With the holiday season over, America’s 150 million workers have returned to their regular schedules. And for many, this means a daily commute filled with frustration, delay and uncertainty.
According to data from the United States Census Bureau: a staggering 75 percent drive to work alone. That means 113 million vehicles daily transport a single person to and from their place of work.
Of the remaining 25 percent, 10 percent carpool and 5 percent each ride public transportation, work from home, or use some other means of travel (e.g. walk or bicycle).
Given these numbers, it is not surprising that our roads are overburdened, delays are common, and commuters are inconvenienced. And there is data to back it up: in some cities, drivers annually lose more than 100 hours to congestion.
But traffic creates far greater problems than lost time. Here are a few examples.
• Congestion annually costs the nation $305 billion in lost productivity, wasted fuel, and increased transportation costs
• Heavy automobile use degrades the environment (cars account for 75 percent of carbon monoxide emissions) and harms our health (vehicle-caused air pollution increases respiratory ailments and other diseases).
• Vehicle ownership adds significant financial pressure on the American consumer. (The average car costs $36,000 and buying/maintaining a car is the second highest average household expenditure)
• And traffic patterns now have on outsized impact on where we work, live, shop, and send our children to school.
(One other trend is worth noting, traffic in the United States is particularly troublesome: of the 10 cities in the world with the worst congestion, five are in our country.)
Over the last decades, there have been serious efforts to ameliorate the problem. These have fallen into roughly five categories:
• Discouraging driving by increasing costs (e.g. higher tolls, fees to enter downtown metropolitan areas, and increased gasoline taxes);
• Building better and/or more roads with improved traffic flow systems;
• Increasing the capacity and range of our public transportation systems;
• Creating better information systems to guide drivers and public transportation users;
• Banning vehicles in certain areas (e.g. metropolitan centers).
But, to date, we have not solved the problem. In fact, congestion is getting worse. In 2017, Americans drove more than ever (a record 3.22 trillion miles) and increases in population, tourism, on-line deliveries and car services point to a future with even more traffic.
One reason for our lack of success is that traffic is low on our list of priorities. For years, polls have shown major concern with the economy/trade, education, federal spending, health care (including addiction), immigration, and terrorism. Traffic only makes the list indirectly through such issues as the environment and infrastructure.
The facts all point to congestion being with us the foreseeable future unless we change our consumer choices, shift our work hours, or rearrange our national priorities. And since we are unlikely to do these, sitting in traffic will remain part and parcel of living in the 21st century United States.
More than a decade ago, Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institute wrote the following “So get yourself an air-conditioned car with a CD player, a hands-free telephone, perhaps even a fax machine, and commute with someone you really like. Learn to enjoy being stuck in traffic as another leisure activity, because congestion is here to stay.”
It is still true today.
Gene Budig is the former president of Illinois State and West Virginia universities and former chancellor of the University of Kansas. He was also past president of baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.