Gridlock and a dead bolt

Lack of speed on highways will do more damage as time goes on

Article May 20, 2004
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As the American economy recovers from recession and gathers strength, travel on our roads and highways will play a key role in sustaining and expanding growth nationwide. Traffic congestion, especially in our major urban regions, threatens to slow this recovery.

Gridlock on our major highways, city streets and suburban roads makes vehicle travel in the U.S. inconvenient, wasting time and fuel, adding to the cost of moving goods and services and eroding our country’s transportation advantage over our global competitors.

Traffic congestion has unfortunately become part of our lives: The Texas Transportation Institute, which has tracked urban congestion in 75 key urban areas since 1982, reports that congestion has gotten worse in every region, big or small. As a result, 20-minute vehicle trips during off-peak times take almost 28 minutes to complete during rush hour.

In some regions, rush hour has become an all-day experience, with severe economic consequences. With gas prices skyrocketing, stop-and-go driving also eats into family and corporate budgets. By slowing commute times, making shopping and recreation trips less convenient and hampering the free movement of goods and components, traffic congestion costs our economy billions of dollars and affects corporate relocation and logistics decisions.

The primary reason for increasing congestion levels, bottlenecks and seemingly endless rush hours is that the U.S. does not have the capacity to accommodate rapid increases in vehicle and commercial truck travel. America has turned largely away from adding more road and highway lanes in recent years. While vehicle travel on limited-access highways increased by 45% from 1990 to 2002, lane mileage on those highways (interstates, freeways and expressways) grew by only 9%. As a result, 37% of U.S. urban interstates, freeways and other major routes are considered congested.

Gridlock is causing our commutes to get longer and longer. The average one-way commute in the U.S. increased from 22.4 minutes in 1990 to 25.5 minutes in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This means the typical commuter spends on average an additional 26 hours annually in traffic than he or she did a decade ago. Commute times are increasing the most in the South, home to some of the nation’s fastest-growing regions.

And commute times will not go down as travel nationwide continues to climb and no additional road capacity is built. The federal Office of Freight Management and Operations concluded that while large trucks make up only 5% of total vehicles on urban highways, a doubling of truck volumes on “saturated roads” would cause myriad problems, including unstable traffic flows and a loss of reliability for highway users.

A comprehensive, balanced approach that focuses on making improvements to the entire surface transportation system will help reduce traffic congestion. While it may not be practical to get rid of rush hour, regions can take steps to relieve congestion adequately enough to maintain a high level of mobility and access.

Traffic congestion solutions include adding roadway capacity, largely along existing routes; improving the efficiency of the existing system through the use of managed lanes; high-occupancy vehicle lanes; reversible and contra-flow lanes; moveable medians; ramp metering; improved signalization and incident management; and improved public transit service.

These solutions will cost money. It will take a significant annual investment at all levels of government in the U.S. to make a dent in traffic congestion and get us moving again

About the author: 
Wilkins is executive director of TRIP, Washington, D.C.
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