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Lack of roads causes congestion, ARBTA
Reacting to the 2012 Urban Mobility Report, The American Road and Transportation Builders Association suggest more roads are in order.
Posted February 25, 2013
About five years ago, I moved from a bustling university town to a small town in the mountains. It's gorgeous and we love it here, but occasionally my friends here and I indulge in a bit of slagging on the small town-ness of it - the lack of amenities like Trader Joe's, wi-fi, and chromosomal diversity. (By the way, we're allowed to make that joke because we live here. You're not. Just wanted to be clear about that... though now that I think of it, I'm probably not allowed to, either.)

But I'll never complain about anything in this lovely little town again, not after reading the 2012 Urban Mobility Report (which by rights should be called the Urban Immobility Report). Because one thing that almost never happens around here is traffic congestion. When we say "rush hour," which we actually almost never do, we mean "the time of day when it's less advisable to take a horse and buggy out on the road." But according to the UMR, life is not so rosy, traffic-wise, in the top 101 most populous American cities.

I first heard about this report via a press release from ARBTA, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. ARBTA unsurprisingly says that all the congestion documented in the report means that we all need to build a whole bunch more roads and transportation infrastructure, stat. They also claim to be a co-sponsor of the report, though they are mentioned nowhere in it: it's presented as a product of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and the Southwest Region University Transportation Center, with support from the U.S. Department of Transportation University Transportation Centers Program and data from INRIX Traffic Data.

That's probably just as well, because having the study sponsored by a group with a vested interest in building more roads wouldn't be so great for its credibility. And I hope its credibility stands up, because some of these findings are worth giving some attention. Here are a few that stood out for me:

1. Traffic congestion is eating up a lot of time. The number of hours lost to congestion by an average urban driver has increased nearly 240 percent since 1982: then it was 16, now it's 38. To put that in perspective, the authors point out all the other things that could be done with that time: it could be five vacation days, they note, and it's more than one and a half times the number of hours that the average American spends online shopping each year. Now, I don't believe for a second that the average American spends only 25 hours online shopping a year, and I'm not sympathetic to the argument that more time should be spent this way. But I'm down with the vacation thing.

2. I'm all for planning ahead, but... The report presents a couple of indices that are a bit chilling. First, there's the Travel Time Index, which compares how long a trip takes under normal, "free-flow" conditions to how long it takes at peak driving times. In both 2010 and 2011 this was 1.18 - meaning that the peak time trip takes 118 percent of the time the free-flow trip takes. If a trip usually takes 100 minutes, at rush hour it would take 118 minutes.

Now that doesn't sound so bad, right? Except when you add to it the Planning Time Index, which looks not at average travel times but at the variation in travel times. There are times when it's not the end of the world if you get somewhere a few minutes late. But sometimes, like when you have a plane to catch or a bomb to defuse or something like that, it's very important. The Planning Time Index tells you how much extra time you'd have to leave, given the varying delays, if you wanted to make absolutely sure you'd get there on time. And in 2011 it was 3.09 - meaning that to be sure you'd make it, you'd have to allow more than three times as much time as you think it would normally take.

Even that wouldn't actually make you absolutely sure - the authors calculate that if you leave that much extra time, you'd make your plane nineteen out of twenty times. So it would make you 95 percent sure. Which is probably good enough (unless you catch a commuter plane with any frequency). But that's an awful lot of extra time you had to leave that you ultimately didn't need. No wonder the authors find that…

3. Drivers are paying out the wazoo for the privilege of being stuck in all this traffic. Time lost to traffic congestion, along with extra fuel consumed, cost the average urban driver $818 in 2011, compared to $342 in 1982 (inflation-adjusted). Think of all the stuff you could have bought online, with all that money and time you wasted sitting in traffic!

4. And the only reason it isn't worse is... If you look at the last few times this study was conducted, it appears at first that things are actually getting better. 2005 values in many of these areas were actually worse, and 2000 values were almost as bad. Except the only reason 2010 and 2011 values were lower was because of the recession. Decrease in peak-time commuting correlates with the loss of jobs in most or all of the urban centers studied.

That horse and buggy are looking better and better.
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Lack of roads causes congestion, ARBTA

File Under:
Research / Study, Automotive, TAMU, ARBTA
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