clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Your Commute Is Driving the Economy

It's time to apply what we've learned from building the information highway to build smarter transportation networks.

Tatiana Popova/Shutterstock

We all dread facing the daily grind of gridlock on our commutes. But did you know that the fluctuations in the amount of time you spend in traffic every year is indicative of the health of our economy? Despite the headache, our daily dose of road rage will mean good things for your investment portfolios.

While employment is back on the rise in many of our urban centers — particularly in tech-driven economies, hospitality and education sectors — we’re still down two million of the nine million jobs lost at the start of the Great Recession. As soon as employment returns to 2007 levels, two million more daily commute trips will need to be accommodated, further stressing our urban highway network. Some new data coming out from my company, Inrix, this week, shows that traffic congestion is up in 61 of America’s 100 largest cities, a drastic change from 2012, when only six U.S. cities showed increases. While signs of increasing traffic congestion in the U.S. signal an improving economy, it’s a different story across the pond, where Europe is just starting to shows signs of recovery.

This is reflected by a decline in traffic congestion: Spain and Portugal are both examples of this trend. For reporters who attended Mobile World Congress last month, I hope you enjoyed the quick rides across Barcelona, and remembered to buy local. Traffic congestion in Europe rose for the first time in two years, signaling, along with modest growth in GDP, that Europe’s economies are showing signs of a turnaround.

As much as traffic congestion trends can provide us with a barometer of the health of our economies, it’s also a drain on economic growth, as billions of dollars go wasted on gas in traffic — money not spent elsewhere in the economy. This is compounded by the fact that impacts of traffic congestion on the manufacturers and distributors of goods and services get passed on in the form of higher prices on our daily purchases.

If you haven’t already felt this growth, you will soon: San Francisco and San Jose combined saw a 23 percent increase in traffic, according to Inrix’s annual traffic analysis report. This means that local drivers spent more than a week’s vacation last year idling in traffic — no wonder Google has been researching autonomous driving vehicles.

Whether it’s self-driving cars or intelligent systems that better use our existing infrastructure to move people and commerce across transportation networks, our future roads will not be built with concrete as much as they’ll be built with software. It’s time to apply what we’ve learned from building the information highway to build smarter networks. Through breakthroughs in crowdsourcing, connectivity and big data, technology is rapidly transforming a world we once measured in miles to one we can measure in minutes.

The historical archive of the real-time traffic data used today opens up new avenues for the industry and government to tackle our never-ending drive-time problem. Increasingly, the vehicles we drive and the mobile devices we carry have the ability to help us avoid gridlock through crowdsourced traffic data that can tell us how fast traffic is moving on every road, not just where governments have installed physical road sensors. With a complete view of traffic across all roads, automakers and mobile app providers are able to provide drivers with the best route, fastest travel time and expected arrival, from all possible roads and routes.

Additionally, departments of transportation are just starting to truly use this robust, real-time data to build intelligence into America’s transportation networks. With this new ability to gain reliable insights from every vehicle into the traffic speeds, travel times and volumes on all roads, we have a unique opportunity to manage the flow of people and commerce as efficiently as we direct the flow of data over our IT networks today.

Whatever the solutions may be — extra capacity through additional lane miles, coordinated signal timing of traffic lights, toll express lanes, more public transit — we will not unclog key roads by adding lane miles in the metro areas. Time and again, it hasn’t worked. If traffic congestion continues to increase at three times the rate of employment and GDP growth, as it did in 2013, the 10-day-long traffic jams in China and two-to-three-hour daily commutes drivers face in Sao Paulo, Brazil, could become a reality for drivers in Europe and North America in the not-so-distant future.

Until then, we can make some compelling arguments about our commute times driving the economy, and more importantly, about how we can break out of the inverse cycle and take what we’ve learned from the Internet highway to build a smarter interstate.

But first, let’s stop wasting full work weeks stuck in traffic — according to traffic analysis, the Top 10 worst travel corridors in the U.S. cost drivers five days a year in gridlock, almost three times the national average.

According to ABI research, 80 percent of cars on the road in the U.S. and Western Europe will be connected and a source of real-time data by 2017. For the remaining 20 percent, the continued explosion of connected devices, in the form of the smartphones and tablets we carry with us everywhere we go, will fill the gap. As a result, the coverage and quality of real-time traffic information is rapidly accelerating.

Evidence of the start of this transformation is everywhere. Technology is opening new avenues to tackle one of society’s most intractable problems — traffic congestion. The question now is how to best invest in technologies that connect public and private sectors to your car’s road network.

Jim Bak is the author of the Annual Inrix Traffic Scorecard. Bak joined Inrix in 2010, a research and technology company that powers traffic data for companies and drivers around the world. He has nearly 20 years’ experience driving adoption of new technologies designed to deepen our love affair with the automobile, ranging from Microsoft’s in-car infotainment platform and Mercedes Benz’s introduction of the first fuel-cell prototype vehicle in the U.S., to Chrysler and Mercedes’ initial rollout of satellite radio. Reach him @INRIX.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.