You’re inching along a congested road, drumming your fingers impatiently. Does it feel like you’ve been stuck in traffic forever? Here’s the truth: The average American commuter loses 42 hours per year to snarled traffic. That means a full workweek every year (10 months total during an average career) is spent driving to and from work. More than an annoyance, traffic congestion eats up time, gasoline and money; it also causes vehicle wear and tear, reduces productivity at work, and increases stress levels.
To gain insights about traffic gridlock, we analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, the INRIX 2015 Traffic Scorecard and the U.S. Energy Information Association. The result is a comprehensive examination of America’s best and worst commutes, as well as the associated costs in time and money. Keep reading to see the effects of idling in traffic.
Commuting Fast Facts
Commuters may have a vague idea about the time, gas and money they burn on the daily drive – but we’ve compiled the hard data to give a clearer picture. Almost 9 out of 10 Americans commute via automobile (most of them alone), and their morning drive averages nearly 26 minutes.
What are the ramifications of traversing congested roads daily? Every year, each commuter wastes an average of 19 gallons of gas while idling in traffic. That takes about 163 million barrels of crude oil to produce – almost two months of Texas' total annual oil output – which is hard on the environment as well as the pocketbook. In fact, based on both the cost of time and the price of fuel, traffic jams gobble up around $960 per year for the average commuter. Ouch.
The Longest and Shortest Morning Drives
Broken down by county, the highest average commute times hover around 40 minutes. Which unlucky drivers spend the most time battling heavy traffic on the way to work? Motorists in Charles County, Maryland, and Pike County, Pennsylvania, tie for the dubious distinction of the country’s longest average commute: 42.8 minutes. Bronx and Queens counties in New York are close behind, followed by areas in Colorado and Virginia.
Four of the 10 counties with the longest morning drives are in New York. One reason: New York City has the highest population density of any major U.S. city – a key factor in long commute times. On the other end, if you want to enjoy the shortest average commute in the country – less than five minutes – move to Bethel Census Area, Alaska, where the average commute takes just over seven minutes. In fact, two of the top three counties with the shortest drives are located in The Last Frontier.
Also prominent on the list are Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota. These states all have among the lowest population density in the country. (And if you do move to Alaska, you might be in for an an adventurous commute: In certain spots, residents rely on boats, snowmobiles and even planes to get to work.)
The Price of Your Commute
A daily drive through traffic eats up gasoline and time. This interactive map tracks average commute costs in metro areas across the country. Green represents the lowest costs, while red signifies the highest. As you can see, the Northeast corridor and cities along the West Coast experience the biggest hits to their pocketbooks. Hover over the map to see how commute costs in your state stack up to those in the rest of the country.
The Most and Least Expensive Commutes
Long commutes are frustrating – and depending on where you live and how long you drive, they can also be awfully hard on your wallet. We tracked the metro areas with the highest and lowest commute costs, based on both gasoline consumption and travel time delays (calculated at $17.67 per hour for regular motorists and $94.04 per hour for diesel-using trucks).
Motorists in major metro areas have the highest costs associated with time spent idling in traffic. In metro D.C./Virginia/Maryland, drivers fork out an average of $1,834 per year in commute costs. The metro NYC/Newark, New Jersey/Connecticut area costs commuters $1,739 a year, while motorists in L.A./Long Beach/Anaheim, California, spend $1,711.
Interestingly, drivers in Turlock, California, average the lowest commute-related expenditures: just $31 per year. In fact, areas in California dominate the list for lowest driving costs. The Round Lake Beach/McHenry/Grayslake area of Wisconsin/Illinois claims second place, with an average of $34. Certain spots in Iowa, Kansas, and Florida – among other states – saw drivers forking out relatively little money.
Time Lost to Traffic Jams
For many drivers, the wasted time is the most painful part about commuting. The map above plots the average number of hours people spend battling bottlenecked traffic each year. The eastern side of the country by far loses the most hours to traffic – especially the Northeast corridor. How does your area stack up? Hover over the map to find out.
The Most and Least Time Spent in Traffic
Traffic jam. Bottleneck. Snarl-up. Whatever you call it, heavy traffic congestion is the scourge of commuters across the country who would rather spend their valuable time at work or at home rather than in the limbo between the two.
Regarding wasted time, residents of heavily populated urban areas have it the worst. Drivers in metro D.C./Virginia/Maryland waste 82 hours a year on traffic delays, and motorists in Los Angeles area spend 80. The metro areas of San Francisco, New York City, San Jose, Boston, and Seattle also clock in with relatively long amounts of time spent idling.
On the low end is Turlock, California, where residents lose only an hour per year to traffic delays. Hanford, California, trails close behind with 1.1 years wasted, the Round Lake Beach/McHenry/Grayslake area of Wisconsin/Illinois takes third with 1.3 hours. Numerous areas in California rank low for time wasted in traffic. Specific spots in Arizona, Iowa, Oregon, and Florida also average very little time battling bottlenecks.
Slowdown Ahead: The Country’s Busiest Roads
Hate being stuck in traffic? You may want to avoid these 10 stretches of road in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City during certain times. We looked at the worst times to drive, the average speed and the equivalent additional miles commuters drive as their vehicles slow to a crawl.
40 Years’ Worth of Traffic Jams
Measuring driving time in minutes and hours is one thing – but looking at how many months the average commuter spends sitting in traffic puts it in perspective. During a 40-year career, workers in metro D.C./Virginia/Maryland waste a whopping 6.8 months inching along. Motorists in the L.A. and San Francisco areas spend 6.7 and 6.5 months respectively, and drivers in the NYC area fritter away 6.2 months in the car. Sadly, this time could be spent learning a new skill to advance at work, becoming proficient in another language or mastering a hobby.
Traffic congestion is a serious issue facing motorists in many areas of the United States. As our analysis reveals, jammed roads come with a high cost: Every year, a typical commuter spends an average of 42 hours idling in traffic, as well as $960 due to wasted time and gas. Long commutes are also associated with health issues: Time spent on the road can lead to elevated blood pressure, higher cholesterol, and a heightened risk of anxiety and depression, among other concerns.
If there’s any way to cut down on your commute – whether moving closer to work or requesting to work remotely some days – you may want to try. One study revealed that when it comes to happiness levels, cutting out a daily hour-long commute each way is the equivalent of earning an extra $40,000 a year.
But even if you can’t change your commute, don’t let your happiness grind to a halt over traffic congestion. Use GPS or transportation apps to get an idea of the types of traffic delays to expect – and see if you can avoid them. Find a friend going in the same direction so you can share driving duties as well as conversation. If you’re going solo, you can ease the traffic-fueled frustration by listening to music or podcasts, and practice some calming yoga principles such as deep breathing and good posture.
We reviewed data for 471 U.S. urban areas. Annual delay was calculated by tallying extra time spent during the year traveling at congested speeds rather than free-flow speeds. Speeds are extablished by data sensors on almost every mile of roughly 1.3 million miles of streets and highways in urban America. The sensors record traffic speeds at 15-minute intervals every day of the week.
Trucks account for about 7 percent of American traffic, according to INRIX and the Federal Highway Administration. The dollar cost of congestion was calculated by adding the value of travel time delay (estimated at $17.67 per hour of person travel and $94.04 per hour of truck time) and excess fuel consumption (estimated using state average cost per gallon for gasoline and diesel).
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