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.
The 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.
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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.
Backwards ApproachYou will not reduce the use of ANYTHING by making its use more comfortable. The more roads are built, the more traffic you will get. If traffic is directed and controlled to reduce traffic jams, you attract more traffic. There are no examples of urban redesign to decrease traffic congestion that have not increased it instead.Instead the plan should be to increase the convenience of using alternative transportation. Change nothing for the cars – but improve public transport, bike traffic lanes, pedestrian access, etc. Away from the car-culture!Karstenhttp://www.polluteless.com
Assuming 25 cents to offset the carbon produced per gallon (in another Sightline article attributed below), and given residents of Seattle, Portland, Spokane, Eugene and Salem waste about 82 million gallons of gasoline because of congestion, it appears that it would cost (at least) 20 million dollars a year to offset just 5 *cities* worth of Congestion-caused CO2. What would the national (let alone Global) cost be? Seems to me congestion has to be a significantly more important issue on the the list of immediately actionable emission-reducing efforts. article:http://www.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2006/10/31/eco-psychiatry-25-cents/
Hm. $20 million, split among 5.5 million residents, is less than $4 per person per year. Still seems like a middle-tier climate priority at best. Then again, every little bit helps—as long as the things you do to solve congestion don’t make emissions worse.