Traffic Congestion Impacts Economic Growth

reeSouth Florida is notorious for its traffic congestion, as anyone who has ever visited here has experienced first-hand. This is a stone-cold fact for those of us who live here and who have to slog through a morass of motor vehicles everyday while insufflating the collective miasma of noxious fumes they create. That is just a part of the South Florida lifestyle that many of us have become used to dealing with, right? (Not that it makes it an enjoyable part of life.)

More than just simple congestion, gridlock – generally referring to a vehicle or vehicles that get stuck in a traffic intersection as a result of stationary surrounding traffic – is a chronic problem in many South Florida cities. It is, therefore, a situation we all have surely found ourselves in at one time or another in our driving careers. In South Florida, however, it seems to have taken on an expanded meaning.

The term is often used conversationally to imply the hindrance of progress of any type; however, over the last few years, many cities in our fair region seem to be suffering from a form of economic gridlock, changing our traditional understanding of the term. Stay with me here because this may sound terribly contradictory, but sometimes prosperity ends up stifling economic growth. As strange as that may sound, that seems to be what is occurring here – economic gridlock which stems from the very literal gridlock that comes from the inundation of traffic.

Based upon a recent survey conducted by the Miami Herald, the last three or four years have seen tremendous expansion in Florida. Obviously population growth and a continued influx of people moving to the area are two major factors for this expansion. However, another significant cause of this expansion is the inevitable, if somewhat slow-moving, recovery from our most recent recession.

It is unquestionably part of the economic cycle of a recession or depression that there will eventually be an uptick in the economy. When this occurs, the job market rebounds, unemployment falls, lay-offs cease, and spending increases. As such, we frequently find that traffic increases substantially. After all, more people are commuting to work and are more willing to spend money on things that seem frivolous during times of financial stress.

Much of the data gleaned by the survey showed that this explosion of traffic that has occurred in just a few short years and is closely aligned with the prosperity of the area. Unfortunately, it also draws a parallel between the economic boom that has occurred since the last recession and a reduction of financial growth among many urban businesses.

Think about what the downtown areas of most major Florida cities have to offer. Nightclubs, hotels, art centers, world-class shopping – these are all industries that draw people to metropolitan areas not just from miles around, but even from other regions or states. It’s fun, exciting, and where all the action seems to be occurring. You know – bright lights, big city and all of that – but the problems come in when the population exceeds the metro area’s ability to accommodate the masses; especially when those masses usually arrive in cars.

Any trip to “downtown” usually takes quite a bit of planning, especially as far as time management goes. Many of us may like the excitement that awaits us, but the headache of getting there can be off-putting. Now, most of you may be thinking about the challenges that parking downtown present, but there is much more to consider than just limited parking or poor parking choices.

With an ever-expanding attempt to keep up with demand, there are very few city centers that are not undergoing construction as the infrastructure scrambles to not just keep up with demand, but to, in fact, catch up with it. This widening of roads, construction of adequate parking lots or garages, installation of traffic lights, et cetera are all projects that frequently take a long time to plan and implement. This becomes problematic when demand due to growth exceeds the time to complete these projects.

The resulting disparity leads to a lot of frustration; consequently, sometimes drivers decide that it is just not worth the hassle to drive downtown, struggle to find a place to park, ensure they have the correct funds for parking, and navigate around construction projects just to catch the 10 percent off sale at ‘Bob’s Boot Barn’. When you factor in that housing is much more difficult to find and much less affordable the closer you get to metro areas, a long commute to these downtown businesses becomes even less attractive.

According to the Herald’s survey, many employers feel that extended commute times for employees that result from overwhelming traffic also have a significant influence on the health of their businesses. Well-qualified employees may be hesitant to commute from suburban areas to work in downtown, or if they do so, employers must be able to offer incentives to entice better qualified employees. These incentives may include benefits or salaries which the business may not be able to afford, or at the very least, cut deeply into the profits, therefore the financial health, of the company.

Heavy traffic can also often be the cause of habitual lateness on the part of employees, according to the survey. The average commute time in many major South Florida cities has increased to just over 30 minutes which is five minutes longer than the national average. You may be thinking, “Well, that’s only five more minutes,” but keep in mind that is ten minutes a day and equals nearly an hour a week that is added to the drive time of South Florida drivers.

This makes it easy to understand the frustration of so many drivers, leading them to make poor driving decisions that result in traffic tickets, especially speeding tickets. Ask any police officer what excuse he hears most when he pulls over a driver who was speeding, and he will invariably tell you that the driver stated he or she was running late for work.