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Americans Love Their Cars, Even If It Means Sitting in Traffic

Despite the staying power of remote work, traffic congestion in the United States remains stubbornly high, with New York City ranking as the single most congested city in the world.

Traffic congestion in the United States is nearly as high as pre-COVID-19 levels, according to the latest INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard.

The annual measure of congestion by INRIX, a transportation technology company, found 40 percent of the top 25 urban areas in the United States met or exceeded pre-COVID-19 traffic levels in 2023, a relatively surprising trend, given the way that remote work and hybrid work schedules have tamped down traditional commuter patterns.

The INRIX traffic report focuses heavily on how much time and economic output is being lost to sitting in traffic. In the United States, the typical driver spent 42 hours sitting in traffic last year, which had a monetary impact of $733, an increase of $95 year over year, according to the report.
“Although congestion is returning to pre-COVID levels, we’re seeing interesting changes in congestion patterns due to the lingering effects of the pandemic. The continuation of hybrid and remote work is creating new travel peaks from what we’ve seen previously,” said Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst at INRIX, in a statement.

When it started to show up on traffic studies four years ago, the bump in midday traffic seemed to be another transportation pattern shaken by COVID-19. The latest INRIX study suggests midday travel peaks may be here to stay. Morning commutes were down 12 percent in 2023, compared to a 2019 baseline, while midday traffic is up 23 percent across the same period.
Another study, the 2023 Urban Mobility Report (UMR) by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, took note of the increase in traffic related to deliveries — from trucks of all sizes — as a contributor to congestion, a nod to the increase in e-commerce that Americans have become so accustomed to. The UMR also noted Mondays and Fridays do not carry the same level of congestion they did in pre-pandemic days.

Traffic congestion is caused by many factors, Pishue noted, listing off car crashes, road construction and other incidents. Pishue added that a goal for policymakers may be to search for approaches to reduce congestion, such as work-from-anywhere arrangements.

"However, even at reduced levels of commute trip demand, our transportation planning and infrastructure is not able to quickly adapt to changing conditions and things become congested,” Pishue wrote in an email.

The New York City metro region earned the distinction as the most congested region in the world, where drivers spent 101 hours in traffic, which is actually down 4 percent from 2022. Chicago sits in the second-place slot, followed by Los Angeles, Boston and Miami.

Compared to pre-COVID-19 traffic levels, Miami congestion has increased 18 percent, the most of any of the top 25 U.S. metro regions studied.

“One of the problems that we have here in Miami-Dade ... us Miamians love our cars. It’s very difficult for us to give up our vehicles,” said Alex Ballina, director of Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development, speaking on a panel during the recent CoMotion Miami conference in May.

Experts say that another complicating issue in Miami and many others cities is the longstanding pattern of land-use development that has been excessively car-centric and low density when it comes to housing and other forms of development.

“Part of the issues that we’re facing today, we’re inheriting from public-policy decisions that were done decades ago,” said Ballina. “We have to think differently.”

Some metros are thinking differently by considering congestion pricing. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has held a series of public engagement meetings to discuss a range of options that would involve road-usage fees charged during peak travel times. Los Angeles Metro is conducting a traffic-reduction study aimed at the most traffic-clogged parts of the region, with the goal of looking at how to enact congestion pricing — both politically, and logistically. And perhaps the most headline grabbing of all is the eleventh hour abrupt halt of New York City’s congestion-pricing plan by the governor, who expressed concerns around its economic impact on the city’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Congestion pricing is a polarizing issue consisting of many different facets, stretching from transportation impact to taxation and equity,” said Pishue. “Hopefully, politicians, transportation officials and the general public can fashion a plan that brings more people together to find innovative solutions.”

Transportation planners have often pointed to congestion pricing — sometimes more cleverly referred to as “freeway tolling” — as response to a more intractable problem centered on land use.

This history of reversing car-centric land-use development will take time, most experts agree. It at least partly explains other disturbing outtakes in the INRIX study. Transit ridership is still down 28 percent from 2019 levels, although it should be noted that 2023 ridership was up 15 percent from 2022 levels.

Meanwhile, biking to work is still 9 percent below 2019 levels, according to the INRIX study. A broader look at micromobility, however, seems to point toward growth. A 2022 report by the North American Bikeshare and Scootershare Association indicated the number of trips taken by micromobility in 2022 had reached 2019 levels, driven partially by an increase in the number of cities featuring a micromobility program.

The reason why biking matters, and the reason why cities should be planning and developing this form of mobility, is because biking can replace car trips, which also reduces congestion, said Chris Bruntlett, international relations manager for the Dutch Cycling Embassy.

The answer to congestion is “good public transport with great first-last-mile connections, including walking and cycling,” said Bruntlett, speaking at the CoMotion Miami conference.

“I’m not here to tell you every trip should be made by bicycle,” he said. “But it can fill a gap and provide this role, in combination with a fast, frequent public transport system that can replace a lot of car trips.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.