Few things in life are more universally loathed than traffic – and rightfully so. Not only is road congestion a time-consuming inconvenience, it costs drivers money in the form of wasted fuel and increases harmful tailpipe emissions.
For such a common occurrence, traffic and its causes remain a mystery to many drivers. Sometimes the answer is obvious, such as in cases of a car crash or lane closure. In other instances, however, congestion seems to pop up out of nowhere. So, what causes traffic jams?
The State of Northeast Traffic
Before we dive into the cause of the problem, let’s define the problem itself. It will come as no surprise to locals to learn that the Northeast has some of, if not the worst, traffic in the country. New York (first) and Boston (fourth) are among the five most-congested American cities, according to the TomTom Traffic Index.
The study found that, on average, it took New York City motorists 24.5 minutes to travel about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers). That equates to driving roughly 15 mph. Other Northeast cities cracking the top 100 are Providence, R.I. (23); New Haven, Conn., (37); Rochester, N.Y. (41); Hartford, Conn., (63); Syracuse, N.Y., (73); and Albany, N.Y., (75).
A second study painted an even grimmer picture. The INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard ranks cities based on the total hours lost to traffic per driver. Boston (4) and New York (5) cracked the top five globally. Drivers in these cities were delayed 134 and 117 hours, respectively, in 2022. Domestically, Stamford and Providence were included among the 25 most-congested American cities.
What makes the INRIX report even more troublesome for Northeast motorists is its ranking of the U.S. corridors with the worst traffic. Six of the top 10 roadways are right in our backyard. Taking the top spot is Stamford’s southbound section of I-95, stretching between Sherwood Island Connector and Indian Field Road. Drivers traveling this 30-mile corridor lost an average of 34 1/2 minutes each day during rush hour. Other Northeast roadways making the list include I-93 in Boston, I-278 in New York along with Connecticut state highway 15 and the Merritt Parkway in Stamford.
What Causes Traffic Jams?
Traffic can be broken down into two categories: Recurring and nonrecurring. As its name implies, recurring traffic is the type you experience on a regular, if not daily, basis. It is the result of roads becoming fully saturated with cars, meaning there are more vehicles than the roadway can fit. Saturation is the leading cause of traffic in the United States, accounting for 50% of congestion, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Nonrecurring congestion is any traffic jam caused by temporary disruptions that close part of a roadway. This category can be broken down further, including emergency situations (accounting for 25% of congestion), weather-related incidents (15%) and work zone closures (10%). Nonrecurring congestion can cause major backups as it is often unexpected, which prevents motorists from planning their commute accordingly, and usually leads to lane closures, leaving a smaller amount of available roadway for cars to pass.
Phantom Traffic Jams
You may have noticed another type of congestion missing from the aforementioned list. It’s a situation every driver has encountered: You’re driving along at a consistent speed when all of sudden traffic stalls. There must be a crash or lane closure up ahead, you think. But just a few minutes later, traffic begins to move at a normal pace.
What causes traffic congestion like this? It’s known as a phantom traffic jam, a type of congestion with no obvious cause. Obvious being the key word as there is, in fact, a cause. Phantom traffic jams occur when there is a minor disruption in traffic flow, such as an inattentive driver having to suddenly brake. When the proceeding drivers reach this disruption, they are forced to slow down, as a chain reaction. This sudden deceleration causes what researchers refer to as a traffic wave, one that crests at the site of the disruption and travels backward typically for 100 to 1,000 yards.
There needs to be enough cars on the road for these minor disruptions to create a noticeable slowing of traffic. In this sense, phantom traffic jams can be considered a subset of recurring congestion. But phantom traffic is more a result of something going astray than an overabundance of vehicles.
Tips for Dealing With Traffic
Knowing what causes traffic jams is one thing. Figuring out how to avoid it is another. While some congestion on the roadway is inevitable, following these tips will go a long way toward limiting your time stuck in traffic.
Know your destination. Missing an exit, driving in circles or cruising around looking for a parking spot adds to your driving time and keeps a slow-moving car on the road. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the route and destination before hitting the road.
Use GPS and navigation apps. These tools help guide you to your destination. They can also alert you of upcoming traffic jams and reroute you accordingly.
Be an efficient driver. If possible, drive at a time when you know fewer cars will be on the road. Limit your time driving by completing tasks and errands in one trip.
Give yourself space. Keeping a safe distance from the car in front of you helps prevent a crash, but it also goes a long way in limiting congestion. Sudden and rapid deceleration leads to phantom traffic jams discussed earlier. It’s best to maintain a consistent speed, which can only be done if you have enough space in front of you.
Give yourself time. This tip won’t necessarily prevent you from hitting traffic (unless you leave early enough to avoid it), but it will make your commute less stressful. Studies have shown that it is not necessarily the amount of time traffic consumes that causes stress, but the unpredictability of said time.
Carpool. Fewer cars on the street means less congestion. Carpooling also allows you to utilize high-occupancy vehicle lanes and bypass backed-up stretches of roadway.
Where have you experienced the worst traffic? Let us know in the comments below!
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