|Skip to Content|
Congestion: A National Issue
Our ability to move about our neighborhood, our city and between cities has been taken for granted for years. Transportation mobility affects our ability to do our jobs, our quality of life and the economic productivity of our country. In today’s environment, our mobility is also important to our safety and security. Increasingly, however, our mobility is jeopardized by congestion. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that, in 2000, the 75 largest metropolitan areas experienced 3.6 billion vehicle-hours of delay, resulting in 5.7 billion gallons in wasted fuel and $67.5 billion in lost productivity. Congestion impacts everything we do – going to work, picking up the kids at school, getting them to the soccer game, doing grocery shopping, or delivering products to stores for our consumption. Congestion is a part of daily life for millions of people.
What is Congestion?
Highway congestion is caused when there are more vehicles than available space on the road, or, stated differently, when traffic demand approaches or exceeds the available capacity of the highway system. Traffic demands vary significantly depending on the season of the year, the day of the week, and even the time of day. Also, the capacity, often mistaken as constant, can change because of weather, work zones, or traffic incidents.
Roughly half of the congestion experienced by Americans happens virtually every day – it is "recurring". This is the type of congestion where there are simply more vehicles than roadway. The other half of congestion is caused by temporary disruptions that take away part of the roadway from use – or "nonrecurring" congestion. The three main causes of nonrecurring congestion are: incidents ranging from a flat tire to an overturned hazardous material truck (25% of congestion), work zones (10% of congestion), and weather (15% of congestion). Nonrecurring events dramatically reduce the available capacity and reliability of the entire transportation system. This is the type of congestion that surprises us. We plan for a trip of 20 minutes and we experience a trip of 40 minutes. Travelers and shippers are especially sensitive to the unanticipated disruptions to tightly scheduled personal activities and manufacturing distribution procedures.
The effects of congestion are growing. Rush "hour" is no longer an hour. In fact, in 1982, rush "hour" averaged 2-3 hours, and, in 1999, rush "hour" had increased to 5-6 hours. And, there is no end in sight. Freight transportation is expected to almost double in the next twenty years. The number of miles that we travel continues to increase. Between 1980 and 1999, vehicle miles of travel grew by 76 percent while the amount of new roads or lanes increased 1.5 percent. Without aggressive and effective new strategies to mitigate congestion, congestion will continue to grow with crippling impacts on our lives.
What Can Be Done About Congestion?
Successfully reducing the effects of congestion on our lives requires three coordinated approaches – construction, preservation and operation.
Construction projects that alleviate highway bottlenecks and increase capacity are one key approach. This is particularly important for highway freight movement to and from ports and rail terminals to major highways. We are becoming more dependent on imports and exports to support consumer and manufacturing demands and to develop new markets for products and services. Virtually all of this trade uses highway connections to intermodal yards and ports. Identifying and relieving bottlenecks can increase the throughput of our highways, and enable us to make better use of air, rail and maritime services to meet our growing freight demands.
Additionally, many of our roadways and bridges are growing old. Preservation of our existing roadway network is critical. As our highways approach middle age, rehabilitation and maintenance are a necessary part of maintaining our mobility.
Better operating the highway network is the newest approach to confronting transportation challenges in the 21st century.
Operations: The Newest Approach
Much as airspace is managed to support a maximum number of flights, we can do more to operate the transportation system so that it performs better to meet customer expectations regardless of the demands placed on it. Better approaches to operations on the transportation network is a viable and effective strategy to help improve traffic flow and meet growing travel demands. In some locations, it may be our only viable approach. Technology innovations (intelligent transportation systems) give us new and better tools to make the most of the available roads and capacity. The growing congestion problem – and the implications for productivity and security – spurs us to more fully consider better approaches to transportation operations. Better operations of the transportation system holds the potential for substantially improving the way agencies address recurring and, non-recurring congestion. The reduction of non-recurring congestion can also substantially improve freight operations and boost US competitiveness with other nations.
The history of highway transportation, until most recently, was focused on building the road network. Our organizations "grew up" around the need to build roads, beginning with the farm to market roads of the 1930's and into the Interstate System construction era of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. As better operations becomes a strategy more fully applied to transportation, it will require rethinking agency organizations and how services are delivered to those who depend on the transportation system. Effectively addressing the congestion problem will hinge on the ability to reshape traditional transportation organizations into “21st century operations agencies using 21st century technologies”.
What is a 21st Century Operations Agency?
To understand what is meant by a 21st century operations agency, it's helpful to compare historical transportation agencies and emerging operations agencies. To use popular jargon – some things are "out" and others are "in".
To elaborate, there are six characteristics of 21st century operations agencies.
What are 21st Century Technologies?
21st century technologies, referred to as intelligent transportation system (ITS) technologies, have been researched, deployed, and tested to some degree for ten years or more. These technologies provide information about the transportation system and support development of tools that traffic professionals and travelers never had before. The technologies can be generally grouped into six types.
Vehicle to roadside to home-base
Taken together, these technologies enable new ways of managing the transportation system to improve its operation. The technologies themselves are not the answer, but the improved ability to operate the system, enabled by the technologies, is key to addressing congestion.
The opportunity for better managing and operating the transportation system to address congestion comes from combining new technologies with a new focus on operations within transportation agencies. Agencies that have embraced 21st century operations will take advantage of new technologies and apply them to achieve better system performance. Applications like freeway management, arterial management, incident and special event management, work zone mobility and safety management, and road weather management marry technology innovations with a desire to better serve customers through improved mobility. These same technologies, supplemented by pre-arrival and clearance information for freight at our borders and intermodal terminals, can improve freight flows as well.
What is FHWA Doing to Support 21st Century Operations using 21st Century Technologies?
FHWA identified congestion as one of its "vital few" priority areas. As discussed above, "operations" is one of three strategies for addressing congestion. FHWA has a number of programs designed to advance system operations. These include initiatives to accelerate the evolution of transportation agencies into 21st century operations agencies using 21st century technologies. FHWA’s programs are organized to support:
National recognition of the importance of operations
FHWA leads the effort to increase the emphasis on and visibility of transportation operations. This includes congestion data analysis, development of policy and legislation (particularly in preparation for reauthorization of TEA-21), and promotion of an information infrastructure. FHWA also works with ITE, AASHTO, ITSA, APTA and others to sponsor the National Dialogue on Transportation Operations.
Institutional & regional programs
Building regional partnerships is fundamental to supporting 21st century operations. These partnerships focus on convening a wide variety of stakeholders including many, like law enforcement, who are not typically involved. The partnerships serve several roles. They are well suited to creating regional performance measures that quantify goals for transportation system operations. Another potential role for the partnerships is helping to facilitate the ITS deployment of ITS regional architectures and promoting use of ITS standards. The architecture underpins the use of 21st century technologies.
FHWA has activities underway to support development of regional partnerships through literature and training courses. Other programs pertain to developing and defining performance measures. Technical assistance and training are available to assist with ITS architecture and standards.
Advancements in 21st century operations
Implementing 21st century operations requires advancements in nearly all facets of transportation operations and management. These include:
The FHWA Office of Operations has extensive programs to address each of these areas. These programs include research and testing of advancements in the state-of-the-art, guidance documents, training, best practices and technical assistance to advance the state-of-the-practice.
Additional information on these programs is available on this web site.
Through these programs, FHWA continues to support better transportation system operations as an important approach to addressing recurring and non-recurring congestion. Effectively addressing congestion hinges on reshaping transportation agencies into 21st century operations agencies that use 21st century technologies to be customer focused and performance driven while using systems approaches and real-time management 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.