Our Transportation Infrastructure is Crumbling

Negative Externalities: Who Causes Traffic Congestion?

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jan 11, 2013    •    4874 Views

Moving 5 MPH in rush hour traffic, do you ever think that you are the problem?

In rush hour traffic, we create an extra 4 second delay for each car behind us. Add it all together and you get 4.8 billion hours that people wasted during 2010 in traffic. For the average commuter, the annual total is 34 hours and 14 gallons of fuel.

Reasons for traffic congestion? We all work at approximately the same time every day and the richer we get, the more cars we can buy. As Brookings scholar Anthony Downs points out, “…traffic congestion is not caused by poor policy choices but rather, by economic success.”

Ironically, sometimes reducing congestion only winds up making it worse. Once you add to mass transit or road capacity, people who avoided rush hour join it. Congestion pricing programs? They are controversial and you need the right geography. Mass transit? People tend to combine rail lines with car commuting and home buying decisions that sometimes exacerbate the problem.

Consequently, we all continue creating the costs of traffic congestion that are called negative externalities. Rather like a factory’s air pollution can affect the health of people who have no connection to the factory, driving during rush hour imposes a cost on multiple unknown individuals. The 4.8 billion wasted hours from congestion is only a part of the cost.

Where does this leave us? Maybe traffic congestion is part of what we pay for economic growth.

Sources and Resources: Economist Timothy Taylor presents a wonderful lecture on traffic congestion in his Teaching Company course, “Unexpected Economics.” His lecture took me to this Washington Post article by Brookings scholar Anthony Downs and the Texas Transportation Institute (Texas A&M University) annual report on traffic congestion. Also, I always enjoy returning to sections of Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. For this post I reread his chapter, “Why More Roads Lead to More Traffic (and What To Do About it)”

Congestion’s Impact From the Urban Mobility Report

From the 2011 Annual Urban Mobility Report

From the 2011 Annual Urban Mobility Report


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