The High Cost of Traffic: Time, Money, and Climate Change

Welcome to your commute, drivers. (Graphic courtesy of TTI)

Urban automobile traffic is better than it was at its peak in 2005 -- but the cost of traffic congestion is on the rise.

The 2012 Urban Mobility Report -- a ranking of traffic congestion from Texas A&M's  Transportation Institute (TTI) -- says the total financial cost of congestion in 2011 was $121 billion, or about $818 per car commuter. A big piece of that is wasted fuel, which the report says reached a total of 2.9 billion gallons.

But worse still than mulling that over is a new addition to the report: the tally of annual carbon dioxide emissions attributed to traffic. The TTI estimates it at 56 billion pounds – or about 380 pounds per auto commuter.

The E.P.A. considers carbon dioxide a major factor in climate change, and estimates that transportation accounts for about one-third of the country's CO2 emissions, second only to the generation of electricity.

Harder to quantify financially is wasted time: the TTI says the average car commuter spent an extra 38 hours traveling in 2011, two-and-a-half times worse than the 16 hours in 1982.

The report also measures a "planning time index," which show how much time drivers need to be sure they'll arrive at their destination.

(Example: according to Google Maps, a trip from TN's offices in lower Manhattan to JFK Airport should take 30 minutes. But New York's PTI is 4.44 -- meaning drivers should allow 133 minutes to cover the worst-case traffic scenario. Meanwhile, the transit combo of the subway to the Air Train should take a little over an hour, says Google Maps.)

The report comes at a time when many states are struggling with how to replenish transportation funding coffers strained by aging infrastructure and increasingly diminished returns on the gas tax. Virginia is eying a new sales tax, Connecticut is debating new tolls, and some of Los Angeles's freeways are no longer free. Meanwhile, New York's MTA -- the nation's largest transit system -- estimates it sustained $5 billion in damage from Sandy.

Unsurprisingly, the TTI says the nation's largest urban areas see the worst traffic. DC tops the list for the fourth year in a row, followed by Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Boston. Although car traffic overall is down from a 2005 peak, as the economy recovers, the numbers of cars on the road is increasing.

The report offers up some suggestions. It cautions that there's no one-size-fits-all approach, but offers up a range of solutions from increasing capacity to developing land more densely. "Improving transportation systems is about more than just adding road lanes, transit routes, sidewalks and bike lanes," says the TTI. "It is also about operating those systems efficiently."

That last sentence probably will cause tension headaches for local transportation officials who have been trying to wring every last dollar out of their budgets. Funding was flat in the latest surface transportation bill.

But Slate contributor Matthew Yglesias offers up another solution, albeit one that has yet to be passed in an American city: congestion pricing. "Naturally an underpriced valuable commodity leads to over consumption," he writes. "Charge people enough money to eliminate routine congestion and you'll find yourself with fewer traffic jams and an enormous pool of revenue that can be used to maintain your basic infrastructure and upgrade your bus service."

Read the full report here.