Commentary

Urban Traffic Congestion Likely to Get Worse

The Wall Street Journal reports on the release of the Texas Transportation Institute’s 2009 Urban Mobility Report. As expected, traffic congestion is just going to get worse.

“America’s love affair with cars isn’t what it used to be, and one reason could be the enormous amount of time we spend stuck in traffic.

“If Congress proposed a $750-per-person tax on everyone who drives, there’d be a political firestorm. But big-city commuters pay that much annually, on average, in the form of lost time and fuel wasted crawling through congested cities, according to the latest Urban Mobility Report from the Texas Transportation Institute.

“The TTI study is one of those surveys that confirms what you already think you know: Traffic in America’s big metropolitan regions is a nightmare much of the day. The scale of the problem is bigger than you might have guessed. Since 1982, the number of hours each year that the average traveler spent in rush-hour traffic jams rose to 36 in 2007 from 14 in 1982. Put another way, big-city commuters spend nearly a week’s vacation time dawdling on the road. In the process, that same average commuter wasted 24 gallons of fuel in 2007, compared with nine in 1982.

“Rush hour” is an anachronism. In most big cities, peak congestion consumes three hours in the morning and evening, during which very little rushing takes place, the report says. Maybe we should rename the commuting periods of the day “jam time.”

One of the more interesting questions the reporter raises is whether the government now has an incentive to promote driving and automobile use since it has a significant financial stake in the survival of two of the nation’s auto companies: Chrysler & General Motors.

Some, such as Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer still think that the problem is too many cul-de-sacs that put too many cars on the road.

“Traffic jams are a symptom of bigger problems created over many years that won’t be quickly fixed. When you fly into Washington, D.C., look at the patterns of the streets in the suburbs that ring the city, says Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D.-Ore.), who has made transportation policy one of his main issues in 13 years in Congress. “You see fields of cul de sacs,” he says. Residents in these neighborhoods have just one way to get out—and when they rush for the exit, they clog the road that runs in front of the subdivision.”

The debate will be between those that believe government should provide the services its citizens want, and those that believe lifestyles should be alterred to meet government’s goals and objectives.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.