Los Angeles-Like Traffic Jams for Everyone

The bumper-to-bumper traffic we see on our roads over Labor Day weekend demonstrates both how much we love the freedom our cars provide and how much time we spend sitting in those cars, going nowhere. Despite growing frustration, drivers, businesses, and political leaders have largely resigned themselves to a new reality: living with traffic jams. But living with it is going to become increasingly difficult.

Today, just four US cities (Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, DC, and San Francisco-Oakland) have daily congestion delays that prolong peak-hour trips by more than 50 percent. That means what should be a 30-minute commute, takes 45 minutes. Over the next 25 years, 30 cities will join that club. And drivers in an unlucky 12 cities will face daily bottlenecks worse than the notorious traffic jams in today’s Los Angeles – their commutes will take at least 75 percent longer than off-peak trips, according to a new report by the Reason Foundation. The economic cost – lost time, inefficiency, unreliable deliveries, and snarled schedules – is immense and saps the economy of $63 billion a year.

Before you pack up and move to Small Town USA, you should know that things are getting just as bad there. Boise, Idaho’s congestion is expected to double and Albany, New York’s is set to almost triple by 2030.

The federal government is spending over $286 billion over the next six years on highway and urban transportation, and cities and states are pouring in hundreds of billions more. At least $1.3 trillion will be spent on urban transportation improvements alone over the next 25 years. So how is it possible that we’ll be worse off after all that spending?

Misplaced priorities.

We are wasting the dollars we have. Some of it is lost in local projects deemed —needed’ like the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska. But most of our well-intentioned long-range transportation plans focus on the wrong things and fail to deliver congestion-relief. Some cities, like San Jose and Charlotte, are crossing their fingers and praying people will embrace transit. In both cities less than 3 percent of daily commuters ride transit. Yet both are spending well over 50 percent of their money on transit projects. If massive numbers of people don’t give up their cars – and there’s no evidence they will – those cities and many like them will have condemned themselves to traffic purgatory. Indeed, instead of trying to reduce congestion most cities have resigned themselves to just slowing its growth a little.

How sad. For hundreds of years great cities kept up with infrastructure needs and adapted to new transportation technology. No more. Planners now say our goal is not to reduce congestion but to —provide choices’ (carpools, buses, light rail) because “we can’t build our way of congestion.” But we haven’t even tried. Over the last 30 years, vehicle-miles traveled increased by 143 percent while we added just 5 percent in new capacity.

Some planners oppose building roads because they fear we’re paving over America (over 90 percent of the country is actually still open space) or that no matter how many new lanes we open or new roads we build, those too will soon be “filled up.” But that is what is supposed to happen. You don’t build roads hoping no one will use them. People change routes, travel times, modes, and sometimes destinations to take advantage of extra capacity. But the entire region flows better because these changes also loosen tie-ups on other freeways and streets.

A few cities have realized that gridlock is a significant economic threat and are taking steps to deal with it. Atlanta recently revised its transportation planning process, moving away from a transit focus by setting a congestion reduction goal and selecting projects that move toward it. Texas has initiated a massive mobility initiative for its largest cities, identifying specific actions, mostly new freeways, needed to reduce congestion significantly.

The good news in the Reason study is that reducing traffic congestion is neither particularly difficult nor costly. If extended nationwide, a mobility project focused on relieving congestion primarily through added road capacity would cost about $21 billion per year over 25 years, much cheaper than the ineffective alternatives we’re planning now.

The payback in terms of saved travel time and more reliable travel would be huge – 7.7 billion hours saved each year. We need the political will to re-address continuing traffic congestion issues as we have dealt with them for hundreds of years: by providing needed capacity. Cities that figure this out will move out ahead of the pack economically while others slowly strangle.

David T. Hartgen, Ph.D., is professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of the Reason Foundation study “Building Roads to Reduce Traffic Congestion in America’s Cities.” An archive of Reason’s transportation research and commentary is here and the latest on Reason’s Mobility Project can be found here.