Traffic Costs Americans $121 Billion Annually

Americans waste $121 billion a year because of traffic congestion.


Americans waste $121 billion a year because of traffic congestion.

AP (“Commuters’ wasted time in traffic costs $121B“):

An annual study of national driving patterns shows that Americans spent 5.5 billion additional hours sitting in traffic in 2011.

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute released a report Tuesday that found Americans are adapting to road congestion by allowing, on average, an hour to make a trip that would take 20 minutes without traffic. The Urban Mobility Report also says clogged roads cost Americans $121 billion in time and fuel in 2011.

It also determined that the 10 most congested cities are Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, New York-Newark, Boston, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle.

The Institute provides a detailed explanation:

The Planning Time Index (PTI), a measure of travel reliability, illustrates the amount of extra time needed to arrive on time for higher priority events, such as an airline departure, just-in-time shipments, medical appointments or especially important social commitments. If the PTI for a particular trip is 3.00, a traveler would allow 60 minutes for a trip that typically takes 20 minutes when few cars are on the road. Allowing for a PTI of 3.00 would ensure on-time arrival 19 out of 20 times.

PTIs on freeways vary widely across the nation, from 1.31 (about nine extra minutes for a trip that takes 30 minutes in light traffic) in Pensacola, Florida, to 5.72 (almost three hours for that same half-hour trip) in Washington, D.C., according to the study by TTI, a member of The Texas A&M University System.

“We all understand that trips take longer in rush hour, but for really important appointments, we have to allow increasingly more time to ensure an on-time arrival,” says Bill Eisele, a TTI researcher and report co-author. “As bad as traffic jams are, it’s even more frustrating that you can’t depend on traffic jams being consistent from day-to-day. This unreliable travel is costly for commuters and truck drivers moving goods.”

Living in the DC suburbs, I have no doubt that this is right. For my daily commute, I’m time bound at the front end because of child care, so don’t do much to adjust for unexpectedly heavy traffic. But for events when I simply can’t be late, I typically arrive very early because I allow for unusual delays from accidents, construction, or difficulty in parking.

That’s even true for trips across town once I’m in DC. Metro is unreliable outside of commuting hours (the wait times are increased and there’s frequently unannounced maintenance) and it’s very difficult to find parking in many parts of the city. So, I tend to walk anywhere within, say, 2 miles and cab it everywhere else unless it’s an evening event from which I’ll head directly home.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:
  2. Just Me says:

    I am not shocked at all that Boston is on the list.

    One thing I learned is to allow for at least an extra hour to get to my son’s appointments at the Children’s Hospital. My gps helps me navigate some quicker routes in Boston, but the traffic is still bad.

    I have gotten to where I will drive, park and take the trains when possible.

  3. Gustopher says:

    Americans waste $121 billion a year because of traffic congestion.


    I value my time pretty highly, but not that high…

  4. Liberal Capitalist says:

    … and ?

    Don’t bring me another problem without a solution.

    Is 121 billion enough to make you think about better transportation options?

    Do we move faster to self driving cars?

    … Or: If we have PAID for the domestic surveillance drones, can we use them to remove the driver going 50 in the left lane?

  5. john personna says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    I’m sure we can find a way to blame the bicyclists.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Let me propose a solution: mixed income housing and zoning that allows businesses and housing side by side. People should live nearer their jobs.

  7. Tony W says:

    I have worked from home the past several years, but I sympathize with commuters – particularly those in the west who have essentially no public transportation option other than a bus that takes 90 minutes to complete a journey that takes 15 minutes in a car.

    BART is the big exception – but there is no political will anymore for big infrastructure projects thanks to the “small government” wing of the Jesus party. Instead I suppose we’ll continue to waste treasure and incur a huge opportunity cost sitting in our cars, getting fat, on the freeway listening to Beyoncé or Rush Limbaugh or Nina Totenberg on the radio.

  8. john personna says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    That argues for mobility as well, and less national emphasis on home ownership.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    @john personna:

    No doubt about it. There are other solutions as well. For example, the city of Toronto used to require (I don’t know if they still do) that any new buildings built in the downtown area include a prescribed amount of residential.

  10. john personna says:

    My grandparents had an apartment over their print shop, so it was as recent as that. Rare now.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    @Tony W:

    I’m a bit puzzled by that, Tony W. You’re saying that San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, etc. don’t engage in large instrastructure projects because their governments are dominated by Republicans?

  12. michael reynolds says:

    I think changing the housing mix might work in some limited areas, but with two earner homes, and school needs, and with American habits of shopping, I don’t think it’s a practical solution. If there’s a solution on the horizon it may be the computer-driven car.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: Self-driving cars are on the horizon. We’re starting to see congestion pricing in DC, although I’m skeptical it’ll actually do much. More, better public transit in places where it would work–as in most of the high traffic cities. Mostly, though, I think it’s just the nature of life in the big city.

    @Dave Schuler: I agree in theory but it’s actually pretty hard to do. As @michael reynolds notes, two-income couples make that much harder. And people change jobs all the time—I didn’t work in DC when we bought our current house—and it’s often not practical to sell one’s house in response to every job change.

  14. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I don’t mind Austin gridlock. It lets me take a longer nap on the commuter bus.

  15. Fiona says:

    Having lived in Chicago, LA, Seattle, and Philadelphia, I can attest to the amount of time one can waste in traffic, particularly in Hell A. At least in Chicago and Philly, public transportation was always an option for some destinations (I never drove from our home in Evanston to downtown Chicago). Seattle had pretty good bus service from the burbs to downtown.

    Given the way we’ve built our cities though, I don’t see public transportation as being the likely solution. Americans are too wed to their cars and suburban homes.

  16. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    So, why do we encourage people beyond their own preference to own homes?

    Decreased mobility is a drag on GDP. We accept that economic cost for two reasons, one headline and one less acknowledged. We think home owning makes people better citizens, and we think it makes them more conservative. I don’t really buy either. The natural preference for homes is already strong enough, we should not push people at the margin … who are probably young enough that they should still be mobile.

  17. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: I’ve never thought the mortgage interest deduction made sense. But you really can’t eliminate it without a massive drag on the economy. Even if you grandfathered everyone with an existing mortgage, you’d make it much harder to sell a home—and incentivize those in a current home to stay put rather than move to a more convenient or more expensive home.

  18. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    You sound like you’ve never heard of a stepped reduction in a government program.

    A 50 year cycle would be too slow, 5 years would be too fast, the rest is negotiation.

  19. Dave Schuler says:

    @James Joyner:

    Basically, you’re just arguing that people like the subsidies they’re getting now. No doubt about it. That’s not the question. The question is how people would behave without subsidies. Or with a different set of subsidies and economic assumptions.

  20. Franklin says:

    Besides self-driving cars, mass transit, etc., the most obvious solution is work-at-home. There are still a ton of people that could do this more but don’t (usually because of massively inflexible large corporations that won’t let them). Video conferencing is good enough for most meetings.

  21. michael reynolds says:


    Video conferencing is good enough for most meetings.

    I don’t work in the corporate world, but lately I’ve been dragged into more meetings and my sense is that the world would be a better, more productive place if we simply canceled 90% of meetings. No video necessary.

  22. john personna says:


    We should have a little more federal policy for better broadband.

    Our world ranking is too low.

    A six-spot gain to 9th place in international broadband rankings would be a successful outcome for the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan, says the Phoenix Center.

    We, inventors of the internets that we are, currently rank 15th.

  23. john personna says:

    The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—also known as the federal stimulus—allocated $7.2 billion for broadband and wireless Internet programs. However, a recently released study commissioned by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association found some funds thought to be providing broadband in rural, underserved areas have actually been used to support duplicative broadband networks.

    So, the $121 billion lost annually in commuting kind of puts that number in perspective.

  24. Gromitt Gunn says:

    $121 billion x 10 years = a heck of a lot of light rail, commuter rail, and articulated express busses with dedicated lanes and traffic light prioritization.

  25. Rafer Janders says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    I’m a bit puzzled by that, Tony W. You’re saying that San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, etc. don’t engage in large instrastructure projects because their governments are dominated by Republicans?

    Not the city governments, but often the state governments, and sometimes the federal. And even if the federal or state governments aren’t at the time controlled by Republicans, the GOP is often able to throw a spanner in the works and block funding for large-scale infrastructure projects. Remember that most infrastructure projects aren’t paid for by the city alone, but by a mix of city, state and federal money. You need all three.

  26. Rafer Janders says:

    It’s articles like this that make me thankful that I live in NY, with only a 20-25 minute subway and walk commute to work, and most of my shopping needs available within a two block radius of my apartment. I’ve got my drycleaner, two supermarkets, two bookstores, two movie theatres, liquor store, wine store, deli, butcher, fishmonger, fruit and vegetable shop, hardware store, pharmacy, cobbler, and tailor all within a three to five minute walk.

    But we’re not building any more New Yorks. As Atrios frequently points out, the sort of dense, mixed-use multi-family commercial and residential building so common here in the city is actually illegal to build in most of the rest of the country due to restrictive zoning laws.

  27. grumpy realist says:

    Anything urban really should be interspersed with a lot of light rail. One of the reasons that Tokyo is so dense is that there’s no reason to own a car. (And still 6% of Metropolitan Tokyo is still agricultural–I lived next to a melon field.) The train lines hook wonderfully into the subway and bus system.

    Chicago is unbelievable with the number of cars that go in and out every day to the center. We really need to put in road pricing and use the funds to upgrade public transport. I bet a lot of people end up using their cars (and having to deal with the hassle of congestion and parking them) because there’s no easy way to get between point A and B. If I want to go from Oak Park out to Evanston, it’s a bloody long haul either way.

  28. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @grumpy realist: Re: Oak Park to Evanston – one of the main problems with a lot of systems in the US is that they are designed to move people in and out of the city core – essentially a single hub with many spokes – rather than move people from one suburban location to another.

    I’ll use Boston, since I am familiar with it. Each of the subway lines goes through the core, but none of them are connected with each other outside of that. The commuter rail line each come into one of two depots in the core. There are some limited stop busses that attempt to link the subway lines further out, but they run fairly erratically and I never placed any reliance in them.

  29. Ben says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:

    +1 – Boston’s public transportation is great for college kids, or people who live and work in inner Boston. But most corporate and tech jobs in the Boston area are out on the 95 ring in Waltham and Burlington, and there’s no real good way out there from Boston using public transport.

  30. al-Ameda says:

    Yep, I’m a victim – the San Francisco Bay is number 3 on the list – although I find it hard to believe that DC is worse.

    I commute over 2 hours each way, 4 days a week – 50 miles or so into San Francisco. My 40 mile drive south down the 101 corridor to the Larkspur Ferry Landing takes 80 minutes – if I was able to drive the speed limit for the journey it would take about 50 minutes – so there’s 30 minutes of waste and aggravation right there. In the evening, the traffic is thinner and there’s somewhat less waste and aggravation. Taking the bus is not an option – scheduling is lousy and until the journey is 1/2 complete it is not express. Oh well.

  31. grumpy realist says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: This is why you really need a web-and-spoke quasi-grid. Tokyo has the Yamanote line and whatever that new subway is going in a loop around the center of the city.

    Of course, we’re talking about a density of 6 million people riding the subways every day….

    I wonder if you could handle the problem with fleets of buses instead? I think the problem (at least in Chicago) is that there is NO way, either by car or bus or by CTA or Metra, to easily go loop-wise around the center of the city–there aren’t any roads, period.

  32. grumpy realist says:

    P.S. A lot of European cities have it a bit easier because a lot of their road networks are determined by history so you at least usually have at least one circular road along what used to be the old city wall. And then roads going along more walls as the city expanded.

    We aren’t medieval enough. Pity, that.

  33. al-Ameda says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I don’t work in the corporate world, but lately I’ve been dragged into more meetings and my sense is that the world would be a better, more productive place if we simply canceled 90% of meetings. No video necessary.

    I stayed at home today and participated in 2 teleconference meetings (Skype) and tomorrow I will have one Webinar Session and one teleconference meeting. Working from home today and tomorrow will save me saved me 8 hours of commuting and allow me to write up what I need to in order to take to the office on Thursday. Thank god.

  34. matt says:

    @Fiona: Yeah from Evanston I’d just ride the L train. Used to go to the cinemark century theater there (train drops you off conveniently close).

  35. superdestroyer says:


    A drive from Stafford County VA to the Pentagon in Arlington VA, a trip of 50 minutes of less at the posted speed limit can easily take two hours if one tries to make the trip a 08:00 AM One of the effects of commuting at in DC is that some organizations such as the Pentagon operate was what I call an early-early organization. Most of the workers arrive before 07:00 AM and it is impossible to get anyone on the phone or to a meeting after about 03:30 PM. The worst job in DC is one that what some there from 8 to 5 since it forces their employees to always commute during the busiest times of rush hour.

  36. Tony W says:

    @Rafer Janders: Thanks Rafer – agree completely. If you want to see how a modern, civilized city handles public transportation, visit Paris’ Metro/RER system – which works splendidly despite being flooded with tourists and commuters every day.

  37. Gromitt Gunn says:

    One thing that I loved about public transit in London was that all of the busses were equipped with GPS, and the bus stations all had LED displays that would tell you when the next several busses were anticipated at the stop. So you could tell pretty easily if the bus was running late or figure out alternative routes if you just missed the one you wanted.