A man crosses a street during a traffic jam on the embankment of the Moskva River in downtown Moscow.
Russian drivers experience Los Angeles-esque jams. Pavel Golovkin/AP

The largest study of its kind ever conducted reveals just how how costly the scourge of traffic is in the world’s greatest cities.

In the U.S. alone, congestion cost $305 billion last year, an increase of $10 billion from 2016. That’s the big, bad takeaway from the largest-ever study of global vehicular traffic by the transportation consulting firm INRIX. Armed with five terabytes of data on 1,360 cities in 38 countries, the study provides a strong empirical sense of how much traffic congestion costs individual cities and drivers.

Not surprisingly, traffic takes the biggest economic toll on the largest, most economically vibrant cities.

Los Angeles drivers lead the way, spending an average of 102 hours sitting in traffic every year, which costs the city more than $19 billion annually, with each driver kicking in $2,828 a pop. But total costs associated with traffic are higher in New York City, where the burden adds up to $33.7 billion. San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, Washington, D.C., and Boston round out the American cities where traffic costs more than $2,000 per driver on average.

Those numbers come from the lost productivity of workers sitting in traffic, the increased cost of transporting goods through congested areas, and all of that wasted fuel, among other factors. Even when motorists aren’t directly paying for the true costs of car transport, driving exacts other tolls, both external (air pollution) and internal (stress). Still, these consequences don’t appear to be enough to discourage many people from driving: As gas prices remain low, vehicle miles travelled continues to increase—last year’s 3.2 trillion miles in the U.S. represents an all-time high.

Worldwide, the list of top 25 worst cities for traffic is dominated by big American cities and fast-growing developing cities, both of which tend to have poor public transit. The U.S. ranks 5th, alongside Russia, in the country rankings, following Thailand, Indonesia, Colombia and Venezuela. (While these statistics are robust, they are not quite comprehensive, leaving out a number of East Asian countries known to have severe traffic problems.)

If you’re looking for small glimmers of hope on a planet full of idling cars, look at those places making major transit investments, including Los Angeles, Seattle, and Denver. New York’s potential foray into congestion pricing, too, could be a traffic game-changer for that city. Interestingly, the cost of commuting into lower Manhattan every workday under the proposed scheme would almost perfectly match the per-driver societal cost of the city’s traffic congestion. But with transit ridership dipping and all manner of app-based transportation and delivery vehicles packing the streets, for most of us, relief may be a long way off.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    You Can’t Design Bike-Friendly Cities Without Considering Race and Class

    Bike equity is a powerful tool for reducing inequality. Too often, cycling infrastructure is tailored only to wealthy white cyclists.

  2. Equity

    Police Policy for Sale

    Lexipol, a private for-profit company, has quietly become one of the most powerful voices in American law enforcement policy.

  3. Transportation

    With Trains Like Schwebebahn, No Wonder Germans Love Public Transit

    Infrastructure like this makes it clear why Germany continues to produce enthusiasm for public transit, generation after generation.

  4. a photo of a used needle in a park in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
    Equity

    Why the Rural Opioid Crisis Is Different From the Urban One

    As deaths from heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioids soar in the U.S., a new study looks at the geographic factors driving the drug overdose epidemic.

  5. Amazon HQ2

    New York’s Ejection of Amazon Is the Start of a Movement

    NYC lawmakers who led a resistance campaign against HQ2 are declaring victory. And already, they have plans to escalate their opposition to tax incentives.