Traffic Congestion is Hazardous to Your Health


The Transportation Construction Coalition, of which ASCE is a member, recently released a study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis on the public health cost of traffic congestion. The study, “The Public Health Costs of Traffic Congestion: A Health Risk Assessment”, found that emissions resulting from traffic congestion in the largest 83 metropolitan areas resulted in more than 2,200 premature deaths last year. Additionally, the public health cost was at least $18 billion.


Emissions from motor vehicles contain pollutants which add to air pollution. One pollutant specifically, PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) is responsible for one third of observed PM2.5 in urban areas as the result of vehicle emissions. While directly emitted from vehicles, PM2.5  can form as nitrogen oxide (NOX) or sulfur dioxide (SO2). Several studies have shown strong evidence that PM2.5 exposure has been associated with premature deaths and other health problems, specifically heart attack, strokes, asthma attacks and other respiratory issues. In the Center for Disease Control’s 2009 National Vital Statistics Report diseases of the heart was listed as the leading cause of death of death in the United States while, Cerebrovascular diseases (stroke) was fourth.


This study is the first attempt to quantify the public health implications of growing traffic congestion. The public health toll was highest in the Los Angeles area, followed by New York/New Jersey, Chicago, and San Francisco/Oakland; areas that rank high in traffic congestion as well. To make matters worse the study forecasts that in 18 metropolitan areas congestion will rise more than 30 percent by 2030.


Potential strategies to combat congestion are defined in the report and range from better traffic management through congestion pricing, traffic light synchronization, more efficient response to traffic incidents, and adding new highway and public transit capacity. The report did note that the number of premature deaths is currently declining due to low emission vehicles, but without further action could be on the rise again by 2030.


ASCE’s 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, graded roads a D- citing that collectively, Americans spend 4.2 billion hours stuck in traffic annually. With this significant amount of time stuck in traffic, inhaling noxious fumes, we should pursue improvements to our roads to relieve congestion. 


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