany (73); Antwerp, Belgium (71); Cologne, Germany (71); and Brussels, Belgium (70).

Other U.S. metros ranking high on the Scorecard’s list were Seattle (66), Boston (64), Chicago (60), Atlanta (59), and Honolulu (49).

Perhaps the strongest unifying factor across the most congested U.S. metros is robust GDP growth. All of the most congested U.S. metros saw their GDPs rise more sharply than the national average of 2.4 percent. Some, such as San Francisco (4.5 percent), Seattle (4.1 percent), and Washington, DC (3.9 percent), outpaced the national rate by especially impressive margins.

This points to one of the fundamental challenges confronting policymakers in the U.S. (and in any developed nation with high levels of congestion): How to respond to growth in such a way as to head off the waste, inefficiency, and market distortions arising from congestion. This challenge will only become more pressing as the growth of our leading metros continues to accelerate.

One factor commonly attributed to rising traffic is declining gas prices. While falling fuel costs can certainly contribute to congestion, the U.S. metros ranked in the 2015 Traffic Scorecard did not experience particularly significant fuel-cost reductions compared to the rest of the country.

In other words, while any number of factors may explain why a particular metro ranks among the nation’s 10 most congested, gas-price reductions are probably not high among them.

Following the U.S. and second-place Belgium, the most congested nations studied in the Scorecard were the Netherlands (39), Germany (38), Luxembourg (33), Switzerland (30), the United Kingdom (30), and France (28).

Traffic management may become a more urgent issue for Europeans in the year ahead. By December 2015, unemployment in the European Union (EU) fell to its lowest level since August 2011. As Europe works toward the European Commission’s goal of 75 percent employment by 2020, nations will need to invest heavily in infrastructure to avoid long-term increases in congestion.

As metropolitan economies continue to grow, governments should be prepared to invest in solutions to reduce the inevitable rise in congestion – a condition that can undermine the dynamism, livability, natural beauty, and other qualities that make certain cities so attractive in the first place.

The problem of congestion cannot be solved simply by adding new roads or fixing the pavement on existing ones. If our cities are to enjoy the benefits of growth without experiencing the myriad ill effects of congestion, they will need to invest in smarter solutions.

Some of these solutions are tried-and true, such as increased mass transit and other multimodal options, including pedestrian and bicycle programs. Others are more novel, such as the adjustment of traffic-signal intervals based on up-to-the-minute traffic data.

Data-based solutions are increasingly arising as valuable tools for planners and policy makers looking to break the growth-congestion cycle. By 2017, according to ABI research, 80 percent of cars on the road in the U.S. and Western Europe will have the ability to receive and generate real-time traffic data.

Fueling the transformation toward new approaches for city planning are programs such as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s $50 million Smart City Challenge and the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities.

INRIX’s traffic analytics can help city planners and engineers make data-based decisions on how to reduce and manage traffic, even as cities continue to grow. We look forward to that challenge over the year ahead – and beyond.

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-31082941

[2] https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160105160709/https://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/pop-estimate/population-estimates-for-uk–england-and-wales–scotland-and-northern-ireland/mid-2014/sty—overview-of-the-uk-population.html