Economic Find: Costs of Traffic Congestion

It’s not news to anyone in or around America’s cities that rush hour is a pain in the neck, and a costly pain at that. But it’s not easy to know how much extra we are paying because of slow moving traffic.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), the average commuter in 2010 in the 439 largest U.S. urban areas paid an extra $750 each year because of traffic delays. Costs include things like extra gasoline burned, lost work-time of those caught in traffic, and higher costs for shipping that get passed on to consumers. (The current average for lost time is 34 hours per year.)

Not every commuter faces the same delays. As expected, the largest cities endure the worst traffic. Chicago has the worst results, with average costs of $1,568 per commuter. Relatively happy commuters in McAllen, Texas, only ran into $125 worth of delays in 2010. The chart below shows the number of commuters in the U.S. experiencing different average costs. All together, some 24 million commuters are incurring more than $1,000 per year in average costs from traffic congestion.

What can be done to improve the situation? Proposals vary, and, as the TTI authors note, each city has its own particulars to deal with. TTI’s press release says that some of the most effective congestion solutions involve “traditional road building and transit use, combined with traffic management strategies such as signal coordination and rapid crash removal, and demand management strategies like telecommuting and flexible work hours. Land use and development patterns can play a positive role, as well.”

Other possibilities range from congestion fees (charging drivers increasing fees to use the road as traffic gets worse) to complete bans on single-occupant vehicles in city centers. Though congestion fees seem at first flush to impose yet more costs on commuters, their purpose is to induce people to change how they travel, so that they can avoid all these costs altogether.

Costs to US Commuters

by CPE Member Economist Jonathan Teller-Elsberg


Texas Transportation Institute. “The Urban Mobility Report.”