The social problem called traffic congestion results when the number of vehicles using the existing transportation facilities and systems serving a country, city, community, or other area (infrastructure) exceed that infrastructure’s carrying capacity. Characterizing traffic congestion are a decrease in the actual speed a vehicle may travel regardless of posted speed limit, increased travel time, and/or an increase in the amount of time it takes to enter an existing flow of traffic. The amount of traffic congestion depends on both recurring (regular rush hour traffic) and nonrecurring (congestion due to special road construction) variables.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), since 1982 traffic congestion has increased in all cities across the United States. In 2003, the Texas Transportation Institute studied 85 U.S. urban areas and found that traffic congestion caused an estimated 1.9 billion hours of delay and cost an estimated $63 billion in wasted time and fuel. Solutions to this overall increase in traffic congestion include building more roads and highways, using the existing infrastructure more efficiently, and a more controversial measure, the privatization of U.S. highways.
Measures of Traffic Congestion
The FHWA officially measures traffic congestion in terms of a travel time index and delay. The travel time index consists of the ratio of the time it takes to travel during peak infrastructure use to the time it takes to travel the same distance when traffic flows freely. For example, if a commuter must spend 35 minutes traveling from point A to point B during a holiday, but only spends 20 minutes traveling that same distance on a regular weekday, that travel time is calculated by dividing 20 by 35, and travel time is 1.75 in the travel time index. This measure accounts for both reoccur-ring (i.e., late afternoon commuter traffic) and incidental (i.e., traffic accidents) travel interruptions. The Texas Transportation Institute found that the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, California, urban area had a travel time index of 1.84, while the Corpus Christi, Texas, urban area had a travel time index of 1.04, indicating that the former urban area experienced more congestion than the latter.
The delay measure consists of annual hours of delay (hours of extra travel time due to congestion), annual delay per capita (hours of extra travel time divided by area population), and annual delay per road user (extra travel time hours divided by peak period road users). For example, the Texas Transportation Institute’s regular analysis of traffic congestion in the largest 85 urban areas demonstrated that American travelers lost 47 hours in annual hours of delay, up from 16 annual hours of delay in the 1982 traffic congestion survey.
In addition to the time travel index and delay, recently the FHWA began measuring travel time reliability, a measure of variation in travel time taking into account unpredictable congestion (i.e., a traffic light malfunctions, leaving cars backed up at an intersection until police arrive to direct traffic). Travel time reliability varies over time because conditions such as the weather and work zones vary over time. Traveling in an area with highly variable travel time causes travelers to leave extra time, or buffer, in their schedule for possible delays; even though at worst this may result in a traveler arriving early instead of on time, this is still time the traveler might have used more productively elsewhere.
Officials measure travel time reliability in terms of how travel time varies hour to hour or day to day. For example, a traveler might report that it takes 30 minutes to reach a destination with no traffic or construction, but with an active work zone on the road it takes 1 hour and 30 minutes. Travelers must consider this unpredictable event when planning their journey or risk arriving at their destination late.
Many variables, including season of the year, day of the week, and time of day may affect the number of vehicles attempting to use existing infrastructure. Additionally, the weather, work zones, slow-moving vehicles, poorly timed traffic signals, special events such as parades, emergencies such as evacuations, and traffic accidents (among others) may affect an infrastructure’s carrying capacity as well as the number of vehicles attempting to utilize the infrastructure. According to the FHWA, the most common cause of traffic congestion is a bottleneck, a point where either the roadway shrinks to fewer lanes or regular traffic demands cause traffic to stop (approximately 40 percent of all traffic congestion). Any infrastructure may experience traffic congestion at any time as demand increases. At times, traffic congestion may develop into a traffic jam, a condition in which a number of vehicles impede the movement of other vehicles to the extent that no vehicles are moving.
The FHWA suggests that the country can decrease its traffic congestion by focusing on improving service on roads, increasing the price of road usage, increasing available infrastructure, improving efficiency of work zones, managing travel demand through interagency coordination, and providing travelers with accurate, up-to-date traffic information. Many of these same strategies also improve travel time reliability, thus reducing traffic congestion due to travelers leaving a time buffer in their schedule.
Improved service on existing roads can result from managing traffic more efficiently. Some Department of Transportation suggestions to improve road service and reduce congestion include updating traffic signal equipment and/or timing devices to improve traffic flow, improving the accessibility of major roadways from secondary roadways, and responding more proactively to adverse weather by reducing speed limits and posting weather advisories on roadside electronic signs. Other suggestions involve charging a higher toll price during periods of increased infrastructure use and improving work zone traffic efficiency through developing transportation management plans to guide work zone behavior, limiting the number of lanes closed for work zones, and timing lane closures for minimum traffic disruption (for example, overnight instead of daylight land closures).
As part of efforts to increase travel time reliability, engineers and urban planners suggest several practical strategies. First, they suggest constructing more or larger highways in order to increase overall infrastructure while simultaneously redesigning roadways and others areas with a history of bottlenecks. Additionally, they suggest improving the efficiency of the existing infrastructure and working on travel demand management, finding alternatives to commuting alone. An example of travel demand management is the use of high-occupancy vehicle lanes that channel carpooling (multiple occupancy) commuters into an area of the highway with less traffic, and encouraging more efficient use of existing infrastructure by offering an incentive that decreases the total number of vehicles using the highway.
Globally, several industrialized nations allow private companies to own and/or build or operate highways, for example, Canada, India, and Italy. Privatizing U.S. highways is a controversial method of decreasing traffic congestion, with some arguing that government involvement in U.S. infrastructure is impractical, resulting in a high cost to the public as well as inefficient maintenance. Others suggest that the government should develop comprehensive infrastructure, for example, in the form of mass transit that takes into account not only efficient transportation but also the effects of infrastructure use on communities and urban areas.
The primary argument by proponents for privatizing U.S. highways is that privatization will improve overall highway efficiency and durability while decreasing overall infrastructure cost by promoting competition. Opponents focus on the risk that, rather than decreasing consumer cost, privatization will result in increased cost to the consumer through government overregulation over who can purchase highways, their maintenance, and measurements of the quality of their performance.
The Dulles Greenway, opened for travel in Virginia on September 29, 1995, is an example of an existing for-profit road operating in the United States. It consists of a 14-mile extension connecting the Washington Dulles International Airport with Leesburg, Virginia. The company that operates the road publicizes the reduction in travel time, claiming that, prior to the road’s construction, a trip from Leesburg to Dulles took 30 minutes, but once the highway opened, the same trip takes less than 15 minutes.
- Arnot, Richard. 2005. Alleviating Urban Traffic Congestion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Downs, Anthony. 2004. Still Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak-Hour Traffic Congestion. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
- Federal Highway Administration. 2005. “Traffic Congestion and Reliability: Trends and Advanced Strategies for Congestion Mitigation.” Washington, DC: Federal Highway Administration. Retrieved March 30, 2017 (https://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/congestion_report/congestion_report_05.pdf).
- Kay, Jane Holtz. 1998. Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Motavalli, Jim. 2003. Breaking Gridlock: Moving toward Transportation That Works. San Francisco: Sierra Club.
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