Americans stuck in rush-hour traffic—and estimates suggest there are about 110 million of them on any given day—have the economic recovery to thank for their frustration, at least in part.
In a recovering economy, more people need to get to work. And when more people drive, things get congested: The total amount of time that American rush-hour commuters in 2014 spent stuck in traffic was about 6.9 billion hours, up from 6.4 billion in 2010, according to a report from the Texas Transportation Institute, which is part of Texas A&M University. That works out to about 42 hours—essentially a full work week—per commuter per year. “We're back as a nation, beyond where we were pre-recession,” says David Schrank, an author of the report.
Certain cities have much more severely congested roads than others. Washington, D.C., currently holds the national record, with drivers on average spending 82 hours per year sitting in traffic. San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles are close behind, but the problem has been growing in smaller cities too.
If the economy continues growing, the annual delay is expected to increase from its current level, 42 hours, to 47 hours. In the short run, cheaper gasoline has exacerbated the problem.
So what can put an end to all this misery? “It's a very deep question,” says Schrank. “It's not one that will be resolved by a lot of concrete trucks running out here. There's just not enough concrete trucks to resolve that problem.” He says that the situation might improve if more employers embrace telecommuting and more-flexible working hours, and if developers start juxtaposing commercial and residential land more closely. Other, longer-term solutions that have been suggested are driverless cars and electronic signs that prod commuters to drive at a more constant speed.
One solution, though, is much lower-tech. A 2011 paper in the American Economic Review concluded that building more roads is futile. “As soon as you manage to create space on the road, by whatever means, people are going to use that space,” the paper’s author, Gilles Duranton, told CityLab. “Except when people have to pay for it, of course.”
Duranton was referring to “congestion pricing,” which would charge people extra for driving at peak hours. London and Stockholm have both introduced congestion-pricing programs, with great success: An expansion of London’s bus system was made possible by revenues from the program, and in Stockholm, traffic was reduced by 18 percent between 2006 and 2011. The average worker might say she’s not eager to personally pay a premium to reduce congestion and emissions city-wide. But ask her again when she’s stuck in traffic.