Traffic Congestion

The annual arrival of 1.5 million legal and illegal immigrants is overburdening our already crowded roadways. Americans are spending more time sitting in traffic than ever before: in a typical day we spend 46 minutes commuting to and from work.1

The cost of traffic congestion is immense. In 2005, congestion cost $78.2 billion in America’s 437 urban areas, up 7 percent from 2004.2 Population growth and the ensuing urban sprawl is worsening the situation, resulting in year-after-year increases in wasted fuel and time spent commuting.

Our nation’s ecosystems are also burdened by the crowding of our roadways. By themselves, the 8.5 million miles of impermeable roadway that traverses the U.S. cause habitat destruction and reduce the soil’s ability to absorb and hold moisture.3 In addition, America’s fleet of personal vehicles floods our waterways with pollutants and is the major contributor to urban smog and CO2 emissions.

All levels of government are involved in alleviating the resource waste and environmental harm associated with over-congested roads, but their efforts are negated by the persistent demands of a growing population.

A Nationwide Problem

Los Angeles Traffic

  • The average urban driver now spends more than 100 hours commuting to work, compared to just 16 in 1982--an increase of 525 percent.4

  • More than half of major roads are crowded during rush hour, up from a third in 1982.5

  • The Texas Transportation Institute's annual study of traffic congestion in urban areas found that in 2005 Americans spent 4.2 billion hours delayed in traffic and wasted 2.9 billion gallons of fuel.6 That’s enough wasted capital to fund all cancer research in America for the next 13 years.7

  • Aside from time wasted and fuel consumed, traffic can have larger economic consequences, such as affecting a city's ability to attract new business. Traffic congestion in Atlanta has become so bad that the Chamber of Commerce called it the greatest threat to the city's economic prosperity.8

  • Increased traffic means more than wasted time and money it mean higher greenhouse gas emissions (due to idling cars); chemical runoff that pollutes our nation’s waterways, and your backyard; the carving up of our forests and green spaces, and a much more dangerous environment for pedestrians, especially children and the elderly.

Congestion Around the United States

  • California With five of the nation's 20 most congested metro areas, Californians wasted 871 million hours and 673.5 million gallons of fuel sitting in traffic in 2005.9 In the San Fernando Valley area, the average morning rush-hour speed of 31 mph is expected to fall to 16 mph by 2025 as new drivers crowd the already saturated roads.10

  • Florida Total vehicle miles traveled doubled in the last 20 years and are expected to rise a further 50 percent by 2020.11

  • Texas Traffic is growing so quickly that even if public transit use were to double, the gain would be canceled out by population growth in as little as three months, according to the Texas Public Policy Foundation.12

  • Northern Virginia Within the next 15 years, increase in population will be two to three times greater than the planned increase in highway capacity, according to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.13

  • Atlanta Known as the “Poster Child of Sprawl,” Atlanta is the nation’s fastest growing city. It is also among the deadliest for pedestrians and motorists.14 Congestion on the overcrowded roads results in a traffic accident every 2.8 minutes in the metro area. The accidents further aggravate congestion, and cost $4.7 billion per year.15

  • Chicago Rush hour now lasts almost eight hours a day. If time is money, each year Chicago commuters waste $3,014 per person while killing time in Chicago’s traffic jams. Wasted gas adds an addition $402 to the bill. Meanwhile, the freight industry loses an estimated $1 billion per year due to traffic congestion.16

  • Los Angeles Los Angeles has been the most traffic-choked urban area in the country for 20 years running.17 State officials say the number of miles driven on Los Angeles and Orange County roads will increase 40 percent by 2020, due in large part to the sustained influx of immigrants into the region’s suburbs.

  • Sacramento Even with $15 billion in planned road improvements, congestion will increase 400 percent by 2020.18

In many areas of the country, traffic congestion has become a major quality of life issue that impacts decisions as fundamental as where to buy a home or where to work.

While building roadways and alternative transportation can help decrease traffic congestion, the problem will not abate while population continues to expand.

Updated June 2009

  1. Joseph Carroll, "Workers' Average Commute Round-Trip Is 46 Minutes in a Typical Day," Gallup Inc., August 24, 2007.
  2. What Does Congestion Cost Us? Texas Transportation Institute, 2007.
  3. Table 1-6: Estimated U.S. Roadway Lane-Miles by Functional System, 1996-2007: U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Highway Statistics, March 2009.
  4. Stephen Buckner and Joanna Gonzalez, Americans Spend More Than 100 Hours Commuting to Work Each Year, Census Bureau Reports, U.S. Census Bureau News, March 30, 2005.
  5. The Short Report, 2002 Urban Mobility Study, Texas Transportation Institute, 2002.
  6. Table 2. Components of the Congestion Problem, 2005 Urban Area Totals. Texas Transportation Institute, 2005.
  7. How Big is $80 Billion? (bigger than you think!), Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, June 2005.
  8. Larry Copeland, “Traffic Nightmare Beginning to Cost Cities,” USA Today, October 18, 2002.
  9. Lisa Mascaro, "Looming Traffic Crisis," Daily News of Los Angeles, August 4, 2002.
  10. Jim Wasserman, "2020 Traffic Report: Growth Means More Time Behind the Wheel for Everyone," Associated Press, September 19, 2002.
  11. Jennifer Audette, "Losing Patience," The Ledger (Lakeland, Florida), January 7, 2001.
  12. Thomas A. Rubin and Wendell Cox, "The Road Ahead: Innovations for Better Transportation in Texas," Texas Public Policy Foundation, February 27, 2001.
  13. Hiawatha Nicely, "Northern Virginia's Gridlock Affects the Entire State," Roanoke Times & World News, February 16, 2002.
  14. D.L. Bennett and Duane D. Stanford, Atlanta the Second Most Dangerous City in America for Pedestrian, Perimeter Transportation Coalition, June 16, 2000.
  15. Traffic Crash Profiles, Atlanta Regional Commission, October 24, 2006.
  16. Jon Hilkevitch, “Traffic congestion’s toll is $7.3 billion a year in Chicago area,” Chicago Tribute, August 05, 2008.
  17. Hugo Martin, "No Idle Boast: L.A. Traffic Worst Again," Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2002.
  18. Kevin Klowden, Perry Wong and Soojung Kim, California's Highway Infrastructure: Traffic's Looming Costs, Milken Institute, October 27, 2008.