Traffic problems have stagnated in much of the nation as a sluggish economy reduces travel. But in the Washington area, the robust economy contributes to daily gridlock that frustrates even the most laid-back commuter.
The 2011 Urban Mobility Report, published by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University ranks the D.C. area No. 1 nationwide in annual commuting delays, ahead of Chicago and Los Angeles, and No. 2 in the commuter stress index. The reason? Despite vigorous efforts to expand and improve highways and transit systems, commuters are simply pouring onto the roads and trains at a steadily increasing pace.
The study measured nearly 2 million commuters crowding the area’s roads and trains in 2010, clocking 42 million daily vehicle miles of travel. Commuters spent 74 hours per year stuck in traffic, wasting 37 gallons of fuel each.
Commuters using public transit declined for the second year in a row, falling to 2,394,000 from 2,410,000 a year earlier. Public transit ridership hit its peak in 2008, when the system recorded 2,506,000 riders.
Help is on the way but whether it will be adequate is in doubt. Virginia is building high-occupancy toll lanes on the Beltway, extending Metro to Dulles Airport and studying whether to build HOT lanes on I-95 South. Maryland is finally building the Inter-County Connector (ICC).
Nationwide, some of the pressure is off highway and transit engineers, but the Texas study suggests that too little progress is being made toward ensuring that the nation’s transportation system will be able to keep up with job growth when the economy does return.
Nationwide, the study found:
- The amount of delay endured by the average commuter was 34 hours, up from 14 hours in 1982.
- The cost of congestion is more than $100 billion, nearly $750 for every commuter in the U.S.
- â€œRush hourâ€ is six hours of not rushing anywhere.
- Congestion is becoming a bigger problem outside of â€œrush hour,â€ with about 40 percent of the delay occurring in the mid-day and overnight hours, creating an increasingly serious problem for businesses that rely on efficient production and deliveries.
The economic recession has only provided a temporary respite from the growing congestion problem. When the economic growth returns, the average commuter is estimated to see an additional 3 hours of delay by 2015 and 7 hours by 2020. By 2015, the cost of gridlock will rise from $101 billion to $133 billion â€“ more than $900 for every commuter, and the amount of wasted fuel will jump from 1.9 billion gallons to 2.5 billion gallons â€“ enough to fill more than 275,000 gasoline tanker trucks.
â€œIf you invest in roads and transit, you get better service and access to more jobs,â€ says Tim Lomax, one of the study’s authors. â€œTraffic management and demand management should be part of the mix, too. Generally speaking, mobility investments in congested areas have a high return rate.â€
That connection was well illustrated in the 1960s, when the nation experienced its longest uninterrupted expansion in history, fueled in part by federal investment in the Interstate Highway System.
The interstate highway system grew rapidly from the late 1950s to the mid 1980s and the U.S. economy grew along with it. Since then, growth in the interstate system has virtually stopped. â€œThe only way U.S. companies have been able to keep their products competitive in the face of increasing traffic congestion and rising transportation costs is to squeeze every ounce of efficiency they can out of their supply chain, says TTI Research Scientist David Ellis. â€œBut there is a limit to efficiency and without additional transportation capacity, transportation costs will increase significantly. The result will be higher prices and lost jobs.â€