HURRY UP AND WAIT
DECEMBER 10, 1996
"Rush Hour"? According to a new study that's an oxymoron to commuters in one- third of the nation's largest cities. Rather than rushing, what millions of us really do is spend more than 40 hours a year sitting in traffic jams. It's costing us over $50 billion and the problem is only getting worse. Elizabeth Farnsworth talks to Tim Lomax of the Texas Transportation Institute, the organization that released the study.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: If you feel you're wasting part of your life stuck in traffic, you probably are. According to a new study released by the Texas Transportation Institute, commuters in 1/3 of the nation's largest cities spend more than 40 hours a year, one work week, in traffic jams. The most congested city is Los Angeles, where drivers wait an average 65 hours a year bumper to bumper. In Washington, D.C., the figure is 58 hours, and the cost per capita of traffic jams $820 per year. The total cost of congestion for the 50 urban areas studied is approximately $51 billion.
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Here to map this out for is the study's director, Tim Lomax, a research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute. Thanks for being with us, Mr. Lomax. We've all been caught in traffic, and we would all think "we" know what congestion is, but from the point of view of your researchers, what is congestion?
TIM LOMAX, Texas Transportation Institute: (College Station, TX) Well, traffic congestion, as we measure it, is vehicles miles of travel divided by lane miles of highway. It's basically a density--kind of measure the amount of cars divided by the amount of space there is for those cars.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And this is--as I understand it--the ninth year of a ten-year study. What are the trends? Is traffic getting worse all the time?
TIM LOMAX: Yes. Traffic in 48 of the 50 cities that we studied is getting worse. There are two cities--Phoenix and Houston--where traffic congestion has improved since 1982, but, for the most part, traffic is getting worse.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. I want to come back to Phoenix and Houston in a minute. Why is it worse in the other cities? What's happened that makes it worse? I mean, this is--this is something that we've been hearing about, talking about, trying to solve, getting rapid transit systems in cities. Why does it keep getting worse?
TIM LOMAX: Well, it's a combination of factors. One, it's very expensive and takes a long time to implement those kinds of systems. It costs a lot of money, and the public isn't always willing to support that. The public is also concerned about environmental integrity and neighborhood integrity. Various situations like that result in lack of momentum in a lot of cases. In other cases, it's just a situation where an area may have decided to put its priorities elsewhere, spend its money on other issues.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you learn from looking at the two cities which are doing okay, Phoenix and Houston?
TIM LOMAX: Well, Phoenix and Houston had a fairly bad traffic congestion situation in the early 80's. At the start of our study in 1982, they had a--they were in the top five most congestion cities in the country. Since then, they've had major freeway expansions, street expansions, and other operational improvements that have made their traffic congestion situation get better. It's very difficult to sustain that over a long period of time, very expensive, and requires a lot of public support.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mean, they have improved the situation, but it may be hard to keep those improvements?
TIM LOMAX: That's right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why? Just because there are more people, more prosperity, more people working?
TIM LOMAX: That's right. The flip side of bad traffic congestion is that it's usually accompanied by economic prosperity. We facetiously say that the easiest way to deal with traffic congestion is to let 10 or 20 percent of your jobs go somewhere else. That's not a solution that most people are willing to face. By our measure, if you have 3 percent more vehicle miles of travel, you need 3 percent more facilities or 3 percent more lane miles. And that's very expensive and requires a lot of effort to do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The various metro systems that are being put in are just not taking up enough--they're not taking enough people to really make a difference?
TIM LOMAX: Yeah. Those are typically focused on major activity centers. They provide options in very congested corridors. That's really the solutions of the markets that those are oriented at. When you have very congested situations, there are a number of things you can get people to do that they probably won't do otherwise, or are less willing to do otherwise.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is actually costing us money, isn't it? You estimate the cost of being delayed in traffic at $10.75 per hour per person. Cost to whom, and how do you arrive at that?
TIM LOMAX: Well, that's not necessarily an industry standard, but the way we look at it, we would like to figure out what the value of time that people place on their time as shown by their behavior; people will pay money to ride a toll road when they could choose a free road that's slower. They have risky lane-changing maneuvers on freeways to gain three or four car-lengths. They will cut across gas stations at right turns. This shows that people value their time pretty significantly. That's the basis for the value of time that we used.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And when you say--when you gave the figure of, I think it was $51 billion for the cost to society as a whole--yeah, $51 billion--the total cost of congestion for 50 urban areas, the cost in what sense--of lost work hours?
TIM LOMAX: Well, that's the amount of travel delay relative to what they could do if they were, for instance, driving the speed limit, so it's a lower travel speed on the freeways and major streets. And that is then multiplied by the value of time to arrive at the estimate. We also include fuel consumption that is greater, more fuel wasted in stop and go traffic, than there is at free flow. So those are the two components of the value of time. It's not really related directly to the Gross Domestic Product or improvements in economic productivity. It's more a user-based measure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you hope will be the result of your study? What was your goal in doing it?
TIM LOMAX: Well, we were trying to develop a measure for public policy decision makers and the public and the transportation community to have a frame work to begin discussions about where transportation fits in with the other priorities in the urban areas that we were studying.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When somebody say in St. Joseph, Missouri, looks at this and says, I mean--I may be wrong, but I assume there's not a lot of congestion there--and says, well, why should I care about this, this is a big city problem, move out of the big cities if you don't like it--how would you answer that?
TIM LOMAX: Well, I think that the economic vitality of the country is directly tied to the big cities in the country. And to the extent that congestion hinders economic activity, productivity, it takes longer for goods to be shipped, less reliable for good shipment across town, or service delivery, people getting to work, there is an effect on the economic health of the country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Tim Lomax, thanks for being with us.
TIM LOMAX: Sure.