Congestion and Productivity

I have railed about this before, but I think it needs a revisit. When a statistician says something costs billions in lost productivity, what does it really mean. For instance. We are told that congestion costs around $280 billion a year. I know that they mean in “lost productivity.”

A friend is writing a piece for a scholarly journal and opens with with the number above. He is attempting to get our attention by giving us a concrete way to gauge the problem. Its a good writing ploy. But is he only fooling us to get our attention.

Instead of sitting on the 405 listening to Freddy Mercury sing Bohemian Rhapsody, I could be at work toiling for the man. But does that really happen?

In order to get to work by 8 am, I get up at 5 so the time I spend in congestion won’t keep me from getting to the office on time. Now, let’s wave our magic wands and have congestion go away.

Does that mean I still get up at 5? I don’t think so. I think it means that I actually now get up at six, do my normal morning chores and still make it to work by 8. Am I missing something here?

I understand that sitting in traffic is a huge frustration, causing all sorts of mental and physical ails, plus burning up fuel, polluting the atmosphere, and causing all sorts of mayhem. But if it went away, would our productivity actually increase about a quarter of a trillion a year? Human nature being what it is, I don’t think so.

That number, and thousands like it, is a way to measure the cost of a certain issue, like congestion, or a broken water main, or the fact that trains don’t run on time. That way we can get our minds around spending billions to fix the problems and see that we need to do so and justify the expense. Fair enough.

But if we ‘fix’ a problem like congestion, we are going to recoup the money spent to do so in increased productivity, it is not the same as replacing typewriters with a PC on every desk. That will enable us to do more work in less time and increase the output of work by each person.

These huge numbers are bandied about with ease (30% of all traffic is looking for parking comes to mind) but are they accurate, do they mean anything, or are they attempts to justify huge expenditures or policy changes.

I think we all know the answer to that.

All the above being said, should my friend not use the numbers to make a point. Of course he should. We need a way to get out mind around a problem. We just need to understand it for what it is.


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