U.S. traffic headaches grow steadily worse, roads alone can’t cure them

Wed, 2015-09-09 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi


The latest generation of American commuters spends twice as much time sitting in traffic as their parents did when they entered the workforce. Traffic is as bad as it’s ever been and getting worse. But a study finds the road to easier commutes may not be a road at all.

The average American spends 42 hours in traffic each year, according to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and traffic analytics firm Inrix. That’s more than double the 18 hours people spent in traffic in 1982.

That is a lot of wasted time. Altogether, Americans spent 6.9 billion hours in traffic last year. The study authors point out that’s more time than it would take to drive a car to Pluto and back.

Problem gets steadily worse, everywhere
We didn’t arrive here suddenly. The data show that with the exception of the recession a few years ago, the commute grows by one hour – occasionally two – every single year.

The study estimates that congestion costs the U.S. about $160 billion each year, nearly four times the cost from 1982. Costs include everything from the delays that affect the shipment of goods to the lost productivity resulting from people having to leave extra early to make sure they get to important meetings on time in unpredictable traffic.

And no city is immune to the problem. While the bigger the city the bigger the delay, congestion is actually growing fastest in small- and mid-size cities. In those smaller cities, delays are now about three times as bad as they were in the early `80s.

Reducing the environmental toll
The amount of wasted fuel is growing even faster than the delays themselves. The study estimates that 3.1 billion gallons of fuel are wasted because of congestion nationwide each year – more than six times the wasted fuel 30 years ago.

Council Lead Partner Enel is among those working to address that part of the congestion problem. Its Spanish subsidiary Endesa is working on several projects that aim to make electric vehicles a stronger solution for smart cities.

Endesa installed 23 e-vehicle charging points in the city of Malaga, creating the largest fast-charging network of any European city. Over the two-year history of the project, more than 200 vehicles have participated, driving about 3 million kilometers. The program avoided 286 tons of CO₂ emissions.

The program is called Zem2All, short for “zero emissions for all.” All vehicles and charging stations are part of a connected network. Drivers can use an app to check the battery life of their vehicle to determine when they will need a charge and can book an appointment time at any of the charging centers.

The company is also working to reduce the charging times themselves. On the island of Majorca, it developed eCar, six super-fast charging points that can bring a vehicle's battery up to an 80% charge in just a half hour.

Getting cars off the roads faster
Council Associate Partner Siemens is working on another piece of the congestion puzzle. It’s working on smart parking initiatives designed to get vehicles off of city streets as fast as possible.

It’s not just a matter of convenience. Siemens estimates that as much as 40% of inter-city traffic consists of people simply driving around looking for a parking space. Its system uses radars to monitor available parking spaces. That information is sent to a central control center and then relayed to drivers who are looking for them.

Planning a comprehensive solution
As it has for decades, congestion is on track to get even worse and study authors say cities are going to have to make hard decisions and get creative in order to address it. Between lost time and added expense, congestion is already a serious drain on the economy.

It’s a supply-and-demand problem. When traffic is bad, more people are trying to commute than the infrastructure was designed for. The solution, then, would be to increase the supply, but given limited space and the magnitude of the problem already, if it’s not impossible to do that with roads, it’s close to it.

Study authors say it’s important that cities expand where they can, but that they also make smarter use of their existing roads and transit systems. One idea is to promote efforts to stagger the commute when possible, so that not everyone is using the roads at the same time.

Information is also critical. Cities need to use data to determine where their biggest choke points are and concentrate first on removing or reducing those bottlenecks. New technology and creative solutions can also play an important role in getting more mileage out of existing infrastructure.

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Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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