THE ONEROUS COST OF CONGESTION

June 4, 2016


Our two oldest granddaughters attend Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia.  Great school and they have majors that will equip them well after graduation.  (No gender studies, basket weaving or quilting classes with these two.)  We visit them frequently, always enjoying our time together but dreading the commute to Atlanta. Love ‘hotlanta’ but absolutely HATE the congestion and that congestion begins about twenty (20) miles outside the city.   When the Braves, Falcons, Hawks, or Gladiators (Ice Hockey) are in town the congestion is doubled.  Interstate 75 is the main route to most of central Florida so summer-time travel is wonderful also.   You get the picture.

This got me to thinking, what is the monetary cost of travel?  Please note, I said monetary; not the cost of stress on one’s system, physical and mental. Data published in April of this year by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) puts the impact of being stuck in traffic into stark terms with a single data point: traffic congestion on the U.S. National Highway System added over $49.6 billion (yes that’s with a “B”) in operational costs to the trucking industry in 2014. That’s just added shipping costs for trucks delivering goods to clients and customers.  This does not include domestic agony experienced by a family of four trying to get to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. The ATRI said congestion resulted in a calculated delay totaling more than 728 million hours of lost productivity, equaling 264,500 commercial truck drivers sitting idle for a working year.  More than a dozen states experienced increased costs of over one billion dollars ($1B) each due to congestion.  Traffic congestion tended to be most severe in urban areas, with eighty-eight percent (88%) of the congestion costs concentrated in only eighteen percent (18%) of the network mileage and ninety-five percent (95%) of the total congestion costs occurring in metropolitan areas.  The analysis also demonstrates the impact of congestion costs on a per-truck basis, with average increased costs of $26,625 for trucks that travel 150,000 miles annually.  At one time, traffic congestion was considered an indicator of growth, but                                                                                   above a certain threshold, congestion starts to become a huge drag on possible growth. Specifically, congestion seems to slow job growth when it gets to be worse than about thirty-five (35) to thirty-seven (37) hours of delay per commuter per year (or about four-and-a-half minutes per one-way trip, relative to free-flowing traffic).  A similar threshold exists when the entire road network gets too saturated throughout the course of the day (for transportation wonks, that’s at about 11,000 ADT per lane).  Above that four-and-a-half-minute threshold, however, something else happens: The quality of life of people making those commutes starts to decline. Now, if you have to spend a miserable hour or two five days a week just getting to work, you’re either going to require higher wages to compensate you, or you’re going to look for another job. And if congestion makes it harder to match the right workers to the best jobs, that’s economically inefficient, too.

When categorizing the delays impacting business, we see the following:

  1. Freight Delivery – market size, vehicle/fleet size, both cross-country and local
  2. Business Scheduling – delivery time shifts, reconfiguration of backhaul operations, use of relief drivers. Using Atlanta as an example, repair and replacement facilities, at one time, could accommodate an average of ten (10) clients per day.  Now, that’s down to six (6) per day due to congestion.  That’s money lost.
  3. Business Operations – inventory management, retail stocking, cross-docking
  4. Intermodal Connection Arrangements – access to truck/rail/air/sea interchange terminals.  Transportation must be scheduled and delays for any reason cost firms for rescheduling.
  5. Worker Travel and Compensation – worker time/cost, schedule reliability, “on-the-clock” work travel
  6. Business Relocation Issues – smaller dispersed location strategies, moves outside of major markets, shifts to production elsewhere
  7. Localized Interactions with Other Activities – land use/development and costs passed on to employees.

Each of these seven classes of business delays affect specific areas of the supply chain.  These systematic differences are important because they vary by industry, affect the ability of affected industries to mitigate congestion costs through work-around operational changes, and ultimately affect local economic competitiveness in different ways.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS:

Congestion also affects environmental areas. No one will be surprised to learn that areas with the largest number of cars on the road see higher levels of air pollution on average. Motor vehicles are one of the largest sources of pollution worldwide. You may be surprised to learn, however, that slower moving traffic emits more pollution than when cars move at freeway speeds. Traffic jams are bad for our air.  It seems intuitive that your car burns more fuel the faster you go. But the truth is that your car burns the most fuel while accelerating to get up to speed. Maintaining a constant speed against wind-resistance burns more or less a constant amount. It’s when you find yourself in a sea of orange traffic cones — stuck in what looks more like a parking lot than a highway — that your car really starts eating up gas. The constant acceleration and braking of stop-and-go traffic burns more gas, and therefore pumps more pollutants into the air.

The relationship between driving speed and pollution isn’t perfectly linear although one study suggests that emissions start to go up when average freeway speed dips below forty-five (45) miles per hour (mph). They also start to go up dramatically as the average speed goes above 65 mph. So, the “golden zone” for fuel-consumption and emissions from your vehicle may be somewhere between 45 and 65 mph. Stopping and starting in traffic jams burns fuel at a higher rate than smooth rate of travel on the open highway. This increase in fuel consumption costs commuters additional money for fuel and contributes to the amount of emissions released by the vehicles. These emissions create air pollution related to global warming.

This leads to a dilemma for urban planners trying to develop roadways that will reduce congestion with an eye to reducing the pollution that it causes. Laying out the traffic cones for massive freeway expansion projects sends air-quality plummeting, but the hope is that air-quality will improve somewhat once the cones are gone and everyone is cruising along happily at regular freeway speeds. Ironically, since the average freeway speeds for non-congested traffic hover around seventy (70) mph and above (with states like Texas looking to increase their speed limits), air-quality is unlikely to improve — and may actually worsen — once those highway improvements are finished.

ROAD RAGE:

This is horrible but we see news releases everday concerning drivers that just “lose” it.  Eight out of ten drivers surveyed in the AAA Foundation’s annual Traffic Safety culture Index rank aggressive driving as a “serious” or “extremely serious” risk that jeopardizes their safety. Although “road rage” incidents provide some of the most shocking views of aggressive driving, many common behaviors, including racing, tailgating, failing to observe signs and regulations, and seeking confrontations with other drivers, all qualify as potentially aggressive behaviors. Speeding is one of the most prevalent aggressive behaviors. AAA Foundation studies show that speeding is a factor in one-third of all fatal crashes.

Despite a strong public awareness and understanding of aggressive driving, many people are willing to excuse aggressive behaviors.  Half of all drivers in our Traffic Safety Culture Index admitted to exceeding both neighborhood and highway speed limits by more than fifteen percent (15%) in the past thirty (30) days.  More remarkable, a quarter of drivers say they consider speeding acceptable. Much of the road rage we see results from having been in bumper-to-bumper traffic previously.  THAT is a proven fact.

CONCLUSIONS:

Traffic hurts—our economy, our environment, our relationships with family and coworkers, and physical health.  As always, I welcome your comments.

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