There has been quite a lot of discussion recently about the “cost” of congestion, as well as pretty dire future projections in relation to levels of congestion 20-30 years in the future. But, compared to other elements of transport costs, how does congestion actually stack up? Todd Littman takes a look at this in a really comprehensive study that has been summarised on the Pricetags blog:
Comparing Congestion With Other Costs
The UMR report claims that traffic congestion wastes “massive” amounts of time and money, estimated at 5.5 billion hours and 2.9 billion gallons of fuel, worth an estimated $121 billion.
Described this way the costs seem very large, but measured per capita they appear more modest: 17 hours, 9 gallons and $388 per year, or less than three minutes, 0.03 gallons and $1.06 per day. These represent less than 2% of total travel time and fuel costs, which is small compared with other factors that affect per capita travel time and fuel consumption costs.
This indicates that congestion is overall a modest cost, larger than some but smaller than others:
Because congestion is just one of many costs, it is inappropriate to evaluate congestion reduction strategies in isolation: a congestion reduction strategy may provide far less total benefit if it increases other costs, and is worth far more if it reduces other costs or provides other benefits.
For example, roadway expansions may seem cost effective considering just congestion impacts, but not if wider roads induce additional vehicle travel which increases other external costs. Conversely, improving alternative modes may not be cost effective based only on their congestion reductions, but are cost effective overall when co-benefits (parking cost savings, traffic safety, or improved mobility for non-drivers, etc.) are also considered.
Somehow we need to get past using congestion as the primary success/failure measurement for transport. After all, not only is it seemingly relatively minor in the scheme of things, but there’s a fairly good argument out there that congestion doesn’t hold back economic productivity:Ultimately it’s hard to work out what the real cost of congestion is, but I’m pretty sure it’s WAY less than we assume.