News: Charlotte Exclusives

Congestion Questions

Trafficking in myths and facts

If you happened to be orbiting the Earth in recent days you might’ve missed news reports on America’s traffic congestion woes. A new study from the Texas Transportation Institute was the trigger for the stories and unfortunately many did not do the careful work of the study justice. In fact, there seemed to be a contest by reporters and editors to declare their particular locality the absolute worst for traffic in the history of the Republic.

From Ft. Worth to Chicago; Philly and DC to Utah, everybody it seems has the worst traffic. Of course, when you’re stuck in it that traffic is the worst. But this focus presumes, even if it does come right out and say it, that somebody, somewhere is enjoying a traffic-free life.

It turns out that in the 85 urban areas the study monitored more people are driving more miles than they did just a few years ago. Everybody has some traffic. This is where the particulars of the study get interesting. The total time wasted by all travelers due to traffic was pegged at some 3.5 billion hours in 2002, with the average urban commuter’s time stuck in traffic at 46 hours.

That is certainly a lot of down time for a commuter, but it is actually down from a peak of 49 hours in 1999. In fact, the average delay for the past seven years is the same 46 hours. So, by that measure at least, traffic congestion is not worse than it has ever been.

The national average commuter delay number then provides some benchmark for the Charlotte region’s average commuter delay of 45 hours. Far too long, yes, but also not completely out of line with what you might find elsewhere and just below the national average. And in Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston you’d add about 15 hours a year to your Charlotte commute time.

Coming in slightly below Charlotte were Nashville and Louisville with average commute time of 41 and 38 hours respectively. Memphis and Jacksonville were further down the list with 31 hours and Raleigh-Durham with 26 hours.

Now it is doubtful that someone stuck in traffic in Raleigh can be convinced that they have it much better than the rest of the country. People hate to waste time. So what can be down about it? How about build roads to match economic growth?

The study found that increasing road “supply” is one way to help reduce congestion. Yet 54 of the 85 urban areas studied failed to keep road capacity to even close to the traffic growth they experienced since 1982. Fewer roads meant more congestion.

Of course, the ultimate congestion culprit, if we must find out, is economic growth. One of the study’s co-authors, Tim Lomax, calls the past two decades a period of “almost constant economic growth.” No growth, no congestion, no problem. Has there ever been a steady-state human civilization, by the way?

As communities across North Carolina have discovered in recent years, where you have economic growth you get cars, trucks, traffic, buildings. Stuff. People. Life. The nasty bits like sitting in traffic come with the territory. We can work on making it better — perhaps more amusing — or pretend that cruel fate controls our lives.