The big story yesterday was congestion: the Texas Transportation Institute released its annual Urban Mobility Study to the typical fanfare. See, e.g., stories here, here, here, here, here, and here.

istock_trafficThe headlines, as always, are gloomy: congestion’s on the rise just about everywhere, and is wasting our time, gas, and money. The word from the researchers isn’t particularly hopeful either.  Sure, there are things that can be done to slow the increase in congestion. But they can be expensive—and, worse, there’s no guarantee that they’ll actually work.

I dipped into the numbers a bit today.  And to the extent that the TTI estimates are actually accurate (which, as we’ve written aboutbefore, and as this LA Times story mentions, is a big question), it seems to me that there could be a silver lining in all of the wailing. You see, depending on how you look at things, congestion may not be as big a deal as the headlines make it out to be.

Take, for example, the Seattle P-Iheadline pointing out that rush hour drivers in greater Seattle waste about 45 hours stuck in traffic every year. 

Obviously, that’s not a great thing.  But barely half of Seattle residents actually travel during rush hour.  So when you stretch out the hours wasted over the entire population and over a course of a full year, it looks as if rush-hour congestion wastes only about 4 minutes per person, per day.  No fun, certainly, especially for the people stuck in gridlock who drive up the average. But not a catastrophe either, especially considering that Americans spend over an hour a day, on average, getting from place to place.

Portland does a bit better than Seattle, with daily delays totaling a little over 3 minutes per person.  Eugene and Salem face delays of about a minute and a quarter per person per day; and Spokane barely registers, with a mere 42 seconds of daily congestion delays per capita.

I’m not trying to downplay the annoyance of frustration experienced by people stuck in gridlock.  (My wife and I probably waste 10, maybe 15 minutes a day stuck in congestion every weekday afternoon, and it’s a huge pain—especially since it cuts into family time.)  Still, when you take a bigger look, congestion seems to be a minor factor in society’s overall time budget.

The same thing seems true with respect to gasoline.  According to the study, residents of the 5 Northwest cities above waste about 82 million gallons of gasoline because of congestion.  (Yuck!)  But that’s still only about 3-to-4 percent of total fuel consumption in those five metro areas.  You’d get the same boost in fuel savings by lifting the effective fuel economy of passenger vehicles from 21 mpg (roughly where it is now) to about 21.7 mpg:  an extremely modest boost, to say the least.

So while congestion certainly wastes gas, relieving congestion is nowhere close to being society’s top priority for saving fuel.  And, of course, to the extent that governments try to “solve” congestion by building more roads—a hugely expensive and potentially futile solution—they’ll wind up creating even more emissions in the process due to extra trips that people take on the expanded roadway


In short: if you believe the TTI numbers—and you look through the hype—solving congestion may be, at most, a middle-tier priority. But if you don’t believe their numbers…well, I suppose you don’t have any reason to pay attention to those headlines anyway.