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Economic recovery bringing renewed congestion growth

The recession has helped some of us forget about our national traffic problem, but the recovery should
help us remember it.
The 2010 Urban Mobility Report, published by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M
University, paints the most accurate picture yet of traffic congestion in the 439 U.S. urban areas. Thanks
to the wealth of speed data provided by INRIX, a leading private‐sector 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,” noted 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.”
After two years of slight declines in overall traffic congestion – attributable to the economic downturn
and high fuel prices – leading indicators suggest that as the economy rebounds, traffic problems are
doing the same. While 2008 was the best year for commuters in at least a decade, the problem again
began to grow in 2009.
Highlights from the research illustrate the effects of the nation’s traffic problems:
‐ Congestion costs continue 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
‐ Yearly peak delay for the average commuter was 34 hours in 2009, up from 14 hours in
“We have a great deal more confidence in the numbers we now have for the chaotic years of 2007, 2008
& 2009,” researcher Shawn Turner said. “Thanks to technology, we are using data that simply could not
have been gathered a few years ago.”
The methodology used to calculate congestion has been improved more than a dozen times since the
Urban Mobility Report was first published in 1984, but the changes made possible by access to hour‐byhour
speed data are the most significant improvement yet, researchers say.
“This year’s report is a remarkable game changer,” researcher David Schrank explained. “The new data
address the biggest shortcoming of previous reports. The data show conditions for every day of the year
and include 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 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.
The congestion reduction benefits of two significant solutions are discussed—public transportation and
roadway operations. Without public transportation services, travelers would have suffered an
additional 785 million hours of delay and consumed 640 million more gallons of fuel—a savings of $19
billion in congestion costs. Roadway operational treatments save travelers 320 million hours of delay
and 265 million gallons of fuel for a congestion cost savings of $8 billion.
Researchers recommend a balanced and diversified approach to reducing traffic congestion – one that
focuses on more of everything. Their strategies include:
‐ Get as much use as possible out of the transportation system we have.
‐ Add roadway and public transportation capacity in the places where it is needed most.
‐ Change our 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.
‐ Diversify land development patterns, to make walking, biking and mass transit more
‐ Adopt realistic expectations, recognizing for instance that large urban areas are going to be
congested, but they don’t have to stay that way all day long.
“There is no rigid prescription – no ‘best way’ – to address congestion problems,” Lomax noted. “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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