World's Worst Traffic Jams
Next time you’re sitting in traffic, think about the 60-mile-long traffic jam in China that lasted for an incredible 10 days last August. Motorists on the Beijing-Zhangjiakou highway slept in their vehicles, while vendors from nearby towns set up impromptu markets and performances to relieve the volcanic levels of road rage.
While this was extreme, traffic jams are nothing new. Even ancient Rome had them. In fact, Julius Caesar grew so incensed by them that he declared a daytime ban on carts and chariots. But the emperor’s forward-thinking decree solved nothing; modern cities continue to be blighted with the rush-hour crush.
Of course, “crush” is a relative term. While many cities have heavy rush-hour traffic, the volume on some roads can reach stifling levels, even during “off” hours. So which cities have it worst?
To find out, we collated data from the Texas Transport Institute, the IBM 2010 Commuter Pain Survey, and GPS manufacturers TomTom and INRIX. Some measured delay time, while some monitored bottlenecks. Others attempted to put into data the aggravation felt by drivers at wasting their lives behind the wheel.
As Michael Manville, professor at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA, explains, many of the most obvious congested cities simply lack good data. But places like Cairo hardly need it. “The traffic signals in Cairo behave more like aesthetic devices. Nobody really stops at red lights or goes at green lights. Drivers just all wade in together,” says Manville.
In the U.S. and Europe, the data are far better. In 2009 alone, Americans wasted 4.2 billion hours and $87.2 billion in fuel while stuck in traffic, according to the Texas Transport Institute’s “Urban Mobility Report.” Still, it paints a rather murky picture of exactly what the problem is and how to solve it. “People tend to focus on how long it takes to get somewhere in congested conditions compared to free-flow conditions, but that only captures one dimension of travel,” says Manville.
Traffic-flow scientists draw on everything from fluid dynamics to quantum physics to free up our roads. Even then, their efforts often fall short: “ghost traffic jams” appear and disappear without any apparent cause.
Yet to travelers, some of the world’s worst cities for traffic jams are also the most exciting. The endless parade of cabs, rickshaws, mopeds, buses, cyclists, and elephants are often part of the vibrant (and sometimes infuriating) tapestry of travel.
Still, no matter how long your delay, consider this: the longest traffic jam on earth (according to Guinness World Records) occurred in 1980, with the gridlock stretching 109 miles between Lyon and Paris (two cities, incidentally, that did not make our list).
The following cities may be congested, but let’s face it: we wouldn’t and (if Caesar has taught us anything) probably couldn’t have it any other way.
Mexico City has been a boomtown since the 1968 Olympic Games. In just four decades the population has gone from 5 to 22 million people. Set in a valley and intertwined with an inadequate road system, the city has a topography similar to L.A.’s and presents similar pollution and traffic issues. Respondents to a survey done by IBM (a poll of 8,192 people in 20 major cities worldwide) rated Mexico City 99 out of 100 as having the world’s most painful commute. Instead, take the Metro; it carries five million people a day—as many as New York’s subway—and has special carriages for women.
If you can get caught in a traffic jam at 4 a.m. in New York (and you can), then just imagine what Midtown rush hour is like. And it doesn’t get much better outside of Manhattan: New York takes the honor of being home to four of the five worst bottlenecked roads in the U.S.—three of which include the westbound Cross Bronx Expressway. Yet another reason to love the aging subway.
What’s the most congested city in Europe? If you guess Rome, you’d be wrong. According to satellite-navigation manufacturer TomTom, it’s Brussels. The company examined speed data from more than 30 million units currently in service, and Brussels came in as the most congested of 59 European cities. (Rome ranked No. 14.) The reason is simple: lots of cars. The World Atlas of Atmospheric Pollution ranks Luxembourg as having the second-highest rate of car ownership next to the U.S., and lots of commuters border-hop. In fact, there are two million commuters to the downtown area every day, and residents are outnumbered by vehicles three to one. Put simply, Brussels is a bottleneck.
Development is rapidly being outpaced by car ownership in Bangkok, and the notorious traffic jams can occur at any time of day. Generally, afternoon rush hour starts at 3:30 p.m. when school gets out and continues until dinnertime. Monsoon rains make matters worse, as much of Bangkok is at sea level. The streets—many of which were originally canals—flood, and Bangkok returns to the name by which it was once known: Venice of the East. Fortunately, an elevated train makes life a little easier, as does a 100–300 percent tax on new vehicles is aimed at reducing traffic.
A full 43 percent of all IBM respondents claimed that stop-start traffic was the most frustrating aspect of their commute (more than crawling at a snail’s pace). They also said this type of traffic was most noticeable in Jo’burg. The infuriating trickle of traffic, coupled with an inadequate rail structure and a population likely to double from 7 million to 14 million within the next four years, has brought the city to a grinding halt.
Moscow is in a class of its own. Drivers in the IBM study reported the average delay being 2.5 hours, with more than 40 percent of respondents claiming to have been stuck in traffic for more than three hours. By contrast, 25 percent of the commuters surveyed in Buenos Aires (a city of similar size) reported never having been stuck.
The appearance of the City of Angels on this list won’t shock anyone—after all, who in this city walks anywhere? According to the Texas Transport Institute’s “Urban Mobility Report,” residents of Los Angeles wasted 485 million hours and consumed 367 million gallons in excess fuel at a total cost of roughly $10.3 billion while stuck in traffic jams every single year. That’s 70 hours a year on top of the normal commute—pretty impressive given that some people don’t even get this much vacation time.
Every day, more Beijingers abandon the bicycle and embrace the motor vehicle…to the tune of 1,900 new cars a day. In 1997, when the city saw the one millionth car hit the streets, few could have foreseen that number reaching four million in a decade. Urban planners certainly didn’t. The asthmatically narrow roads and booming economy have driven authorities to ban alternate-number license plates from entering congestion zones on weekdays. Yet while Beijing scored very high on IBM’s commuter pain survey, 16 percent of respondents felt that, overall, the congestion was getting better.
It’s the urban sprawl of Delhi that has aggravated the congestion. People drive farther in stop-start traffic (the joint category leader along with Johannesburg), and for half a century the population has increased by 50 percent every decade—a trend showing no signs of abating. While Delhi’s street life is certainly colorful, all the exhaust fumes can be quite dizzying. To combat this, authorities declared in 1993 that all public vehicles run on compressed natural gas.
Warsaw may come as a surprise; according to TomTom, it’s the second-most congested city in Europe. This city of 3.5 million is at the gridlocked crossroads of Eastern and Western Europe, and more companies are opening offices here than in any other city in Europe. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, for now, Warsaw has no city bypasses. (That will change when a new ring road opens in 2012.) For the visitor, an ever-growing subway and tram network alleviates the stress a little.
Residents of São Paulo feel stressed. This prosperous metropolis is the 10th-richest city on the planet, but with a haphazard labyrinth of streets, 20 million people, 8.5 million vehicles, and carjackings and petty crime to boot…who could blame them for their stress level? The IBM survey found that 55 percent of São Paulo commuters felt stressed as a result of the growing congestion. (Even commuters in Delhi were comparatively unfazed.) Wealthy residents have discovered a way to rise above such concerns: they fly. São Paulo has one of the highest helicopter ownership rates on the planet.
For urban planners, London is a beacon of hope. Granted, the city center is still overcrowded with vehicles (TomTom ranked it No. 4), but the congestion is spread out over more of the road infrastructure for a longer duration. The London Congestion Charge, introduced in 2003, charges drivers eight British pounds a day to use congested areas during peak periods.
Maybe everyone’s gazing out their car windows at Chicago’s legendary architecture. It would help explain Chicago’s awful traffic jams, which include America’s second-worst single bottleneck (at the junction of the Dan Ryan Expressway and Canalport Avenue/Cermak Road). This ignominious gridlock contributes to 189 million hours, 129 million gallons of excess fuel, and $4.2 billion of wasted resources. Thankfully, Chicago has The Loop.
Cairo may well be the only city in the Middle East with a subway, but it also has camels, cows, carts, and 20 million people. “Signals are an effective way to fight traffic congestion, but you have to get people to obey them,” says Michael Manville, professor at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA. Another problem? The lack of rain worsens pollution from the old cars, since the atmosphere is not cleansed by the water vapor.
The theory: motorcycles are the ideal solution to mobilizing the masses. But Jakarta throws cold water on that theory. Indonesia’s capital has 6.5 million motorbikes and just 2 million cars, yet still the congestion is deplorable. “Motorcycles can slow down the flow even more because it introduces another element that is hard to predict,” says UCLA professor Michael Manville. To help alleviate the clogged arteries, the government’s considering a plan to stagger school and work hours.