Nature and Biodiversity

Traffic congestion cost the US economy nearly $87 billion in 2018

Travelers are stuck in a traffic jam as people hit the road before the busy Thanksgiving Day weekend in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski - RC17793537B0

Frustrating and costly. Image: REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski

Sean Fleming
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Have you ever found yourself stuck in a traffic jam on the way to work? If you’re a driver, there’s every chance you have. Congestion is a blight on most major towns and cities, and for some it’s become a serious drain on the economy.

Recent research from transport data company INRIX into the state of congestion in 200 cities in 38 countries highlights the impact of snarled traffic by looking at how much time and money it wastes. In the US, it found the total cost of lost productivity caused by congestion to be $87 billion.

Image: INRIX

In terms of lost hours, the three worst cities in the US for motorists are Boston, Chicago and Washington DC. The average Bostonian driver lost 164 hours last year thanks to traffic, which cost the local economy $4.1 billion. In Washington it was 155. Chicago, with 138 lost hours, came third, while for New York it was 133 and 128 in Los Angeles.

It’s no surprise that the two older cities, established long before the invention of the automobile, are the cities with the worst congestion. The most congested city in Europe, meanwhile, is Rome.

Although the INRIX study did not look at China, there may be some lessons to be learned from the world's second largest economy. Home to around eight million people, with as many as 23 million in its greater metropolitan area, Hangzhou used to be one of China’s most congested cities. But it’s dropped from fifth to 57th on that particular measure. Not because there are more roads or fewer cars, but because the city’s traffic system is AI-assisted.

The town’s transport officials are using the Hangzhou City Brain to constantly monitor and manage the flow of traffic by making adjustments to traffic lights and signage in response to real-time needs. It is powered by a combination of big data, the internet of things, and machine learning, with much of the technology provided by tech giant Alibaba.

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Traffic in Hangzhou now moves 11% faster than it used to and the time taken by emergency services vehicles to respond to calls for help has been halved. The same system is also in use in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, and McKinsey believes commuting times could be cut by up to 20% by smart city technology such as this.

About 55% of the world’s population live in urban areas, and that figure is expected to rise to 68% by 2050. But current transportation systems aren’t built to cope with future demand without increasing congestion and pollution. The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization is looking for smart and sustainable city projects and solutions that are scalable and repeatable, so it can bring them to the attention of city leaders around the world.

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