Traffic congestion presents more than a headache for commuters; it has a negative impact on the delivery of goods and services and the general well-being of citizens. The Washington, D.C., metropolitan area has the nation's highest rate of congestion. The Hampton Roads area also experiences high levels of congestion.
Why is This Important?
The ability to move goods and people around the Commonwealth at relatively low cost is a substantial benefit for residents and also reduces the total cost of the goods and services they receive. But congestion increases these costs; strained and congested roads eat up time and fuel, exacerbate road and vehicle wear-and-tear, and increase driver stress.
How is Virginia Doing?
Virginia's average commute time to work in 2013 was 27.7 minutes, the seventh highest in the nation. While considerably higher than North Carolina (23.9 minutes) and Tennessee (24.5 minutes), this average is lower than Maryland's 32.5 minutes. The national average is 25.8 minutes. South Dakota had the least traffic delays of all states, with an average commute time of 17.0 minutes.
Use per lane mile has increased over time; since the mid-1960s Virginia has experienced a decline in relative capacity as both population and state gross domestic product (GSP) have increased. The U.S. Census measured average commute time for 30 of Virginia's larger counties and cities in 2013. The longest average commute times were all in the Northern region, with Stafford County, Fauquier County, and Prince William County clocking in with commutes at or near 40 minutes. Montgomery County (16.9 minutes) in the West Central region had the shortest commute time in the Census study.
The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) publishes congestion data for 101 urban areas across the country. In 2011, TTI for the first time fully integrated certain real-time and actual (rather than estimated) traffic data from around the country. (See Data box below.) The resulting adjusted data has tended to smooth out some differences in congestion among the metropolitan areas in our graph: Highly congested corridors, such as Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD had actual congestion levels below earlier estimates, while smaller metro areas (e.g., Charlotte, SC-NC and Richmond, VA) were shown to have more.
However, the metro area around Washington, D.C., was yet again the highest in the nation for average hours (67) of delay per traveler. This congestion level is considerably greater than any other region in Virginia, but also much higher than for urban areas in neighboring states. Although TTI rankings roughly correlate with area size, Richmond, VA, is notable for still having less congestion compared to other cities in its size class.
What Influences Traffic Congestion?
Road use, as measured by vehicle miles traveled (VMT), has increased significantly over the past few decades, as a growing population and rising incomes have led to increased car ownership, growth in low-density housing in suburbs and "exurbs," new roads, and a long-term trend toward lower real costs of personal transportation.
In the last two decades, the rate of increase in VMT has been much higher than the growth in overall road capacity. As a result, a higher number of road miles experience congestion and serious traffic jams, while some localities suffer from chronic congestion, especially during prime commuting hours. The costs of congestion have also risen -- lost wages, eroded productivity, and the increased cost of freight transport.
In Virginia, congestion problems are most serious in the Northern region close to Washington, D.C., and in the Hampton Roads region, where traffic is forced into bottlenecks at bridges and tunnels. Traffic congestion is also affected by cyclical changes in the volume of business activity. The 2007-2009 recession temporarily reversed congestion in most cities; indeed, in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area average congestion dropped to levels not seen since 1995.
A combination of factors contributes to congestion, including road capacity and conditions, commuting demands, and the costs of using the road. If population in the area around a roadway increases, the likelihood of congestion increases. A road in disrepair has a lower capacity than a new road and is more likely to experience congestion.
Other factors beyond predictable "rush hour" delays create traffic problems. More than half of all congestion is non-recurring – caused by crashes, disabled vehicles, adverse weather, work zones, special events, and other temporary disruptions to the transportation system.
What is the State's Role?
A number of strategies can help manage road congestion. The state can
- expand capacity in congested areas
- provide alternative transportation, such as public buses and high-speed trains
- charge for road use in a way that prices each driver's contribution to congestion
- manage development patterns to reduce congestion growth
Virginia has traditionally relied on the first two methods for reducing congestion. To date, these efforts have not stopped increases in congestion, although investments in these areas have slowed the increase and cost of congestion in the Northern Virginia area. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the effect of public transportation improvements in the Washington, DC/Northern Virginia area reduces the amount of delay by over 33.8 million hours. And annual congestion cost savings from public transportation for the Virginia Beach and Richmond areas are $33.2 million and $16.5 million, respectively.
State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.
Data Definitions and Sources
Average Commute Time – U.S. Bureau of the
Census, American Community Survey
(updated annually in September)
Texas Transportation Institute
NOTE: For its 2011 Urban Mobility Report, the Texas Transportation Institute fully integrated INRIX real-time traffic data recorded at 15-minute intervals, including actual rush hour speeds.
See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.