Every year, Pittsburghers sit in traffic and watch as $826 goes out the tailpipe

Another national traffic congestion survey comes down hard on the Pittsburgh region, and in this one we're told the time we spend waiting in our vehicles costs us lots of money

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As you sit in traffic, you might measure your losses with your wristwatch or the clock on the dashboard.

A new national report recommends that you check your wallet as well.

The report, to be released today by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, concludes that traffic congestion in 2011 cost the average commuter $818 in wasted time and fuel. Pittsburgh commuters were slightly above the national average, with $826 in losses for the year.

The typical commuter experienced delays totaling 38 hours for the year, nearly the length of a work week. Pittsburgh again checked in just above the average, at 39 hours.

Congestion in the 498 urban areas that were studied had a cost of $121 billion, up from $94 billion in 2000 and $24 billion in 1982 (using constant 2011 dollars), according to the 2012 Urban Mobility Report.

PG graphic: Annual cost of traffic congestion
(Click image for larger version)

Other staggering numbers: 5.5 billion hours of wasted time; 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel (enough, the authors noted, to fill the Superdome in New Orleans four times); and 56 billion pounds of carbon dioxide (the liftoff weight of 12,400 space shuttles) spewed into the air.

The researchers used data collected by the traffic monitoring company INRIX, which uses GPS technology to monitor real-time speeds on 875,000 miles of roads across the nation. Data for every 15-minute interval were collected, giving the researchers 600 million readings to analyze.

One of the report's key findings is that not only is traffic congestion frustrating, it is unpredictable, said co-author Bill Eisele, a senior research engineer at the institute. That magnifies the amount of time commuters must allow for important trips.

In Pittsburgh and in the nation as a whole, those on trips where on-time arrival is essential -- for example, to catch a flight, pick up a child at day care or keep an appointment -- must more than triple their expected travel time during peak periods. That means leaving more than an hour for a trip that would take 20 minutes on clear roads, Mr. Eisele said.

Pittsburgh did not make the top 10 for overall congestion, and generally fared near the averages for delays and fuel waste in 32 metropolitan areas of similar size. But our annual cost of $826 in waste per commuter was well above the $780 average for similar-sized cities. (Here we should note that those Super Bowl-gloating Baltimoreans wasted $908 per commuter.)

"The data show that congestion solutions are not being pursued aggressively enough," the researchers said.

There are relatively low-cost ways to try to improve traffic flow, they said: quickly clearing of crashes, making sure signals are properly timed, flextime for workers, telecommuting and increased use of public transit, which by itself spared the nation an additional $20.8 billion in congestion waste in 2011.

While overall congestion has decreased somewhat in recent years because of the poor economy, "there is only a short-term cause for celebration," they said. "Prior to the economy slowing, just five years ago, congestion levels were much higher than a decade ago; these conditions will return as the economy improves."

If conditions don't change, the average commuter's cost of wasted time and gas will rise to an estimated $1,010 (in current dollars) by the year 2020, they said.

The most congested metro areas in the U.S. were Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, New York-Newark, Boston, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle.

nation - region - Transportation

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.


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