This morning, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and Kirkland traffic-data firm Inrix released the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, and at first glance, things don’t look good for the Seattle area.
Using 2014 speed data from Inrix and Federal Highway Administration volume data, researchers concluded that the average Seattle and Eastside driver wasted 63 hours stuck in congestion. (Inrix said last year that Seattle drivers wasted 40 hours in traffic; the large jump is largely due to changes in methodology that better represent truck traffic and capture slower speeds.) The area’s “congestion cost” — the increased travel expenses due to inefficiency plus lost productivity — averaged out to $1,491 per commuter. Apply that to the region’s 1.5 million commuters, and we’re looking at an economic hit of $2.24 billion, though that number is questionable as most commuters carve into personal time, not working hours, to accommodate a longer commute. (The TTI reports, which are not peer-reviewed studies, have over the years received scrutiny from organizations such as City Observatory.)
The problem, of course, isn’t isolated to Seattle. The report estimates congestion cost the U.S. economy $160 billion last year, and the average commuter spent 42 hours — a full work week — delayed in traffic.
“Almost every area has ‘recovered’ from the economic recession; almost all regions have worse congestion than before the 2008 crash,” the report’s authors wrote. “Traffic problems as measured by per-commuter measures are about the same as a decade ago, but because there are so many more commuters, and more congestion during off-peak hours, total delay has increased by almost one billion hours.”
Doom and gloom indeed, but the mention of the economic recovery is worth noting. Nasty traffic costs us money, but it is caused primarily by things such as jobs, population, and shipping (trucks accounted for 7 percent of traffic but 17 percent of congestion costs in 2014) — all things that pump more money into a local economy. Americans’ vehicle mileage dipped during the recession, but that total is now climbing as more people return to work.
Among metro areas, Seattle’s traffic clocks in as the seventh worst in the country; D.C. topped the list at 82 hours wasted in congestion. The areas in front of Seattle are a who’s-who of economic powerhouses — New York, Boston, Los Angeles. Of the metro areas the report says have worse traffic than Seattle, only San Jose has a smaller gross domestic product than does Seattle.
The gist of the report is that traffic is expensive, and steps must be taken to ensure American cities leave fewer dollars behind on roadways. The authors call for a “balanced and diversified approach” to congestion reduction, one that includes adding capacity on major corridors, encouraging employers to adopt flexible work hours, prioritizing mixed-use development, and offering more choices for mobility — bike lanes, more transit, toll lanes, etc.
Seattle seems a pertinent example of why these approaches might work. The region’s transit pales in comparison to systems in larger cities, there are few alternatives to the major highways, and, particularly on the Eastside, biking- and walking- friendly development is minimal.
But consider the areas that have implemented some of the report’s suggestions. New York and Washington, D.C., have far better transit systems and are far more walkable than Seattle, but traffic is worse in those areas. In many European cities where multi-modal transportation and mixed-use development are commonplace, traffic remains an issue. Commuters in London, according to Inrix, wasted 96 hours in traffic last year.
It’s undeniable steps can be made to alleviate traffic, especially on an individual basis by providing more mobility and living options. But traffic can’t be solved per se, and the study’s authors acknowledge this. It’s easier to drive a truck through a town of 10,000 people than one of 100,000 people, but humans cluster near jobs, so that’s where all the commuters go and where all the products get shipped.
So an Eastsider can look at the report and bemoan the 65 hours he or she will spend in traffic this year, but all that traffic means the economy is healthy. One surefire way to negate a rush-hour commute, after all, is to be unemployed.
This post has been edited.