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Economic Recovery Brings Return of Congestion

Economic recovery will come faster in some regions of the country versus others, and along with it will come congestion.

The 2010 Urban Mobility Report, published by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, paints the most accurate picture yet of traffic congestion in 439 U.S. urban areas. Thanks to the wealth of speed data provided by INRIX, a leading private-sector provider of travel time information, the current report offers a greatly enhanced picture of congestion on a city-by-city basis.

"This Urban Mobility Report begins an exciting new era for comprehensive national congestion measurement," said researcher Tim Lomax. "By combining the traffic speed data from INRIX with the traffic volume data from the states, we are now able to provide a much better and more detailed picture of the problems facing urban travelers."

After two years of slight declines in overall traffic congestion – attributable to the economic downturn and high fuel prices – leading indicators suggest that as the economy rebounds, traffic problems are doing the same. While 2008 was the best year for commuters in at least a decade, the problem again began to grow in 2009.

Highlights from the research illustrate the effects of the nation's traffic problems:
  • Congestion costs continue to rise: measured in constant 2009 dollars, the cost of congestion has risen from $24 billion in 1982 to $115 billion in 2009.
  • The total amount of wasted fuel in 2009 topped 3.9 billion gallons – equal to 130 days of flow in the Alaska Pipeline.
  • Cost to the average commuter: $808 in 2009, compared to an inflation-adjusted $351 in 1982.
  • Yearly peak delay for the average commuter was 34 hours in 2009, up from 14 hours in 1982.
The congestion reduction benefits of two significant solutions are discussed—public transportation and roadway operations. Without public transportation services, travelers would have suffered an additional 785 million hours of delay and consumed 640 million more gallons of fuel—a savings of $19 billion in congestion costs. Roadway operational treatments save travelers 320 million hours of delay and 265 million gallons of fuel for a congestion cost savings of $8 billion.

Researchers recommend a balanced and diversified approach to reducing traffic congestion – one that focuses on more of everything. Their strategies include:
  • Get as much use as possible out of the transportation system we have.
  • Add roadway and public transportation capacity in the places where it is needed most.
  • Change our patterns, employing ideas like ridesharing and flexible work times to avoid traditional "rush hours."
  • Provide more choices, such as alternate routes, telecommuting and toll lanes for faster and more reliable trips.
  • Diversify land development patterns, to make walking, biking and mass transit more practical.
  • Adopt realistic expectations, recognizing for instance that large urban areas are going to be congested, but they don't have to stay that way all day long.

"There is no rigid prescription – no 'best way' – to address congestion problems," Lomax noted. "The most effective strategy is one where agency actions are complemented by efforts of businesses, manufacturers, commuters and travelers. Each region must identify the projects, programs and policies that achieve goals, solve problems and capitalize on opportunities."

American Road and Transportation Builders Association President and CEO Pete Ruane , commenting on the report, said, "The glaring failure of elected leaders at all levels of government to adequately invest in transportation infrastructure improvements is taking an ever increasing toll on American families and businesses.

"Traffic congestion robs parents of time with their children and unnecessarily drives up the cost of everything Americans buy. And it keeps getting worse year by year. Since 1982, the cost of congestion has skyrocketed nearly 400 percent,” he said.

"Congress and the President can do something about it by passing a robustly-financed, long-term highway and transit bill, which is more than 15 months overdue. Robust new investments aimed at creating additional transportation infrastructure capacity and providing more travel options will create jobs, facilitate economic growth and get America moving again," Ruane said

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