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. But congestion increases these costs: Strained and congested roads eat up time and fuel; reduce worker productivity; exacerbate road and vehicle wear-and-tear; and increase driver stress, aggression, and certain kinds of vehicle accidents.
How is Virginia Doing?
Virginia's average commute time to work in 2014 was 28.1 minutes, a modest increase over 2013 and 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 32.3 minutes. The national average rose slightly to 26.0 minutes. Leading state South Dakota actually saw a drop in its commute length, with an average commute time of 16.7 minutes.
Use per lane mile has been increasing for decades; since the mid-1960s Virginia has experienced a decline in relative capacity as both population and state gross domestic product (GSP) have steadily risen.
The U.S. Census measures average commute time for 30 of Virginia's larger counties and cities each year. In 2014, the longest average commute times were all in the Northern region, with Stafford, Spotsylvania, Fauquier, and Prince William counties clocking in with commutes near or over 40 minutes. Roanoke City (17.8 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 2014, the metro area around Washington, D.C., was again the highest in the nation for average hours (82) of delay per traveler. Although delays due to congestion have generally been dropping modestly in the D.C. corridor since 2008, its level of congestion is considerably higher than any other region in Virginia -- and for urban areas in other states. Other metropolitan areas in the top 10 for congestion include Los Angeles and San Francisco in California; Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth in Texas; New York City-Newark, New Jersey; Seattle, Washington; and Boston, Massachusetts.
Although TTI rankings roughly correlate with area size, Richmond, VA, is notable for still having less congestion (an average of 44 hours of annual delay) compared to other cities in its size class.
What Influences Traffic Congestion?
Road use, measured as vehicle miles traveled (VMT), has increased significantly over the past few decades, as a growing population and two-income households 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.
Other factors affect congestion levels:
- population increases around existing roads
- roads in disrepair
- roads with construction work zones
- tolls and other bottlenecks
- the costs of using a road (e.g., non-HOV fees and other tolls)
Other factors beyond predictable "rush hour" delays also create traffic problems. More than half of all congestion is non-recurring – caused by crashes, disabled vehicles, adverse weather, 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 commuter 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. The Northern Virginia area now has an extensive system of public buses and a more limited network of commuter trains -- efforts and investments that have slowed the increase and cost of congestion there.
According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the effect of public transportation improvements in the Washington, DC/Northern Virginia area has reduced 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 -- rather than estimates. The resulting adjusted data has tended to smooth out some differences in congestion among the metropolitan areas tracked: 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.
See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.