How Traffic Jams Are Costing Us Billions of Dollars and Even More Hours

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The Texas A&M Transportation Institute released its 2019 Urban Mobility Report, and the findings aren’t really news to anyone who commutes: Traffic is as bad as it’s ever been and it’s getting worse. The Los Angeles area, not surprisingly, has the heaviest congestion in America, costing the average Angeleno 119 hours a year for time lost in traffic. L.A. is followed closely by the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C., with a more distant New York City and Boston rounding out the top five. It’s not just big cities that are impacted by traffic, however. A good economy, bad infrastructure and a whole heap of other factors are causing traffic to turn America’s roads into commuter quicksand — and whether you realize it or not, it’s costing you money.

Last updated: March 2, 2020  

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Drivers Waste Fuel 

The biggest direct cost of traffic comes in the form of wasted fuel. In 1982, the average commuter wasted just five gallons of gas annually while sitting in traffic compared to 21 gallons in 2017 — a remarkable rise when you consider that today’s cars are far more fuel-efficient. With the national average price at the pump coming in at $2.43 per gallon, that’s about $51 you can’t pump into your savings account or the economy. The best immediate remedy is probably carpooling, which shares gas costs and gets you into the speedier high-occupancy vehicle lane.

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The Country Wastes Fuel

The country as a whole wastes 3.3 billion gallons of fuel while sitting in traffic. That’s a big jump from fewer than 1 billion gallons in 1982. Add to that the fact that congestion led to an extra 8.8 billion hours of travel in 2017. The result is that the country’s congestion cost Americans $166 billion that year.

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People Can Pay Higher Gas Taxes When Road Repairs Are Needed

The most heavily trafficked roads predictably need the most work, and gas taxes often pay for the lion’s share of road repair projects. In this case, the cost of gas bites you twice. First, you buy and waste more of it, and every time your car contributes to a traffic jam, you increase the need for road work and, therefore, pay higher gas taxes.

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Time Is Money, and Traffic Wastes Time

Some of the biggest costs associated with traffic are indirect, and road congestion bleeds your precious, finite, nonrefundable time. In 2017, traffic robbed the average American commuter of nearly seven full working days. The authors of the Texas A&M report calculated that all that lost time and fuel added up to $1,010 per average commuter per year.

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Time in the Car Also Takes Time Away From Out-of-Work Activities

It’s true that commute time takes away from time people could be earning more money, but it also takes away time that could be spent on more pleasurable activities such as pursuing a hobby, spending time with family and friends or enjoying a leisure activity. The cost of these missed opportunities goes beyond the monetary.


Traffic = Snacks 

The average auto commuter loses 54 hours a year to the rigors of congestion, according to the Texas A&M study. If a 90-minute drive to a relative’s house for the holidays turns into two hours and 20 minutes because of traffic, the endless stream of gas stations, rest stops and golden arches likely will beckon you to buy something and spend money you otherwise would not have. There’s an easy fix, however — pack a snack from home.


Product Costs Go Up Due to Traffic and Delivery Issues

The term “free shipping” is misleading because the cost of logistics is built into every product’s price. Trucks make up only 7% of America’s traffic but account for 12% of the cost of congestion. As they gobble up expensive diesel fuel, miss delivery deadlines and waste time in traffic, the goods they carry and the cost to get them to their destinations go up.

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Shipping Costs More for Businesses

The same forces that make shipping costs — even hidden shipping costs — higher for consumers tug on a business’ bottom line, as well. If your business must move inventory or receive necessary supplies, the financial burden that traffic places on America’s truckers is passed on to you. Businesses also spend money to compensate customers or deal with canceled orders when shipments are late because the driver was stuck in traffic.

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Truckers Lose Money, Too

With increased traffic, truck drivers spend more time on the road and are able to complete fewer jobs. Truckers now lose $74 billion a year in lost time and operation costs due to traffic congestion, a 2019 report by the national transportation firm TRIP found.

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Traffic Hastens Mechanical Failure

Although it’s not exactly off-roading, crawling along in stop-and-go traffic wears your car down over time. Every hour that your car is in operation nudges it one hour closer to the inevitable repair or service. If you lose 54 hours to traffic every year, that’s 54 extra hours that your air filters are collecting gunk, your speakers are causing vibrations, your motor oil is degrading, your brake pads are wearing down and your engine is generating enormous heat through a nonstop series of controlled explosions.

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Traffic Kills Your Resale Value

When you’re in your car, your shoes are rubbing against the floor mats, your hands are touching the dials, your body weight is compressing the seat cushions and you’re inching your vehicle farther and farther away from that long-forgotten new car smell. An additional 54 hours of driving every year does not improve your car’s resale value. In fact, each extra hour degrades your vehicle and its resale value just a little bit more.

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Traffic Eats Mobile Data

If you have a data plan that isn’t unlimited, you’re probably burning through data every time you sit in traffic. Since you’re not connected to your home or office Wi-Fi, your GPS and music alone are gobbling up megabytes as you languish in bumper-to-bumper traffic. If you have passengers, the same goes for them. If those passengers happen to be family members who share your data plan, the financial effect is multiplied.

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Traffic Increases Employee Turnover

If you own a business, you can bet your employees hate sitting in traffic just as much as you do — and you might pay for that in the form of rehiring and retraining due to high turnover. Recent research from the global staffing firm Robert Half shows that nearly one-quarter of all working adults have left a job because of a lousy commute. You can avoid the unexpected loss of a good employee by finding ways to allow periodic telecommuting, or you can consider paying public transportation costs as an employee benefit.

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Traffic Lowers Work Productivity

That bad travel to work can carry over onto the job for employees. A traffic-heavy commute can lead to tardiness, missed meetings and other promotion-killing habits. Those who are able should consider using their congested commutes to their advantage whenever they can. That means taking business calls or participating in work collaborations while you’re en route — safely, via Bluetooth, of course.

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Traffic Leads To Missed Work

Traffic can not only decrease productivity for workers when they eventually get to the office, but it might also prevent them from coming into the office at all. A study conducted by researchers at RMIT University and the University of Melbourne found that employees with long commutes tend to miss more work than those with shorter commutes.

This can end up costing employers. A study by Circadian found that unexpected absences cost companies about $2,660 per employee per year.

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Traffic Makes Healthcare Costs Higher

As far back as 2014, Time magazine reported that driving is not just bad for your health, but terrible. Excess time on the road is detrimental to everything from your blood pressure and cholesterol to your mental health and sleep habits. More recently, a study done in London revealed that excess highway time degrades your brain, memory, mood and IQ. All of this, of course, leads to higher healthcare costs as your commute affects not only your car but your body.

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Congestion Leads To New Tolls

One of the biggest gripes lawmakers hear from their constituents concerns the volume of traffic and the dilapidated infrastructure that often struggles to contain it. Among the quickest fixes, which never really seems to fix the problem, is the levying of new or increased tolls. Tolls pay both to build infrastructure projects, such as bridges and roads, as well as to try to improve traffic flow. That means that commuters with the ugliest rides often pay a hefty price for the privilege of sitting in traffic.

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Traffic Might Lead To Congestion Pricing 

Some cities are contemplating or experimenting with congestion pricing, which is exactly what the name implies. The program imposes fees on motorists who drive into crowded areas during the busiest times of the day. The purpose is to nudge drivers off the roads and onto public transportation. If your city implements congestion pricing, it might be cost-effective to accept that nudge.

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Pay-To-Play Express Lanes Hold Commuters Hostage

Another approach more cities are considering is the concept of paid express lanes. California’s Bay Area Express Lanes, for example, are specially designated freeway lanes that are sometimes free but during traffic jams, they become toll roads. As traffic increases, so, too, does the amount you have to pay if you want to get into the fast lane to try to make good time.


Car Insurance Costs More in Congested Areas

Many factors go into the price you pay for your car insurance premiums, including things that are beyond your control, such as the number of uninsured drivers in your area. The level of congestion, however, also plays a role. With all those cars packed into such a dense space, accidents are more likely and more frequent in high-traffic areas than in rural regions, which means drivers in those urban communities tend to pay more.

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Car Insurance Costs More for Longer Commutes

Even if you’re in a rural area, you could end up paying more for your car insurance if you have a long commute. According to State Farm, “people who use their car for business and long-distance commuting normally pay more than those who drive less. The more miles you drive in a year, the higher the chances of a crash — regardless of how safe a driver you are.”

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Low-Income Earners Are Hit Harder by Traffic Costs

An analysis of the true cost of commuting conducted by Clever found that people with lower incomes tend to have longer commutes to work.

“People who are driving the farthest are spending more out of their pocket (as opposed to the potential for earning additional wages) and making less money,” the study found. “As a result, people with farther commutes spend a larger proportion of their income on fuel and maintenance costs than those with shorter commutes.”

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Gabrielle Olya contributed to the reporting for this article.