I'm a New Yorker who loves Los Angeles. In no other American city is wild, raw nature so immediately accessible. One can be hiking deep in a canyon, hearing only the sounds of birds, within a half hour from almost every part of the city. Yet a week ago I was stuck for two hours in a traffic jam trying to go five miles. I could have been relaxed and walked to my destination in that time. Instead, I was stressed and felt like I was having a heart attack. According to a report published by the Texas Traffic Institute, Americans spend a shocking average of 38 hours a year sitting in our cars, stuck in traffic - instead of attending kids' soccer games and excellent dinners and sprawled out on sofas with loved ones reading good books. And this matters because we’re not simply missing out on meaningful experience or destroying our environment; we’re literally killing ourselves sitting in our cars.
Dwight Hennessy and David Wiesenthal, at York University in Canada, investigated the influence of traffic congestion on stress and discovered that "one of the most common contributors to driver stress is traffic congestion, and most regular commuters experience some level of daily traffic congestion. Congested traffic is often interpreted as a negative event in that it tends to slow or block the attainment of goals, such as driving at a certain speed or getting to a destination at a scheduled time. Those who are forced to drive below a desired speed, especially for long distances, tend to report greater levels of stress."
The study emphasized the following: “repeated exposure to stress, without effective coping, has been linked to a series of physiological and psychological pathologies including increased heart rate, blood pressure, anxiety, and negative affect. Driver stress has also been found to influence performance, mood, and health in work and home environments."
Yikes! We knew our blood was boiling as we sat in our cars, but I had no idea the actual physical nature of the ill effects.
In a piece in New York Magazine, Lawrence Frank, a professor of urban planning at the University of British Columbia, added yet another health risk to idling in traffic: "the more you drive, the more you weigh."
The Texas Institute calculated that it costs the U.S. economy almost $78 billion per year in lost time and wasted fuel while people sit in traffic jams.
What would we do with $78 billion a year? Who knows what futuristic solutions would emerge if we launched a national competition, funded at that level of investment, to solve our transportation crisis by 2020?
Alan Pisarski, a transportation expert and the author of Commuting in America, put it this way: "Things are bad and they’re getting worse. We’ve used up the capacity that had been bequeathed to us by a previous generation, and we haven’t replaced it." I’d say the rubber has more than hit the road.
Until we make this kind of investment, you might want to plan ahead and anticipate the wait with a good audio book – learn a new language or how to meditate – it might add years to your life.