Traffic Hell Freezes Over

Chaos caused by an Atlanta snowstorm is just a high profile example of America’s traffic problem.

Traffic inches along the Downtown Connector as snow blankets the Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon Jan. 28, 2014.

Traffic is terrible in any weather.

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A few inches of snow and some serious ice have wreaked havoc on the Atlanta metro area (as well as large swathes of the southern U.S.), causing commuters and school buses to be trapped overnight on roads that were completely clogged. Some drivers spent more than 18 hours in traffic that had come to a standstill. Going just four miles took six hours, in some instances, and a baby was born in I-285. Thousands of commuters were still stuck this morning. (Here's a good set of photos.)

Atlanta officials are blaming the mess on "everyone exiting at the same time," as schools were simultaneously closed and businesses shut their doors early, overloading the roads. The city also is not well-prepared for the rare winter storms it experiences, nor are its drivers used to the icy conditions those storms bring.

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But while this traffic was only partly man-made, plenty of U.S. traffic has nothing to do with the weather (or with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie). According to the Texas A&M Traffic Institute, in 2011 traffic congestion cost urban Americans 5.5 billion hours – and an extra 2.9 billion gallons of fuel – for a "congestion cost" of $121 billion. That's up from $24 billion in 1982 and $94 billion in 2000, in constant 2011 dollars. "The data show that congestion solutions are not being pursued aggressively enough," the Institute said in its report. There's also evidence suggesting that congestion above a certain threshold slows job growth.

In addition to its economic costs, traffic also makes us miserable and sick. According to Gallup, "American workers with lengthy commutes are more likely to report a range of adverse physical and emotional conditions." Americans with longer commutes say they're more stressed out, have more back pain and are more likely to have been diagnosed with high cholesterol or to be obese. A 2012 study found "that the farther people commute by vehicle, the higher their blood pressure and body mass index is likely to be."

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Though it would have been little help to the people of Atlanta, as trains and buses get just as bogged down in the snow as cars, the country in general would benefit from a hefty dose of public transit to alleviate some of its traffic problems. Our rail systems are a joke compared to those in the rest of the world, whole most federal transportation money gets spent on highways, thus encouraging even more car use.  The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that deficient public transit systems will cost the U.S. economy $570 billion in 2020 and $1 trillion in 2040, if current funding trends hold. Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionally affected by these lousy transit systems.

Atlanta itself, as Slate's Matt Yglesias notes, is basically a transportation infrastructure disaster (it has the seventh worst traffic in the nation, without the snow). But the rest of the country doesn't do a whole lot better, even as Americans become less and less attached to their cars. Today it was a snowstorm that caused a crisis, but every day valuable time and resources get squandered on the same stretches of highway and many more just like it.