Study: Chicago traffic jams worst in U.S.

January 20, 2011 3:06:35 PM PST
Chicago's commuters waste about 70 hours a year stuck in traffic on congested highways, according to a study on the nation's traffic patterns.

"I'm stuck in it now. I'm stuck in it every day," said one driver.

Another agrees, "I have to leave an hour-and-half to two hours from home to downtown."

Chicago's traffic is the worst in the country according to Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A and M, with the city's drivers spending 70 hours a year in traffic compared to the national average of 34 hours. Only Washington D.C. ties the Windy City when it comes to congestion.

The study, which analyzed traffic in 2009, indicates a bad economy gave other cities a break while Chicago remain congested because of its Midwestern location with travelers and trucks passing through.

The study found gridlock costs commuters more than $1,700 a year in extra time and wasted fuel. While public transportation is a good option, America's love affair with the car is not going away anytime soon.

"I just like being in my car, but not for hours at a time," said one driver.

The number one rank isn't surprising to DePaul University transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman.

"Chicago doesn't have a long-term plan to do much about congestion, we're adding some lanes, the Tri-State, some work on I-80, but there's not the construction in the works to relieve some of the worst bottle necks," said Schwieterman.

Schweiterman and AAA Chicago said the study should be a wakeup call for money to be spent on transportation.

"We think it calls for a need to really, really focus on maintaining and upgrading not only our roadways, but our public transportation system," Beth Mosher, AAA, said.

Traffic congestion and the economy

Researchers at Texas A&M University conducted the study, which showed that just as Americans started worrying a little less about jobs and money, they got something new to fret about: more traffic.

The annual study done by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M found that traffic was better than it had been in a decade during the height of the recession. But roads snarled once again as people returned to work and shopping.

Using real-time data to calculate commuter mileage, speed and distance traveled over time, the institute estimated traffic tie-ups cost about $115 billion in 2009. The study released Thursday cites factors such as wasted fuel, lost work hours and delays in shipping goods.

The good news, researchers say, is that traffic also is a sign of prosperity.

"The tie between the economy and congestion is not unexpected," said Tim Lomax, a research engineer with the institute.

Researchers have seen similar regional declines in the past. For example, Lomax said when oil prices plummeted in the 1980s, Dallas and Houston got much-needed relief from traffic as people lost their jobs and stayed home. A similar phenomenon was tracked in California when the high-tech bubble burst in the 1990s, he added. Until now, however, the researchers -- who released their first study in 1984 -- have not had such a large national recession to track.

"What we've seen on the regional level is mirrored in these numbers on the national level," Lomax said.

Also like the economy, traffic still is not at pre-recession levels.

The study found that in 2007, the nation wasted 5.2 billion hours in traffic. A year later, when the recession peaked, the number plummeted to 4.6 billion hours. As the economy slowly recovered in 2009, the number climbed to 4.8 billion hours lost to traffic delays.

"Congestion will rise faster than the economy because that's what's happened all the other times," Lomax said.

Traffic, however, also can be costly. The study found gridlock cost the average commuter $808 in 2009 -- up from an inflation-adjusted $351 in 1982. In 2009, Americans wasted more than 3.9 billion gallons of gas in road blockages -- equal to 130 days of flow in the Alaska pipeline.

Still, public transportation has helped keep the numbers down, the study found. It noted that without buses and trains, commuters would have lost an additional 785 million hours waiting on clogged roads.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)