Traffic Congestion Hits Employees Hard
Congestion—not the nasal kind, but the traffic delay kind—is a significant stress factor for American employees. A new analysis of traffic conditions in 494 urban areas across the United States, including Minneapolis-St. Paul, illustrates why U.S. workers and their employers lose billions of dollars and chalk up significantly higher blood pressures each year.
The 2019 Urban Mobility Report, a fascinating study by Texas A&M University, shows why auto commuters in large metro areas, such as the Twin Cities, face significantly greater traffic delays than they did even three years ago.
As the report, backed by funding from the Texas Department of Transportation, makes clear, the depressing onslaught of congestion does not take into account crashes, construction, bad weather, and special events, such as a Twins or Vikings game.
The old saw of “two Minnesota seasons: winter and road construction” is not the only, or even main, culprit for Minnesotans’ ever-lengthening commutes. Rather, our state is part of a national urban pattern, according to the research scientists and engineers who painstakingly compiled each city’s traffic statistics, ranging from Los Angeles (more than 3 million people) to Mankato (fewer than 500,000). Congestion is not, in other words, just a big city problem.
In Minneapolis, commuters in 2017 experienced an annual yearly average of 71 hours of extra travel time, a road network that was congested for up to six hours of the average workday, and a “congestion tax” of $1,330, meaning a personal cost of that amount to the driver.
Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have successfully encouraged and funded developers to reuse urban land, or “infill,” with high-rise projects that have attracted millennials and retired baby boomers. These residents favor walkable neighborhoods, coffee shops in their buildings, and, presumably, mass transit. But the bulk of the active workforce still has to drive a car to a job downtown or to a different suburb or, in the increasingly endangered manufacturing sector where a worker shortage is a huge problem, to an outstate city 70 miles from the IDS Center.
Cities the size of Minneapolis, its suburbs, and its exurbs require commuters to add significant time to a “typical” 20-minute commute, according to the Texas transportation experts. The “typical” label in the traffic world means a drive when there are few other cars on the road. The average trip time takes longer at any time of the day, namely 26 minutes in the morning and 28 minutes during the evening peak.
For “urgent” trips, when the driver absolutely can’t be late–—for example, to catch a plane or, as the Urban Mobility Report wisely noted, to pick a child up from day care—the planning time, or cushion, for cities like Minneapolis spikes to 33 minutes in the morning and 36 minutes during the evening rush hour. In reality, there is no 20-minute commute for most workers in the Minneapolis metro area.
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How does this translate for metro drivers commuting each day to their jobs? Using various online GPS services, four Minnesota cities chosen at random cite the following drive times to downtown Minneapolis in normal traffic:
- Lakeville: 34 minutes (25.2 miles)
- Buffalo: 44 minutes (37.8 miles)
- Elk River: 41 minutes (34.6 miles)
- Hudson, Wisconsin: 32 minutes (27.9 miles)
The Texas engineers extrapolated a freeway planning time index (PTI) that represents a total travel time that should be planned for a trip for the commuter to be late for only one work trip per month. Minneapolis has, by their calculations, a PTI of 1.61 (Washington, D.C., by contrast, is 2.27.) Using that index, the one-way commute time during evening rush hour, if one had to be home for, say, a spouse’s surprise birthday party, would look more like this:
- Lakeville: 55 minutes
- Buffalo: 1 hour, 11 minutes
- Elk River: 1 hour, 6 minutes
- Hudson, Wisconsin: 51 minutes
Most commuters innately engage in this planning, considering themselves incredibly lucky if their drive turns out to be shorter. You won’t, however, see these numbers in most Realtor’s home sale brochures.
The mobility report offers suggestions for congestion relief, including classic solutions such as expanded public transportation, high-speed tolls, and “connected” vehicles that communicate with each other. The “battle of the curb,” or the curb space on urban streets where freight delivery vehicles jockey with cars, buses, and Uber drivers, is characterized as an irritating problem exacerbated by the on-time promise of parcel deliveries. Thanks, Amazon.
But for employers, on whom a growing economy depends, the congestion crisis first needs to be acknowledged as a burden for workers and then needs to be accommodated. Flexible work schedules are a good start, as is the realization that when a worker leaves the office at 5:30 p.m., she is not suddenly “free” while others continue toiling at their cubicles. Rather, she is most likely beginning the ugliest, most stressful part of her day.
Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney. Holstein also mediates employment and business law disputes (holsteinmediation.com).