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Traffic Jams: History & Causes of Traffic Congestion

Exploring the causes and history of traffic congestion in the United States.

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Traffic jams are becoming increasingly severe. According to INRIX, a transportation consulting firm, traffic congestion cost the United States $305 billion in 2017. That’s a $10 billion increase from the previous year’s figure of $295 billion.

Table of Contents

  • What Causes Congestion in the Streets?
  • Top 4 Worst Traffic Jams in American History
  • Traffic Jams: What Causes Them?
  • Traffic Jams in the Future

What Causes Congestion in the Streets?

Every year, drivers in Los Angeles, the city with the world’s longest rush hour traffic delays, spend an average of 102 hours stuck in traffic. The city spends over $19 billion a year on this, with each driver contributing $2,828.

Boston, Miami, and Washington, D.C. aren’t much better, with traffic costs exceeding $2,000 per driver. Congested roads cost money not only in terms of wasted fuel, but also in terms of lost productivity. Drivers could be doing something else if they weren’t stuck in traffic.

Why do traffic jams occur in the first place? Will they deteriorate further in the future? As a field service manager, how should you handle the costs and challenges that come with traffic? In this article, we’ll answer all of your questions.

But first, let’s take a look at some of America’s worst traffic jams.

Top 4 Worst Traffic Jams in American History

#1 Bethel, New York – 1969

The Woodstock Music & Arts Festival was expected to draw 50,000 people to Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York. Instead, an estimated half-million people attended. The New York State Thruway was brought to a halt for more than 20 miles as a result of this. Helicopters were used to transport performers to and from the festival.

#2 Houston, Texas – 2005

On September 21, 2005, as Hurricane Rita approached, approximately 2.5 million people evacuated the Houston metro area, causing a massive 100-mile-long traffic jam on Interstate 45. According to reports, the gridlock lasted nearly two days.

#3 New York City, New York – 2001

New York City was completely shut down after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Tunnels and bridges had to be shut down. Except for emergency vehicles, public transportation was shut down. Throughout the city, traffic was at a standstill. Air traffic was also halted, leaving many people stranded across the United States. The gridlock lasted several days.

#4 Chicago, Illinois – 2011

On February 1, 2011, a late-winter blizzard dumped over 20 inches of snow on the Windy City, with the worst of it falling during rush hour. The commuters travelling north on Lake Shore Drive from downtown Chicago were the most affected. Several major accidents were caused by the weather, and commuters were stuck in traffic for more than 12 hours. As people waited for traffic to clear, many cars became almost completely buried in snow.

Traffic Jams: What Causes Them?

There are two types of traffic congestion, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT): recurring and non-recurring.

Approximately half of all traffic congestion is recurring, which occurs when there is insufficient road capacity to accommodate a large number of vehicles. The other half of traffic jams are non-recurring and usually only last a few minutes. Congestion is primarily caused by bad weather, construction zones, and accidents (which can range from minor incidents like a flat tire to seriously dangerous situations like an overturned hazardous materials truck).

Now let’s look at how different scenarios can result in traffic congestion.

Environmental Consequences

Snowstorms and heavy rain, for example, obviously have a significant impact on both traffic and road conditions. Even a light drizzle can cause problems because everyone on the road will slow down at the same time. According to one study, road collisions increase by about 50% when it rains or snows. According to the Department of Transportation, bad weather accounts for 15% of all traffic congestion cases.

Also, natural disasters such as hurricanes and mudslides can disrupt traffic patterns for months, if not years.

You can’t control the weather, unfortunately. However, you can avoid getting stuck in traffic due to bad weather by using a route planner.

Humans Error

Humans, like the environment, are to blame for traffic congestion. There are numerous instances where humans cause collisions, resulting in traffic, ranging from distracted driving to speeding.

Speeding-related accidents accounted for 27 percent of traffic fatalities in 2016, according to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Furthermore, an estimated 650,000 drivers use their cellphones while driving at any given time during the day, demonstrating the extent of distracted driving on the road.

Even phantom traffic jams can be caused by poor driving habits. This happens when there is already a large number of cars on the road and a driver abruptly brakes (often due to distraction), causing a ripple effect.

Because the driver brakes abruptly, the driver behind them must also brake abruptly to avoid a collision, which forces the driver behind them to brake abruptly to avoid a collision, and so on. Once a driver has passed through the congested area, it will appear that nothing caused the traffic jam. It only takes one driver to make a mistake to slow everyone down.

Distracted driving and speeding are clearly issues that must be addressed. GPS tracking software can help businesses improve their field employees’ driving behavior by allowing them to track their location and speed on the road in real time. Speed alerts are sometimes included with GPS trackers. When a driver exceeds the speed limit, this feature will notify you immediately, allowing you to contact them and tell them to slow down.

Poor Infrastructure

Excessive traffic congestion is frequently caused by infrastructure designed to accommodate vehicles. When low-quality construction materials are used to build roads, for example, potholes can form, slowing cars and causing traffic congestion.

According to the Department of Transportation, bottlenecks account for 40% of traffic congestion. Furthermore, improving infrastructure necessitates construction, which accounts for 10% of traffic congestion.

However, not all road infrastructure issues are the fault of engineers. When the need to use a road grows quickly, the engineers may not have been able to anticipate such high demand when designing the road.

Mechanical Error

Traffic congestion can also be caused by mechanical failure, such as a sudden vehicle breakdown. Mechanical failures can strike out of nowhere. For example, a driver could run over a piece of sharp debris in the road and puncture a vital part of their car’s undercarriage. Mechanical failures, on the other hand, frequently occur as a result of the driver’s failure to bring their car in for routine maintenance.

Regardless of how a vehicle malfunctions, the driver must get off the road as soon as possible. However, they may be in an awkward situation, such as driving in the leftmost lane of a five-lane highway, where they will not have enough time to do so. As a result, a vehicle could become stuck in the middle of the road, causing a major traffic jam.

Traffic Jams in the Future

Traffic congestion will only be reduced once an automated transportation system is in place, according to Cathis Elmsäter-Svärd, Chairwoman of Drive Sweden and a member of the Global Future Council on Mobility. Various modes of transportation (including self-driving cars, buses, and bicycles) would be seamlessly integrated by technology in such a system.

Elmsäter-Svärd also believes that in the future, products will be delivered in a different way. Small robots, for example, could make last-mile deliveries. People could also have their groceries delivered to a convenient drop-off location within a sophisticated network, where they can pick up their packages whenever they want.

All of this should make transportation more efficient and reduce the number of vehicles on the road in the near future. This would help reduce noise pollution and improve air quality, in addition to improving traffic.

Is this something that will actually happen, or is it just a pipe dream? All we can do now is wait and see.

So, what is the worst traffic jam you’ve ever seen in America? Have you looked into any technology solutions to help you avoid traffic jams, such as a route planner? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Finally, if you correctly answer these three questions, you will have a good understanding of traffic congestion:

  • What causes traffic congestion when the weather is bad?
  • How can a GPS tracker assist you in reducing dangerous driving habits?
  • What is the definition of a phantom traffic jam?

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