Highway Congestion and Transportation Engineering Solutions

Highway Congestion and Transportation Engineering Solutions to Alleviate This Problem: Past, Present, Future

Traffic congestions have become a headache for residents of many cities in contemporary America. It especially concerns highway congestion. The United States is a country that suffers the most from this issue. Daily getting into a jam on the way to and from work, the endless delays on the highways at the beginning of the holidays – highway congestion has become an eternal damnation to the US motorists. Besides, highway congestions not only violate plans, they are the main source of air pollution that adversely affects the health of people. There are also economic costs associated with lost hours (working and non-working) in congestions and delayed deliveries.

Naturally, the problem is not new. Highway congestions started many years ago, and continue to gather momentum. And at each period of time, there were and will be different transportation engineering solutions used to alleviate this problem with different levels of success. Thus, this paper explores the highway congestion in the past, present, and future, as well as the transportation engineering solutions used to alleviate existing problem in order to better understand the issue and find the best ways to improve it.



Congestion is not new. It predates the industrial revolution, the motor vehicle, and the modern city. It was common in ancient time, in 17th century London, and in 19th century New York (Falcocchio & Levinson, 2015). The markets, ports, and city centers of previous years were all crowded and congested.

The highway congestion appeared with the development of motor vehicles in the first half of the twentieth century. The 1930s and 1940s were characterized by continued growth in automobile traffic congestion on radial highways leading to or within the city center (Falcocchio & Levinson, 2015).

The highway congestion in and around US city centers became more spread in the years following WWII. The further urbanization had led to greater congestions. Therefore, during the car boom in the middle of the twentieth century, there was only one solution, namely building more and wider roads (Moskvitch, 2014). Thus, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized building more than 40 thousand miles of high-speed roads that should link almost all cities with 50 thousand citizens or more as well as many smaller cities by 1972 (Falcocchio and Levinson, 2015). The congestion problem was finally alleviated due to the creation of freeways. Many cities built radial freeways with central area freeway loops that diverted through traffic from city streets (Falcocchio & Levinson, 2015). However, the closeness and the similarity of the routes, as well as lane balance and other issues contributed to the recurring of the problem that was very acute for many years.

As a result, the delays per driver reached 25 hours per year on average in 1989; the fuel “wasted” due to congestion reached 1 billion gallons; and the costs reached $62 billion adjusted for inflation as of 2014 (Shrank et al., 2015). Besides, in 1980, the difference between vehicle-miles traveled and lane-miles for interstate and arterial highways in urban areas was almost unnoticed but has grown rapidly in the course of time. However, the numbers were not huge comparing with the present ones due to smaller population, traffics that prevail more on the city streets, and lower number of automobiles.


The only transportation engineering solution to alleviate the existing problem of highway congestions of that time was to create new roads, add lanes to the highways, and built express roads called freeways (Moskvitch, 2014). At the first point, the problem was alleviated. A 1970 study of mobility in some 17 cities found that traffic speed increased in 13 cities and decreased in four. Speeds increased by more than 15% in 8 cities and decreased by more than 15% in only two (Falcocchio & Levinson, 2015). Besides, in Los Angeles, off-peak travel times reduced to 7 minutes, though the number of motor vehicle registration has tripled in 1936-1967. Additionally, freeways had dramatically reduced traffic on local streets as in S. Figueroa Street (from 45,000 vehicles in 1955 to 13,500 vehicles in 1958). Moreover, the traffic speeds increased by more than 20% in Boston and New York (Falcocchio & Levinson, 2015).

However, it was only a tip of the iceberg. Ultimately, this transportation engineering solution did not work, though people did not realize it at that time (Moskvitch, 2014). In the last few decades, traffic engineers have discovered that mankind is not able to build their way out of congestion. IThe roads themselves cause traffic. It is called an induced demand; the increased supply of something (in this case, lanes) that makes people wish it more. However, in the past, the policymakers and scientists did not fully realize it (Norton, n.d.). Thus, the recent study that compared the number of highways built and the amount of miles driven in the US in 1980-2000 years found perfect one-to-one relationship. If the highway capacity increased by 10% in 1980-2000 years, then the numbers of miles driving on those highways also increased by 10% (Norton, n.d.).

Congestion cannot be alleviated by adding new lanes to the highways to satisfy the current demand or by adding new lanes to satisfy the future demand. The only way to get rid of congestion is to meet the potential demand. However, no efforts were made to restrict the demand or to charge the full cost for using the urban highways at least (Norton, n.d.). Thus, the demand increased, and congestion remained stubborn.



The highway congestion issue has further grown and accelerated since twentieth century and is currently very large; it has never been worse. The delays per driver reached 42 hours per year on average in 2014; that is about 70% increase. Besides, fuel “wasted” in congestions increased to 2.1 billion gallons by 2014 (Sullivan, 2016). Moreover, almost thirty million metric tons of carbon dioxide is emitted currently in the highway congestions, that is more than 200% increase over the last twenty-five years. Besides, almost 2% of all carbon dioxide emissions are connected to motor fuel consumption (Sullivan, 2016). Thus, in 2014, congestions on highways induced urban US citizens to travel almost seven billion additional hours and purchase more than three billion additional gallons of fuel (Shrank et al., 2015). Moreover, the travelers have to be on the road twenty eight minutes earlier compared to usual, non-congested traffic hours just in order to be in time (Shrank et al., 2015). Generally, freeways have smaller delay rates than streets. Only near 40% of delays occur on freeways, and almost 35% of those delays are off-peak in the urban areas with more that 1 million of citizens (Shrank et al., 2015). Freeway delay is much less problem in areas with the population under 1 million.

  • Travel Time Index – the ratio of time spent in the peak hours to time spent in the off-peak hours.
  • Delay per Commuter – the additional time spent in congestions during the year by those who usually travel in the peak hours.
  • Fuel Wasted – additional fuel consumed in congestions.
  • Total Cost – the value of delayed hours and wasted fuel by all types of transport.

There are many facts contributing to the problem. First of all, the U.S. population has increased by more than 30% since 1970, the amount of licensed drivers has increased by more than 60 %, the amount of registered vehicles has increased by 90%, and the miles traveled by motor transport has increased by more than 130 % (FHWA, 2008). However, the road miles have increased by only 6% in total (Mailto and Morgan, 2015). Additionally, the average daily vehicle-distance travelled each year has increase by 100-200 million miles (FHWA, 2015). Besides, the employment increased by more than 500,000 jobs from 2013 to 2014 causing more people in need for transportation. Thus, according to the CEO of the American Highway Users Alliance, it all resulted into much more people driving more vehicles and more miles on almost the same highway system in size as in the past (Mailto and Morgan, 2015).


There are several transportation engineering solutions that are currently used to alleviate the modern problem of highway congestions. First of all, in contrast to adding new roads and lanes by policymakers in the past, they take them away nowadays. The effect works in the opposite direction (Norton, n.d.). When policymakers propose to take away some lanes from the highways, the public started to resent because it is going to increase congestions even more. However, various data shows it is the case. Indeed, the traffic just adjusts. Thus, in San Francisco, a highway section that carried near one hundred thousand automobiles each day twenty five years ago carries today only 45 thousand of automobiles cars daily; and the tendency persists (Norton, n.d.). However, the problem is present; one can still be stuck on the boulevard.

Additionally, there is more effective transportation engineering solution that is currently used is congestion pricing (Norton, n.d.). This solution involves increasing the price for driving on a highway when demand is high. Thus, during peak hours, the drivers have to pay for using the most congested highways. Consequently, many decide that it is not necessary to use the road right now. The capacity of highways is underused; they are almost empty in the early afternoons or late evenings. Further, the incentives to avoid the congestions also help to use the capacity of the highways more. This method is currently widely used in America, though it is rejected in New York and San Francisco due to voters’ opinion that do not want to pay for something that was previously free (Norton, n.d.).

Other current transportation engineering solutions are HOV lanes and HOT lanes. HOV lane (high-occupancy vehicle lane) is a traffic lane which is mostly used on highways at peak hours; it is exclusively for vehicles with two or more passengers including the driver. It is directed to increase the number of travelers in one car, thus reducing congestions and air pollution. In 2012, the number of such lanes on freeways reached 126 in 27 metropolitan areas within the US (FHA, 2012). HOV lanes are very effective from the point that in the rush hours, they increase the number of people traveled in the lower amount of vehicles as well as less time (FHWA, 2008). However, the effectiveness of HOV lanes is questionable. The positive changes are only for HOV users as congestion delay is increased for non-HOV vehicles (Varaiya, 2005).

HOT lane (high-occupancy toll lanes) involves paying a toll for using it by travelers in low- or single-occupancy vehicles that wish to avoid congestion. They are currently widely used in the US. They are better solutions that the HOV lanes because they provide capacity more efficiently, limit rush-hour demand, thus reducing the need for extra lanes on freeways, and are beneficial for both HOV-lane users and non-HOV-lane users (Poole and Orski, n.d.).
Besides, there exist a number of applications (such as Google Maps, Waze, Inrix Traffic, Beat the Traffic, and Uber) that could be downloaded to the cell phone that help to avoid congestions by informing and showing the best routes. They are currently gathering momentum.



The demographic trends of the past twenty five years are expected to continue in the next twenty five years. According to the market research of Sullivan, the population of the US will increase by 19% reaching 60 million people by 2040 (Sullivan, 2016). Additionally, the number of licensed drivers will also increase by more than forty million compared to the current numbers. Besides, the number of vehicles will also increase by 50 million reaching near 1.5 billion in annual vehicle miles traveled (Sullivan, 2016). The highway congestion is expected to increase significantly and spread beyond the large cities limits. At the same time, the will be the lack of such expansion in highway miles. Thus, the expected demographic changes of the remaining highways will contribute to the increase in delays per traveler to 72 hours per year. Drivers are going to waste about 5.3 billion gallons per year and add almost 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2040 (Sullivan, 2016). Thus, highway congestion will worsen, contributing to higher amounts of wasted fuel or carbon dioxide emissions, unless the emphasis on infrastructure spending will not be increased (Sullivan, 2016).

According to the Urban Mobility Scorecard, by 2020, the national congestion cost, or the value of delayed time and wasted fuel in other words, will increase to almost two hundred billion dollars and to $1,100 per commuter; the delay will increase to more than eight billion hours and to 47 hours per commuter; and the wasted fuel will increase to almost four billion gallons or 21 gallons per average commuter (Shrank et al., 2015).


The growing pace of technological change will be one of the major drives for the transportation engineering solutions in the future (Goulding & Morrel, 2015). The advanced technological development is able to decisively alleviate the problem of highway congestion in the United States. Besides, the US has always been at the top of the technological development.

Thus, to put an end to the congested highways, something more radical is needed. The good way is to start not from roads but from cars. Using a wireless “vehicle-to-vehicle” connection, the cars can “talk” to each other, making the traffic flow more uniform. Gábor Orosz from the University of Michigan says that in many cases, the main cause of congestion is the behavior of people (Moskvitch, 2014). People react to the movement of vehicles directly in front of them with some delay. Other drivers step on a brake too, thus enhancing the uneven flow. Therefore, as a result of the chain reaction that propagates along the transport stream, the movement stops.

However, if vehicles could communicate with each other in real time, this unevenness could be reduced. According to Orosz, the car can track the movement of five automobiles in front of it and be prepared for what will happen beforehand, such as starting to slow down earlier, but less sharply (Moskvitch, 2014). The resulting information is communicated to the driver (for example, in the form of recommendations for high-speed mode) or is used by the car management systems. Currently, Orosz manages the implementation of an experimental model of security into nearly three thousand vehicles equipped with GPS-devices. The system is transmitting the coordinates and information on the speed at which the car is going every 100 milliseconds (Moskvitch, 2014).

There are also other ideas, for instance Israeli startup, the Waze, which was bought by Google last year. It is designed for more rational use of congested roads with the help of crowdsourcing, online support community. Waze navigation app for smartphones works as a social network for drivers. It offers its users not only mobile maps, but also real-time updated information about traffic jams, road works, or accidents (Moskvitch, 2014). It is the transportation engineering solution of the future.

Another way to get rid of traffic jams in the future, as some people believe, may be the automatization of the process of driving. Google recently introduced its own prototype of a fully self-governing autonomous vehicle, which does not need a driver. According to the professor at King’s College London and one of the founders of Worldsensing, urban driving automation will allow forming columns of motor transport (denser vehicles chains) (Moskvitch, 2014). Provided that the total number of vehicles will be monitored, it will significantly reduce the number of highway jams. Others, however, believe that this will not last long since it is necessary to offer people more reasons for not using a car. According to the head of the Transport Policy Institute, the only effective long-term solution is to improve conditions for other modes of transportation: walking, cycling, and the creation of high quality public transport in particular (Moskvitch, 2014).

One of the solutions here could be an increase of the tolls if drivers go at rush hour. Stimulus, in its turn, can be an extensive public transport system: additional bus lanes, more convenient railway stations, and even such seemingly little things like cup holders and Wi-Fi in the shuttle buses. Besides, this solution can be implemented within a few months. It is common practice during major events such as the Olympics and world championships, when the cities provide the separate lanes for vehicles of athletes, coaches, and officials so that they arrive in time at the venue (Moskvitch, 2014). However, everything gets back in its place after the event. It is what should be changed in the future and become a constant thing.


Highway congestions have changed through times and are going to change as well as the transportation engineering solutions that could alleviate this problem. The reason is that the world and people are changing. Thus, in the past, the issue of highway congestion was the least acute. There was smaller population, lower employment, less spreading of cars, and the highways only begun to appear. However, the congestions were still present; moreover, they were also present even when there were no automobiles. The only transportation engineering solution was to add more roads and more lanes to the highways, but it only accelerated the problem. At the present, the highway congestion has increased strongly. People spend much time in jams. However, nowadays, there are some solutions that are more effective such as congestion pricing, HOV and HOT lanes, and various traffic applications. In the future, the population and the number of car users will increase even more, possibly contributing to the increased highway congestions. Nevertheless, the solutions will be much more effective due to the technological development; therefore, the problem could be alleviated. Finally, in general, it is better to use the combination of various transportation engineering solutions that will contribute to better results.