The Bad News on Traffic

It's 95 degrees, you're stranded in a mile-long phalanx of cars that is inching along at two miles an hour and suddenly you are struck by a truism that resonates through the new millennium: traffic sucks.

In fact, traffic more than sucks; it costs each and every one of us loyal Americans in many ways, including the old standbys, time and money. Traffic congestion also has negative effects on air quality, fuel usage, productivity, and that convenient catchall, "quality of life."

It's not too hard to figure out why gridlock is on the minds of so many consumers these days. The statistics make it painfully clear why it seems as if our daily commute is taking us longer and our around-town driving is more stress-filled than ever.

According to Federal Highway Administrator Mary E. Peters, who recently testified on the issue before a Congressional subcommittee, from 1980 to 2000 highway travel increased 80 percent and the number of drivers increased by 30 percent while highway mileage increased only two percent. More drivers and more driving on a highway system that has stayed relatively the same means more traffic; it's as simple as that.

While that might seem like enough, there's another complicating factor. The number of drivers is increasing slightly faster than overall population, and each driver on average is traveling more miles each year. Travel by motor vehicle is, by a huge margin, the most popular form of transportation in the United States. While you might have guessed that, it's doubtful you would guess just how dominant it is versus trains, planes and buses. At present, a full 91 percent of all person-miles traveled in the United States occur in private vehicles on highways. Although passenger travel growth is expected to slow somewhat in the coming years, it nonetheless will grow more than 40 percent over the next two decades, so the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.

When it comes to moving stuff instead of people, highway travel is almost equally dominant. While many goods are transported by train, ship or barge, 84 percent of the nation's $7 trillion in freight traffic travels on highways, with truck travel expected to grow by more than three percent annually over the next 20 years.

With all this as the background, Peters testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure's Subcommittee on Highways and Transit that increased traffic congestion isn't just a nuisance, it's a growing threat to the nation's economy and to our quality of life, which, by most measures, is pretty good.

"As [U.S. Transportation] Secretary [Norman Y.] Mineta has said, mobility is one of our greatest freedoms," Peters said. "Unless we manage highway congestion, our nation will continue to incur economic costs in forgone productivity, wasted fuel, and a reduced quality of life. Strategic expansion of our transportation system capacity is necessary in certain instances to address our existing and growing mobility needs."

While many call for improved public transportation systems, there is overwhelming evidence that Americans prefer private automobiles to public trains or buses. To prevent us from a case of terminal gridlock, we must increase highway capacity, make the roadways more efficient and improve the nation's system of roads and bridges. If we don't, the lost productivity may well outweigh the cost of new and improved highways and bridges.

A recent Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) study estimates the cost of congestion in just 68 urban areas has grown from $21 billion in 1982 to $78 billion in 1999 (36 hours per driver a year and 6.8 billion gallons of wasted fuel). The TTI study also estimated that congestion results in 4.4 billion person hours of delay annually in the 68 urban areas it studied. One presumes representative figures for the entire nation would be substantially higher.

Peters also testified that highway improvements can help save lives and reduce traffic crashes. Removing obstacles, installing barriers and rumble strips, adding passing lanes and widening shoulders will both improve safety and relieve congestion. That seems like something we can all agree on.

Over the course of his career, Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad has wasted thousands of hours in traffic jams, time that could have been better spent discovering a cure for cancer or learning to play the kazoo.