NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Global Data Puts U.S. Traffic Congestion in Perspective

January 6, 2014

Would you believe that of the 24 most congested urban areas in high-income countries, only four are in the United States? That is among the findings of a recent analysis by navigation services provider TomTom, says Robert Poole, the Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy at the Reason Foundation.

  • TomTom's report for the second quarter of 2013 provides such indices for each of the large urban areas in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Western Europe and the United States.
  • The average of those indices is highest for New Zealand, followed by the averages for Australia, Canada and Western Europe, with the United States bringing up the rear.

Looking at individual urban areas, regardless of country, the 5 most-congested urban areas in wealthy countries are:

  • Marseille, France.
  • Palermo, Italy.
  • Vancouver, Canada.
  • Rome, Italy.
  • Paris, France.

Los Angeles is the only U.S. city in the top 10. San Francisco, Honolulu and Seattle are the only other U.S. cities in the top 24. The 15 least-congested metro areas in the United States include Cincinnati, Birmingham, Rochester, Louisville, Phoenix, Kansas City and Indianapolis.

At first glance, these results seem counterintuitive -- or at least contrary to what is taught in urban planning schools and believed by many transportation planners. By the conventional wisdom, metro areas like Vancouver, Rome, Paris, Sydney, Hamburg, etc. should have lower traffic congestion than sprawling U.S. urban areas like Phoenix, Indianapolis and Kansas City.

Demographer and National Center for Policy Analysis Adjunct Scholar Wendell Cox points out that there is, in fact, a strong association between higher densities and higher traffic congestion. But also, "Residents of the United States benefit because employment is more dispersed, which tends to result in less urban-core-related traffic congestion. Lower density and employment dispersion are instrumental in the more modest traffic congestion of the United States."

Source: Robert Poole, "Global Data Puts U.S. Traffic Congestion in Perspective," Reason Foundation, January 3, 2014. "TomTom Traffic Index," TomTom, 2013.


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