Sick of Traffic? Too Bad, It’ll be Worse Soon

Published on August 31st, 2015

By Joe Guzzardi
August 31, 2015

My Los Angeles friends tell me that when they can do 35 MPH on the 405 freeway, they’re happy. They’re not necessarily talking about rush hour, either. The 405 which runs from the western and southern parts of the Greater Los Angeles Area is the nation’s most heavily trafficked and has played a central role in the development of dozens of smaller cities and suburbs along its route.

As the old not-so-funny jokes go, “405” is not really the interstate’s route identifier but the four or five miles maximum speed drivers hope to reach or the four or five hours it takes to get anywhere on the infamous but essential highway.

The annual study co-authored by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s and the traffic monitoring firm Intrix spells more congestion ahead for drivers desperate for relief. Whether traffic is defined economically or time-wise, it’s a major resource drain. The average 42 hours lost to each driver set the economy back $160 billion. Americans spend 6.9 billion frustrated hours snarled in traffic and waste 3.1 billion gallons of fuel as they crawl along.

For drivers who live in or around major urban centers, traffic is best described as choking, and in the suburbs conditions are not much better. During the first six months of 2015, Americans drove a record 1.54 trillion miles

Six of the nation’s ten most congested highways are in the notoriously snail-paced Los Angeles area with New York, Chicago, and the District of Columbia beltway not far behind. Ranked by urban region, Washington finished last with an annual delay of 82 hours per driver followed by Los Angeles, 80 hours; San Francisco,78; New York, 74; and San Jose 67 rounding out the top five least desirable cities to be on the road.

Even cities with relatively efficient public transportation like D.C. and New York haven’t been able to dent the significant road traffic increases. Professionals moving back to downtown centers, telecommuting, bike lanes, and mega-buses have also had little effect in alleviating the traffic crush.

As bad as conditions are today, they’re poised to worsen. The Census Bureau predicts that the U.S. population growth will increase by 70 million during the next three decades, roughly a 25 percent bump in the numbers of people who will need to get from where they are to where they want to go. Imagine the pull-out-your-hair frustration that 25 percent more cars on the road will create.

Tim Lomax, co-author of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute/Inrix report said that it’s hard to figure out how the existing system will accommodate 25 percent more traffic demand, and urged urban planners to figure out how to use the existing capacity “smarter.” 

Lomax didn’t specify what “smarter” might mean. A review of the three most recent Inrix reports shows that road conditions have consistently deteriorated. California will be particularly hard pressed to cope with future traffic. The state’s population is nearly 39 million and the California Department of Finance estimates that by 2050, it will reach 50 million. California Governor Jerry Brown is optimistic that his bullet train concept will be the solution, but few share his enthusiasm for the costly project.

The nation’s population growth and how to slow it to sustainable levels should be one of the challenges presidential candidates tackle on their campaign trails. Whichever cities they’re stumping in, their driver’s will likely have to allow at least 48 minutes to reach a destination that’s only 20 minutes away without traffic.

Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. Contact him at [email protected]

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