Yes, Traffic Congestion Does Hurt Cities

Once again, a chorus is coalescing around a small group of planners and so-called urbanists who are arguing that traffic congestion is good for cities (see prime examples here and here). So, in this month’s commentary for Reason Foundation (Jan 5, 2012), I address this issue straight on. The slow cities advocates are

“missing a critical element — the economic repercussions of slowing people down. The time spent stuck in traffic or on a slower commute or journey is time not spent shopping, eating at home with family, playing or working.

“Longer commutes limit the size, scope and depth of labor markets. Firms have less access to workers because workers generally don’t look for jobs far from where they live. And it’s well established among urban economists that workers will accept lower paying jobs in order to avoid too long of a commute.

“This isn’t just theory. Real-world data supports the negative economic impacts of rising traffic congestion. A study by economist Kent Hymel appeared in the Journal of Urban Economics which linked traffic congestion to slower employment growth. Hymel examined traffic congestion and employment growth in 85 metropolitan areas between 1990 and 2003 and found evidence of rising regional traffic congestion choking employment growth. For example, a 50 percent reduction in congestion could boost employment by 10 to 30 percent in America’s top 10 most congested cities. For Los Angeles, the most congested city in the U.S. in several measures according to the Texas Transportation Institute, a 10 percent increase in regional congestion reduced employment growth by 4 percent, according to Hymel’s estimates. In short, Hymel writes, “congestion has a broad negative impact on economic growth.”

I cite other studies in the commentary, including the policy report by David Hartgen that estimated the economic cost of congestion in several major cities. I’ve also summarized the research and the policy implications in my books, The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About it and Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century, both published by Rowman & Littlefield.

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.