May 2016

Feeling Congested?

It’s the season when drivers and fleet owners start getting that tight feeling in their chests. No, it’s not from a seasonal cold or allergy but more likely from the anxiety and stress at the start of construction season--one of the major (but not the biggest) causes of traffic congestion in the U.S. Traffic congestion on the national highway system, according to research by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), added over $49.6 billion in operational costs to the trucking industry in 2014. Based on their data, the Institute calculated delays from congestion totaling more than 728 million hours of lost productivity, which equates to 264,500 commercial truck drivers sitting idle for a working year.

According to Wikipedia, “traffic congestion is a condition on road networks that occurs as use increases, and is characterized by slower speeds, longer trip times, and increased vehicular queueing.” Well sure, that’s all familiar because we’ve all been struck in traffic, but beyond aggravating annoyance, the economic impact on people’s lives, especially truck drivers, is significant, and that is ATRI’s point. Wikipedia, in its collective wisdom says “the most common example is the physical use of roads by vehicles. When traffic demand is great enough that the interaction between vehicles slows the speed of the traffic stream, this results in some congestion.” That last bit is actually quite an understatement, because the Fed’s studies all point to the fact that what ultimately is the leading cause of congestion on America’s roads is simple; too many vehicles, not enough road.

The Federal Highway Administration’s data cuts the “congestion” pie and assigns blame to “recurring” and “non-recurring” congestion causes. Most non-recurring causes have to do with the aforementioned construction season, weather, specials events and traffic “incidents” which refer to what used to be called accidents, though most drivers know the resulting collisions, etc., are far from accidental.

It’s the recurring causes that make up the largest slice, 40 percent of all congestion is due to the fact that the demand for road capacity outstrips the supply by a large margin. From these “bottlenecks,” congestion analysts note, spring the negative impact highlighted by ATRI’s study.

ATRI's analysis documented the states, metropolitan areas, and counties that are most impacted by congestion delays and the resulting increase in costs. More than a dozen states experienced increased costs of over $1 billion each due to congestion, with Florida and Texas leading with more than $4 billion each. No surprise, but traffic congestion tended to be most severe in urban areas, with 88 percent of the congestion costs concentrated on only 18 percent of the network mileage, and 95 percent of the total congestion cost occurring in metropolitan areas. The analysis also demonstrates the impact of congestion costs on a per-truck basis, with an average increased cost of $26,625 for trucks that travel 150,000 miles annually.

"Unfortunately we've come to expect traffic congestion as a part of our daily lives but ATRI's latest analysis illustrates what a significant productivity drain that congestion is on our industry and the economy at large," said David Congdon, Chief Executive Officer of Old Dominion Freight Line.

Although ATRI’s study highlights the economic outcomes of congestion, the group doesn’t delve into possible solutions. The transportation cognoscenti realize this is intentional. Sort of a publicly declared prod, intended, perhaps, to goad “transportation officials” into examining the issue more closely; move off their politically risk-averse rear ends and push the bureaucracies to do something about it.

Many of the solutions forwarded by engineers and other analysts have to do with increasing the throughput of the nation’s road systems, because for most urban and suburban centers, adding more roads is not an option. That includes bettering real-time traffic information, signage and refining tactics to keep traffic moving through construction zones. If you keep digging, most “solutions” also call for things to keep vehicles from the road, especially trucks, like “improving” the freight rail system. Similarly, providing more mass transport will (Warning! Sarcasm ahead) will mean fewer passenger vehicles on the road as well.

Super ideas, indeed but when you take a trip down the rabbit hole to look at all the “futures” of transportation, most if not all of those helpful suggestions are stymied by the bloated bureaucracies, regulatory mazes and nimby hurdles thrown in front of any attempt to alleviate or mitigate the effects of congestion by adding new road or rail rights of way. Keep digging at what is preventing “investment” in congestion mitigation and you run up against the manipulation, mismanagement and corruption of the public and private financing that is supposed to fund the “solutions” public officials swear will help alleviate congestions’ symptoms.

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