The American Commuter Spends 38 Hours a Year Stuck in Traffic

... and it's even worse in big cities. In D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco, the typical car commuter spends more than 60 hours -- more than a week of work-time -- sitting in his car, stuck.

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Few people would choose to spend the equivalent of a week at work stuck in traffic every year, but that's exactly what the average American commuter experiences, according to Texas A&M's annual mobility study. In a review of 2011 traffic patterns, researchers concluded that, "congestion caused urban Americans to travel 5.5 billion hours more and to purchase an extra 2.9 billion gallons of fuel." This adds up to 56 billion unnecessary pounds of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by idling commuters.

Screen Shot 2013-02-06 at 9.42.56 AM.pngThe cost of all of this wasted time (38 hours per commuter each year) and fuel comes out to $121 billion annually. That brings the cost for the average commuter to $818 (see graph to left).

America's most congested city is Washington, D.C., with the average commuter spending a whopping 67 hours stuck in traffic each year. Perhaps not surprisingly, Los Angeles came in second, with commuters averaging 61 hours a year stuck in traffic. San Francisco, Boston and New York round up the top five most-congested cities. On a practical level, in order to be on time in these dense cities, commuters had to allow an hour for a trip that would take just 20 minutes in light traffic.

If there is a silver lining, it's that the average time wasted in traffic has declined since its peak in 2005, when the average Americans spent 43 hours a year stuck in traffic. But in the last two decades, however, total lost work hours have nearly quadrupled. Today's congestion bill of $121 billion dwarfs the GDP of all but 60 of the countries in the world.

One solution to all of this traffic is getting out of your car and taking public transportation, walking or biking to work. Last year, 86.1% of the country's workforce drove, 5% commuted on public transportation, 2.8% walked, 1.7% commuted via other means, including bicycling, and 4.3% worked from home, avoiding the commute altogether. Another solution is to drive to work in off-peak hours. Traffic congestion tends to increase throughout the week. Avoiding the roads between 8AM and 10AM and between 5PM and 7PM would also smooth traffic throughout the day and cut down on delays.

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Biking still has a long way to go to become a mainstream commuting option. Only a small percentage of commuters, 0.56% of working adults in 2011, bike to work regularly. The city of Davis, California, wins the crown for the highest percentage of bike commuters in the country, with 16.6% of commuters taking their two-wheelers to work.

There are no quick solutions to fixing America's traffic woes, but smart investments in infrastructure, public transportation and incentives to bike or walk to work are good places to start. Cities like New York, Portland and San Francisco have rapidly enhanced their bike lane infrastructure in the last five years, which is beginning to result in increased bike commuting. Despite the increase in hours wasted in traffic, the question remains how much time the average American commuter is willing to waste before they're willing to change their commute and get out of their car.

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Presented by

Adam Werbach is the co-founder of sharing startup Yerdle, formerly the chief sustainability officer for Saatchi & Saatchi and the president of the Sierra Club. He is the author of Strategy for Sustainability: A Business ManifestoHe lives in San Francisco and Bolinas, California.

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