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How traffic jams your budget

By Claes Bell ·
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Posted: 8 am ET

Sitting in traffic isn't just annoying, it's expensive. A new report from the Texas Transportation Institute, via CBS Moneywatch, finds commuters during peak timess in 12 American cities spent an average of more than $1,000 worth of time and gas idling in traffic in 2009.

TTI's annual Urban Mobility Report measures the cost of delays to commuters and freight truck drivers and adds that to the cost of fuel to run idling cars and trucks to come up with a measure of how much traffic congestion costs America. The total? $115 billion in 2009 alone.

To put that number in perspective, if traffic congestion were an industry, it would surpass the size of the motion picture industry and the music recording industry combined.

Traffic isn't just annoying, it's expensive (photo by Osvaldo Gago)

Traffic isn't just annoying, it's expensive (photo by Osvaldo Gago)

The largest U.S. cities predictably paid the highest prices for congestion per capita. The average commuter paid $1,166 worth of congestion costs, far above the national average of $808 per peak commuter. These numbers, while pretty horrible, are actually lower than 2007, thanks to the crushing economic downturn (see, recessions aren't all bad, right?).

What that means is that if and when the economy picks up to pre-recession levels, congestion costs are just going to head higher. For all you commuters out there, that means it may be time to invest in a car with better gas mileage so you can be stuck in traffic more efficiently, or failing that, to move closer to work (probably impossible because you're underwater), use public transportation or car pool.

If you're interested in where your city's per commuter congestion costs fell, TTI has a nifty set of maps laying out the results in the 439 urban areas they surveyed. Here's the top 10 list of the worst offenders (via CBS Moneywatch):

1. Chicago: $1,738 (70 hours/52 gallons)

2. Washington, D.C.: $1,555 (70 hours/57 gallons)

3. Los Angeles/Long Beach: $1,464 (63 hours/50 gallons)

4. Houston: $1,322 (58 hours/52 gallons)

5. Baltimore: $1,218 (50 hours/43 gallons)

6. San Francisco: $1,112 (49 hours/39 gallons)

7. Boston: $1,112 (48 hours/36 gallons

8. Dallas/Ft. Worth: $1,077 (48 hours/38 gallons)

9. Denver: $1,057 (47 hours/38 gallons)

10. Seattle: $1,056 (44 hours/35 gallons)

What do you think? What should people do to lower commuting costs? As you know, I like road trains, but are there any other public policy solutions you think could work?

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January 28, 2011 at 10:25 am

I don't think anything will ever fix traffic in Chicago. The metra only goes so far, and there are a lot of people commuting in and out of the city back & forth to their suburban homes.

Claes Bell
January 28, 2011 at 9:40 am


I think you're right that the best solution isn't always building bigger roads. I can say that when they widened I-95 in Palm Beach County, the commute got way easier and there was much less congestion. But I think the freeways in LA and Houston can also illustrate that the law of diminishing returns is fully in effect; after a certain point, adding more lanes just isn't going to do the job. One interesting idea I keep hearing batted around is congestion pricing for roads. Give everyone a transponder similar to what some toll road systems give out and then charge people for using roads based on whether they're driving at peak times. Then, use the proceeds to invest in public transportation, etc. It wouldn't be popular among commuters, but it would lead to clearer roads and more use of public transportation.

Weiwen Ng
January 27, 2011 at 7:55 am

Duh - live in a city with good public transit and use it! If you read TTI's article, their proposed solution is to basically just build more and more highways. But that would lead to really ugly cities. If cars are getting too expensive, maybe we should use them less, not just buy smaller ones. In Washington DC, I can walk to my workplace within half an hour. I have a car which we use once to twice a week, but I could feasibly ditch the car for a car-sharing service like ZipCar.