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How do you put a price tag on traffic congestion? Philly says it’s in the millions.

A new study shows how much time and money the city is losing while it's sitting in Center City traffic.

Pedestrians in the shopping district of Chestnut Street around 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. Gridlock from both heavy pedestrian traffic in the shopping district and congestion has made it difficult for SEPTA's most basic service.
Pedestrians in the shopping district of Chestnut Street around 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. Gridlock from both heavy pedestrian traffic in the shopping district and congestion has made it difficult for SEPTA's most basic service.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Congestion is costing the city millions in both money and time, and is hindering worker productivity, according to a study released Monday on the harm that traffic is doing to Philadelphia.

The report from EConsult Solutions found Philadelphians using Center City streets spend 9.7 million hours a year sitting in traffic, either in private vehicles or on buses. That costs $152 million a year in time value and transportation costs, the equivalent of a $260 tax for every person in the city.

The report focused on measuring traffic in Center City, and the hot spots for congestion would be no surprise for anyone familiar with that area during the workday. Worst are the streets around City Hall and Rittenhouse Square, and the bridges over the Schuylkill. Those backups, though, reverberate throughout the city, the report found.

The congestion problem has led the city, SEPTA, and the Philadelphia Parking Authority to join together to try to find solutions. The report is the first effort to quantify a problem anyone traveling through the city’s core can see: Philadelphia’s narrow streets are becoming clogged.

“It’s important to frame as much as we can for the people the real impact of congestion so that they may realize it’s worth breaking out of,” said Mike Carroll, the city’s deputy managing director for the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability.

Responses so far have included short-term efforts, like enforcement surges to combat illegal parking and blocking the box, to more long-term plans. A new enforcement surge on Chestnut and Market Streets began this month, Carroll said.

In May, Philadelphians approved a ballot question that would allow the city to create a new class of officers to focus on traffic issues. City Council is considering increasing parking fines. And SEPTA is in the midst of coordinating with city officials on an upgraded bus network that could combine more streamlined service with street improvements, like lanes dedicated to public transit. SEPTA recently decided to design the changes with in-house staff, rather than a contractor, to speed the process, but it will likely be years before a plan is unveiled.

Philadelphia’s congestion is a consequence of the city’s success, the report stated. The city added 71,000 jobs in the last nine years, and the twin explosions of e-commerce and ride-sharing have meant more delivery trucks and other vehicles on city streets.


All that activity is slowing the city down, though, and costing money.

The city intends to launch pilots, possibly this fall, to allow delivery trucks to load and unload without obstructing traffic, Carroll said. Meanwhile, the state legislation authorizing ride-sharing in Pennsylvania must be updated this year, and the PPA and city officials plan to approach Harrisburg with recommendations for a new bill, he said. The city is considering recommending some kind of congestion fee for ride-share vehicles operating in Center City at high-congestion hours.

The EConsult report looked at the 440,000 vehicles a day that travel in a 2.3-square-mile area bracketed by Vine and South Streets, and the two rivers, to measure the effects of traffic. In that zone, travel times for private vehicles increased by 35 percent compared with free-flowing traffic by 8 a.m., and stayed that high, or higher, until it peaked at 5 p.m., when it takes about 45 percent longer to drive Center City streets than it would when they are not congested.

All that time spent sitting in traffic consumes 2.7 million additional gallons of gas, costing drivers $7.7 million a year.

For buses, the delays are even worse. For much of the work day, travel in Center City takes twice as long as when the streets are clear. Buses spend 149,000 hours a year delayed in Center City traffic, costing passengers 1.7 million hours in lost time.

“One of the things the report showed is traffic impacts buses three times more than it impacts cars because they can’t reroute,” said Erik Johanson, SEPTA’s director of innovation. “Buses are on a route.”

Cars can navigate the streets faster than buses, the report noted, which gives those who can afford a car or a trip in a ride-sharing vehicle an economic advantage over the 33 percent of Philadelphia households without access to a car.

SEPTA’s bus service is losing riders, with 14 million fewer trips taken in 2018 than the year before, in part due to competition from ride-sharing, transit officials have said. Congestion requires more fuel and more buses to keep routes running on schedule, Johanson said, costing the agency $15.4 million. The report estimated a quarter of SEPTA’s lost riders bailed from buses due to congestion-related slowness, the equivalent of more than $5 million in lost revenue. The EConsult found ridership losses on buses that travel through Center City are twice as bad as on SEPTA’s bus network as a whole.

>>READ MORE: SEPTA keeps bleeding bus riders. It may take years to stanch the losses.

Allowing congestion to grow unchecked runs the risk of making Philadelphia a less attractive place to live, the report stated. The current state of traffic is costing the city 15,700 potential jobs and more than $1 billion in possible earnings, the study calculated, along with $58 million in city and school tax revenue.