Traffic Congestion: Might as Well Enjoy It

Anthony Downs
Anthony Downs Former Brookings Expert

January 1, 2001

Traffic congestion provokes spirited discussions at Washington area dinner parties. According to 1997 data, the average Washington area driver lost 76 hours in traffic jams that year.

Resentment against being stuck in traffic is a prime cause of anti-sprawl attitudes. People who moved farther out to “get away from it all” are discovering that “it all” has followed them. So they support tough, local anti-growth policies in the hope of preventing congestion from getting worse.

How bad is it? The average commuting time in the United States rose from 18.2 minutes in 1983 to 20.7 in 1995—an increase of only 2.5 minutes in 12 years. Even the time lost through delays in Washington traffic is not as great as it first seems. Dividing 76 hours by 240 working days a year, and then by two for the number of commutes per day, shows the average delay per trip is only 9.5 minutes. But those days with longer delays stick in our minds.

Why is congestion intensifying? For one thing, the combined population of Virginia, Maryland and the District rose by 2.2 million from 1980 to 1997—but the region’s population of cars, trucks and buses soared by 3 million. In addition, we are driving each vehicle farther—up from 10,315 miles in 1983 to 12,226 in 1995. That is partly because real gas prices fell and incomes rose during that period. Also, most new subdivisions have low densities not compatible with public transit, so 59.5 percent of all households own more than one vehicle.

How about remedies? Unfortunately, there is no way to reduce peak-hour traffic congestion that Americans will accept.

The most obvious approach is to build more roads. That is worthwhile in areas experiencing big population increases. But improved roads encourage more development. Also, once a roadway’s peak-hour speed has been increased by more lanes, drivers who formerly used other routes, commuted at other times or used other modes in order to avoid peak-hour delays, will shift back to driving on the improved road during peak periods. This convergence loads the bigger road beyond optimal capacity, producing crawling traffic once again. The same principle means that more telecommuting or staggered work hours will not relieve peak-hour jams for long, because other drivers will shift into these periods.

The favorite remedy of most anti-sprawl advocates and urban planners is to get more people to use public transit, but the chance of that relieving peak-hour traffic congestion is negligible. The cities with the most extensive public transit systems—New York, Washington and San Francisco—are among those with the worst traffic congestion.

In 1995 only 3.5 percent of all U.S. commuters used public transit (about 14 percent in the Washington region in 2000). More than 90 percent commuted in private vehicles because doing so is faster, more private, more convenient and more easily adapted to multiple activities on a single trip and often cheaper than using transit.

Even if improving transit could double its national share of commuting users to 7 percent—extremely unlikely—that would reduce auto commuting only from 91 to 87.8 percent—hardly enough to dent peak-hour congestion. And the policies required to drive people out of their cars—such as high gas taxes or license fees—are unacceptable to most Americans.

Changing future suburban growth patterns to higher-density developments is also unlikely to work. One reason is that more than 85 percent of all the settlements that will exist in the United States by 2020 are already here. Raising the density of the added 15 percent will not greatly alter overall surface transportation patterns.

Creating pedestrian-oriented subdivisions around public transit stops, as suggested by “new urbanists,” might reduce local auto trips, but it would not cut longer-distance commuting enough to prevent congestion from rising along with population.

Economists long have suggested using peak-hour pricing on major arteries to allow drivers who are willing to pay to move rapidly during rush hours. Electronic “smart cards” make this possible without forcing commuters to stop at toll booths. But peak-hour tolls are strongly opposed by most citizens and elected officials. They regard them as a tax and believe that tolls give wealthy commuters an unfair advantage over poor ones.

In reality, peak-hour traffic congestion is inescapable in large modern metropolitan areas the world over. Business firms want most people on the job during the same hours so that workers can interact efficiently. Many firms also want to locate in low-density establishments scattered across the landscape. Households want a range of choices of where to live and work, and most want to live in low-density settlements that are separate from poorer households, use private vehicles for most travel and be able to carry out multiple errands on a single trip.

We cannot pursue all those goals without generating peak-hour traffic congestion. And as our populations of people and vehicles rise, the peak-hour congestion is going to get worse. If it gets bad enough, more people will move closer to their jobs or seek jobs closer to where they live. Otherwise, they will have to endure traffic jams.

So get yourself an air-conditioned car with a CD player, a hands-free telephone, perhaps even a fax machine, and commute with someone you really like. Learn to enjoy being stuck in traffic as another leisure activity, because congestion is here to stay.