A new report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute about commuters’ traffic woes is a doozy. The big takeaway: Drivers are wasting more time than ever “stopping and going in an ocean of brake lights” (to quote one news account). Since the Institute’s first Urban Mobility Report was issued in 1982, the number of hours per commuter lost to traffic delay has nearly tripled, climbing to 54 hours a year. The nationwide cost of gridlock has grown more than tenfold, to $166 billion a year.
This series of reports has become sort of infamous in transportation circles: It’s been the target of scathing criticism for focusing solely on driving and traffic to the exclusion of public transit, walking, biking, sprawl, pollution, injuries, deaths, or carbon emissions.
But the report’s biggest deficiency is simpler: Commuters are not actually spending all that much more time getting to work.
Take Houston, for example, which according to the Urban Mobility Report has seen the largest increase in congestion delays over the last decade: 75 hours wasted in 2017, up 42 percent from a decade earlier.
Compare that growth with data from the U.S. Census Bureau showing how long it takes Houston drivers to get to work. The average auto commute was 30.3 minutes in the Houston area in 2017, up just 1.6 minutes from a decade earlier—a barely perceptible 6 percent increase.
Houston is not alone. As Figure 1 shows, other sprawling metros experienced big increases in commuter hours stuck in traffic. Still, the average commute duration grew by less than 10 percent, generally 1 or 2 minutes.
This might seem like a weird statistical fluke. But the interaction of traffic delay and auto commute times is the central force leading to an endless cycle of auto-centric sprawl. Research in the 1990s, 2005, and 2014 documented how suburbanizing metro areas spread ever outward without creating unbearably time-consuming commutes. The process starts when people accept a slightly longer commute into the city in exchange for a suburban house and lawn. Jobs soon follow to the suburbs, shortening the commute for many residents. Some people then move out a bit further to take advantage of cheap land prices and get closer once again to open countryside. As jobs follow again, metro areas expand like a balloon, everyone and everything moving outward from the center but not so far apart from each other. That’s how workers can keep their commutes to a reasonable duration, as shown in Figure 1 for large metros and Figure 2 below for a group of mid-size metros.
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