No one likes the frustration and boredom that comes with sitting in traffic. Now, there’s one more reason to hate freeway bottlenecks – it’s expensive. The most congested stretches of highway in the United States cost Americans the equivalent of $2.4 billion in lost time every year, according to a new report from the American Highway Users Alliance (AHUA).
The most expensive bottleneck in the U.S. is a 12-mile stretch of the Kennedy Expressway (I-90) in Chicago. The value of time lost on this road alone was $418 million in 2014, as drivers waste 16.9 million hours every year and burn an extra 6.3 million gallons of fuel traveling from the interchange with I-290 in the city’s downtown area to the junction with the Edens Expressway (I-94).
Six of the other top 10 most congested roads in the U.S. were in the Los Angeles area, on stretches of I-10, I-405, I-110, and US 101. New York had two of the top 10 worst bottlenecks, on I-95 between I-895 and Broadway, and through the Lincoln Tunnel. A stretch of I-35 in Austin, Texas, was also among the most congested roads in America.
Although the list of the worst bottlenecks in the U.S. was dominated by roads in the country’s three largest cities, few metros were free of nasty traffic backups. AHUA’s list of the top 50 most congested roads also included stretches of highway in Boston, Miami, Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco. Congestion was less severe but still a problem in smaller cities like Wichita, Kansas; Birmingham, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Columbus, Ohio. The AHUA identified the worst bottlenecks by analyzing GPS data from passenger and commercial vehicles.
Even non-commuters pay the price for traffic back ups. In addition to the environmental costs of congestion, bottlenecks make it more expensive to move goods around the country, increasing costs for consumers.
“[O]ur nation will derive huge benefits from fixing the worst gridlock in our nation’s highway system: benefits that go way beyond improving mobility for highway users,” Greg Cohen, President and CEO of the American Highway Users Alliance, said in a statement.
The main cause of highway bottlenecks isn’t hard to understand: too many people and not enough space on the roads. Poor highway design, accidents, construction, and bad weather conspire to make bad traffic worse.
The good news is that highway bottlenecks can be unclogged, according to AHUA. The report highlighted three severe bottlenecks that were fixed in the past decade by replacing old bridges, adding new lanes, and rebuilding interchanges.
Infrastructure improvements aren’t the only way to improve traffic flow, however. Better communication with drivers and in-vehicle navigation systems that access real-time traffic data can help people choose more efficient routes. In the future, advanced cruise control systems may allow cars to travel closer together at higher speeds and merge on and off freeways without braking.
“[I]f the vehicles are able to cooperate with each other and with other road users (pedestrians and bicyclists) by use of wireless communication systems, they can develop a much more complete understanding of the driving environment,” explained Steven E. Shladover, of the California PATH Program, which researches intelligent transportation systems, in an opinion piece for CNN. “This type of connected automation makes it possible to anticipate traffic hazards and disturbances so the vehicles can be safely driven closer together,” he explained.
Driverless cars and other technology might eventually make brutal commutes a thing of the past. But in the meantime, there are things you can do to make getting to and from work a bit less painful. Rather than spending an hour in the car seething at other drivers, productivity experts suggest turning your drive to work into a special “me-time,” by listening to audio books or your favorite music.
“We often choose the thing that seems more productive because it feels like the right thing to do. But using your commute to read a fun novel or listen to music is productive because it’s taking away the negative aspect of the commute. It becomes like a little holiday that will help fuel your productivity for the rest of the day,” Hillary Retting, author of The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, told Fast Company.
If traffic tie-ups regularly make you late to work, adjusting your schedule could cut the stress. While planning to spend more time behind the wheel might seem counterintuitive, leaving a bit of cushion in your schedule can reduce your commuting anxiety.
“Leaving early is empowering,” Retting said. “You have more of a sense of control and self-management. For example, you can stop and pick up coffee on the way if you wish. You’ll immediately feel a sense of relief.”