Kent Hymel’s research shows that, in addition to slowing workers’ commutes, crowded roads stifle job growth. (Credit: Daniel A. Anderson)

UC IRVINE (US)—A recent study by a researcher at the University of California, Irvine shows sluggish commutes lead to slowed job growth. For policymakers, the lesson may be that efficient public infrastructure can help spur local economies.

Kent Hymel, a UC Irvine doctoral candidate in economics, studied data on traffic delays in major metropolitan areas in the U.S. between 1982 and 2003. He observed that increases in the number of vehicles on the road far outpaced expansions in highway capacity, resulting in high levels of congestion. While studying the causes of traffic congestion, Hymel became increasingly interested in identifying its broad economic costs.

“In our current economic climate, people are concerned with creating jobs and taking steps to sustain long-run employment growth,” Hymel says. “My study shows that reducing congestion—itself a desirable outcome—can help achieve that goal and revitalize urban economies.”

Hymel analyzed the amount of extra time drivers spent on freeways each year due to congested conditions and examined population, employment, and income growth patterns. He found that if freeway capacity in the Los Angeles metropolitan area (including Long Beach and Orange County) had increased by 10 percent in 1990, an additional 50,000 jobs would have been created in the region by 2003.

Public infrastructure spending is expected to boom in President Barack Obama’s administration through massive public works programs designed to resuscitate the nation’s ailing economy. Jan Brueckner, UC Irvine economics professor and an expert in urban economics, says policymakers would be wise to pay attention to Hymel’s findings.

“Kent’s careful statistical analysis yields a stark lesson for highly congested U.S. metro areas: Take steps to alleviate traffic congestion or pay a price in terms of future economic vitality,” Brueckner adds.

Hymel, a fellow of the UC Transportation Center, encountered some difficulty measuring the impact of traffic congestion on job growth since the two tend to go hand in hand.

“Workers cause traffic jams just by driving to work everyday, but at the same time congestion discourages job growth by raising the cost of doing business,” Hymel explains. “Individuals will demand higher wages to compensate for longer commutes. Also, slow traffic harms businesses by increasing the cost of shipping goods.”

Hymel hopes his research will inspire policymakers to think more creatively about reducing congestion. While not politically popular, he says toll roads, congestion tolls and other options that require people to pay for the privilege of driving are the best options.

“There are no simple solutions to the problem of traffic congestion,” he adds. “New roads are very expensive and are not likely to reduce congestion levels.”

The findings were published online in the Journal of Urban Economics.

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