Traffic congestion is the bane of suburban, urban, and increasingly, more of our traditionally rural commuters nationwide. Any car-bound commuter already knows the conclusion of the Texas Transportation Institute's 2003 Urban Mobility Report: two out of every three cars experience congestion in their morning or evening trip, and in the past twenty years, peak period travel congestion has doubled. Now, 67 percent of the peak period travel is congested, and 59 percent of the major road system today is congested.1
The costs of traffic congestion are staggering. Based on wasted time and fuel alone, the Texas Transportation Institute estimates congestion costs $69.5 billion per year in 75 U.S. urban areas studied.2
Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, have taken a hard-nosed look at transportation in the United States. They have reached conclusions in strong support of public transportation, and argue the benefits not only to transit riders, but to the driving public as well.
Their chief message is that "even if you don't ride it, you will use it," because when others are riding transit, it saves money, vehicle miles, and offers traveling flexibility to the public.3 Similarly, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), notes that, "For every $10 million invested in public transportation, more than $15 million is saved in transportation costs to both highway and public transportation users."4
Unfortunately, too many public officials at local, state and federal levels believe that we can rely on building new highways and widening existing roads to relieve congestion. A critical look, however, shows that is largely a failed concept that only has the opposite effect of increasing congestion.
Building new roads and increasing capacity on existing roads brings "induced" traffic - essentially "if you build it, they will come." Motorists will make longer trips, increase miles traveled, and new roads will encourage more sprawl development. In fact, only three years after new roadways open, traffic fills road capacity between 50 and 100 percent.5 Clearly, congestion is not something we can build ourselves out of with more road construction; it actually perpetuates traffic problems.
Better solutions to traffic congestion include more balanced investment in public transportation choices.
Stressed at the Office
While economists can calculate monetary losses due to congestion, the human cost of congestion has yet to be measured. Although these costs are not as easily quantified, human resource professionals and health care experts have sounded the warning that stress is one of the top barriers to job performance in today's workplace. And today's traffic generates stress even among the most steely of drivers.
Indeed, rush-hour traffic can inhibit productivity all day. HR Magazine quotes Steve Stephenson, senior manager in organization and team development at the Boeing Commercial Airplane Company in Greenbank, Washington. He notes that "people come to work jangled," and that "a 15-second episode can cause hormonal changes that last for six hours. That infects the whole day."6
While the bulk of drivers simmer impatiently in their cars, for some others, the frustration boils over. Our roadways have, quite literally, become battlegrounds. A 2003 study found that approximately two-thirds of United States drivers have been victims of aggressive driving in the last year, and the United States was among a handful of nations with the most aggressive driving in the world.7 Simply navigating rush-hour in the United States brings a host of frustrations, annoyances, and confrontations with aggressive drivers.
Increasingly, the stress of traffic is slowly forcing businesses to shift their policies to ease some of the commuting pressure on their employees. "Flex-time," compressed work schedules, and telecommuting have all become increasingly popular in recent years. This is both because companies are recognizing that it pays to offer work schedules that accommodate people's other needs - with day-care, after-school activities, and other demands - but also because people are sick of fighting traffic. These tactics may help a select number of employees; however, the root traffic problems continue to grow.
In one example of a company seeking to "beat the traffic," a Connecticut commercial property company has found it in their interest to work with their tenants on commuting alternatives. Anita Caggiano, Marketing Administrator of W&M Properties, notes, "During rush hour, I-95 is a nightmare…people without alternative commute options arrive at work very stressed and upset."8
W&M Properties discovered the good business practice of promoting transportation choices to their tenant companies and employees. By promoting and offering options, such as a shuttle bus to rail at the Stamford Transportation Center, providing literature about transportation choices, and more, their employees will be less distracted from their commutes and able to perform better at work.
The Commuting Challenge of Low-Wage America
Transportation costs weigh heavily on Americans in the lowest 20 percent income bracket, who spend about 42 percent of their total annual incomes on transportation, compared to 22 percent among middle-income Americans.9
Public transit significantly eases that burden. The Center for Transportation Excellence estimates the cost of owning and driving a single-occupant vehicle is between $4,826 and $9,685 per year, depending on the size of the car. In contrast, the annual average cost of public transportation for an adult ranges from $200 to $2,000.10
The availability of transportation choices, or lack thereof, also has a profound impact on employment opportunities, especially for low-wage workers.
Because housing costs are spiraling upward, it is often impossible for workers to live near employment in either the suburbs or the city center. Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies reports that fully three out of ten U.S. households have difficulty affording housing and that 14.3 million American households spend more than half their income on housing.11
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines "affordable" as spending no more than thirty percent of income on housing. As a result, many low-income workers have few housing choices and cannot move due to the uncertainties of job security and other risks of the low-wage work world. Affordable public transportation choices are therefore critical to families who are paying too much for housing and cannot live near job centers.
Employment opportunities are often severely limited without access to a reliable auto. Indeed, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence, "an estimated 94 percent of welfare recipients attempting to move into the workforce do not own cars and rely on public transportation."12
Recognizing the impediment that high transportation costs present for low-income and unemployed individuals to find and maintain jobs, Congress implemented the "Job Access and Reverse Commute" (JARC) program in 1998's Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). The JARC program provides transit funds to assist "welfare-to-work" transitions and to help other low-income workers with transportation costs. This is a good program that begins to address the transportation needs of American workers. However, it should not be a substitute for providing commuters more options to get to work. Expanding public transit would open wider employment opportunities for our workforce.
By helping to reduce traffic for everyone and by providing more commuting choices, public transportation offers an increasingly popular option for getting people to work and strengthening local economies overall.
Photos licensed to Sierra Club; all rights reserved.
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