The cost of traffic jams

The rapid growth of metropolitan areas, combined with increased car use, has let to most of the world’s major cities suffer from continuous traffic jams. In addition to wasting time, traffic congestion increases fuel consumption, the number of collisions and air pollution levels. Traffic jams are the main cause of the rising cost of passenger and freight transport and the cause of billions lost each year. Additionally are one of the main causes of reduced quality of life in our cities.

Traffic jams even on a 5-lane avenue.
Surely an extra lane will solve the traffic congestion problem. Photo by Bradyn Trollip.

Hundreds of hours lost in traffic jams

The pandemic has helped to reduce the number of journeys and the intensity of traffic (there had to be something good in it). Unfortunately, it is slowly returning to previous levels. Hence, traffic congestion remains a problem in many cities and carries huge costs for the economies of most countries.

For example, the average driver in the US has gone from spending 99 hours in traffic in 2019 to “only” 36 hours in 2021. Nationally, drivers spent 3.4 billion hours stuck in traffic last year, a reduction of 2.6 billion hours compared to 2019.

Worldwide, according to the TomTom Traffic Index each person (except cyclists 😉 ) loses on average 30 minutes a day in traffic jams. It sounds like a lot and it is. Although this figure changes depending on where we are.

The cities with the most traffic jams can be found in Europe, where 5 of the 10 cities with the most traffic jams are located. The ranking is headed by London. Drivers in the British capital lose 148 hours a year in their cars. This time equivalent to almost an entire week. That means that 1% of the year of London drivers get lost in their cars!!! On other cities the situation is pretty similar. Here is the list of the 10 cities with the most traffic jams.

Chart by Visualizer

Monetary cost of traffic jams

In addition to the cost of time lost in traffic jams, there are additional external costs of transport due to congestion, such as:

  • the extra fuel to be used,
  • increased air pollution (not only due to increased exhaust emissions from engine combustion but also from other consumables such as brake pads, oil or asphalt paint),
  • the increased incidence of various diseases due to increased air pollution and the stress they cause,
  • cost of increased collisions due to them.

All these factors have contributed to economies such as the UK losing up to £8 billion by 2021. This figure is reduced to 3.5 billion euros in the case of Germany and an impressive 53 billion dollars in the US. Yet these numbers are still small if the Asia-Pacific region as a whole is taken into account. Due to the lack of infrastructure and overpopulation, the total cost in this region is estimated to be between 2 and 5% of its GDP, equivalent to a minimum of 600 billion dollars.

Increase in CO2 emissions

Another major casualty of traffic jams is the environment. Traffic jams cause a considerable increase in emissions of various greenhouse gases due to engine combustion. In addition to affecting the health of the inhabitants of the cities, together with the additional cost of treating these diseases, traffic jams contribute greatly to global warming.

For example in the case of London of the 14.8 million tonnes of CO2 (Mt CO2) due to transport, approximately 14% of this (2.2 Mt CO2) is due to traffic jams. Similarly, in Paris, of the 13.8 Mt CO2 emitted by traffic in the city, 13.5% (1.85 Mt CO2) comes from its traffic jams.

Graph showing CO2 emissions in grams per kilometre for different modes of transport. Air is the most polluting mode with 258 g/km/passenger. In the case of cars 42 g/km/passenger.
CO2 emissions in grams per passenger-kilometre for different modes of transport. Source: European Environment Agency.

Overall, traffic is responsible for up to one third of all CO2 emissions in developed countries, 80% of which come from car and truck exhausts. Therefore, promoting different reduction strategies can significantly reduce the total amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere.

Ways to reduce traffic congestion

There are currently a wide range of possibilities to reduce traffic jams and all the problems they cause. The most effective in the short term are different strategies aimed at controlling road traffic such as:

  • congestion mitigation strategies to reduce severe congestion and increase average traffic speeds (e.g. ramp metering, incident management and congestion pricing);
  • speed management strategies (such as reduced speed limits or variable speed limits);
  • traffic smoothing strategies that reduce the number and intensity of accelerations and decelerations (e.g. traffic light coordination and intelligent traffic signaling).

To implement all these strategies and solve the mobility problems of cities, planners and engineers need to use all the data on traffic, infrastructure and population to create a smart, multi-modal transport system that is not only car-centric.

Public transport and cycling as the best solution

Apart from ways to mitigate traffic intensity, the most effective strategies are those aimed at replacing car trips with alternative forms of transport. Cycling, public transport or simply avoiding unnecessary transfers, as we have seen with the increase in remote working in recent years, are the best alternative we have.

This requires adapting the existing infrastructure, which in many cases is centred on the use of private vehicles, and encouraging the use of public transport, cycling or other similar means. Simply by investing in these means of transport by reducing ticket prices or subsidies aimed at encouraging their use.

Meme with the design of a house as our cities. The garage takes up most of it.
This is what our houses would look like if we designed them in the same way as our cities. Seen on Twitter.

Replacing cars with other means of transport can completely change our cities. It allows us to recover lost space that instead of being used by us is used by one of the most harmful machines for the planet.

Image comparing the space required to transport 70 people by car, bus and bicycle. The bus is the most space-efficient mode of transport. Cars as more space consuming transport mean is the main cause of traffic jams.
Comparison of the space needed to transport 70 people by bus, bicycle or car.

Giving up the use of cars also has additional beneficial side effects. For example the drastic reduction of CO2 emissions. By simply changing urban car journeys to cycling, each person can reduce more than 0.5 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Find out more

In addition to the articles linked in the post, to go a little deeper into the design of cities focused on a paradigm shift, I recommend reading:

  • In Happy City the author of the book, Charles Montgomery, wonders whose genius idea it was to turn our cities into motorways. Analyze the steps required to reduce car use in cities and strategies to design public transport and other transport infrastructure.
  • Streetfight, is a book based on real experiences in which the author, Janette Sadik-Khan, a New York City transport commissioner, tells us how she managed to transform the streets of one of the largest cities in the world into a space for pedestrians and cyclists and presents her advice for other cities that want to follow this change.
  • Also on Wikipedia you can find the result of the Global Liveability Ranking with the best cities to live in. Coincidentally cities with little traffic according to the TomTom traffic index.

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