Everyone can relate to traffic congestion; and opinions on it are close to universal. People hate it. Traffic isn't like ozone rules, abortion, or even seat-belt laws, where it's fair to say there are at least a few varying attitudes. One would think, then, that it would be easy to harness Americans' ritual anger at traffic jams to compel policymakers to do something about it.
Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Frustrated drivers aren't an organized constituency, despite their high blood pressure. Lawmakers and administration officials emphasize job creation or safety when they talk about transportation and infrastructure investment. The industry groups that are impacted by those decisions follow suit by focusing on the funding mechanisms for highways, bridges, railways, and airports. The annoyance of a series of brake lights on I-66 in Virginia is largely left out of the conversation.
Yet there is a lot of data about traffic that theoretically could be turned to political use. The Texas Transportation Institute is scheduled to release its annual urban mobility report this week. TTI said the cost of congestion was $115 billion in 2009. IBM recently released a study showcasing commuter pain, finding that 69 percent of drivers said that traffic negatively affected their health through increased stress, lack of sleep, anger, respiratory problems, or traffic accidents.
Traffic woes appear to be a minor, even nonexistent, motivator for lawmakers to set national transportation policies or promote infrastructure spending. Why? Is it risky for politicians to promise that a highway bill or an appropriations increase will ease traffic? Is traffic considered a local issue rather than a national one? Should traffic jams play a role in advocacy campaigns for infrastructure investment? If all lawmakers had to drive themselves to work, would that make a difference in how they view transportation policy?