Traffic congestion

Posted: 26 January 2008

In 1998, a consultation paper by the UK government on fighting traffic congestion and pollution through road user and parking charges estimated that 1.6 billion hours were lost by drivers and passengers on Great Britain's roads due to congestion in 1996: 80 per cent in urban areas. London, in fact, has been forced to ask motorists entering the city centre to pay a congestion tax of £8 (US$15).

Crisis of mobility

  • In Los Angeles, USA, a study by the Texas Transportation Institute says that hours lost by a peak-time traveler per year on road travel has increased from 47 in 1982 to 136 in 2000. The city also loses US$ 14,635 million per year due to traffic congestion.
Across the world, the desire to travel more and faster has grown with the surge in economies. While it has reached a plateau in developed nations, developing countries today account for more than 95 per cent of this growth, says Mobility 2001: World Mobility at the End of the Twentieth Century and its Sustainability, a report by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. According to the World Bank, motor vehicle ownership and use in developing countries is growing even faster than populations.
  • According to Mobility 2001, between 1950 and 1997, the global automobile fleet increased from 50 to 580 million vehicles. Developing countries, with about 85 per cent of the world's population, had only about 25 per cent of those vehicles (see table: Rich nations have too many cars). But with rapid economic growth, these countries are now adding vehicles to their existing fleets at rates as high as 10-30 per cent per year, compared to below 5 per cent for developed countries.
Traffic in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Credit: FAO

Rich nations have too many carsDeveloping nations want the same

Country 

Numbers of cars (in thousands)

Per capita GDP(2)(in US dollars PPP)

Number of vehicles per 1,000 people(5)US         132,432(1)35,600740Japan62,438(1)26,100640Germany  42,840(1)25,900570Italy    32,453(1)25,100 N AFrance 28,060(1)24,400520UK 25,029(1)24,500410Spain    17,449(1)20,100NACanada  14,952(3)27,700NABrazil      13,827(3)7,400190Russia    13,639(3)8,300NAAustralia 9,981(4)24,000610Korea     7,908(3)4,000 32China     5,106(3)4,30021India      4,565(3)2,50030Sources: 1. Transport Statistics of Great Britain, 2002; 2. CIA World Factbook, 2002; 3. Automotive Industry 2001 and beyond, 2001; 4. Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, 2003; 5. E A Vasconcellos, Urban Transport, Environment and Equity — the Case for Developing Countries, Earthscan Publications Ltd, London, 2001


  • Cities bear the brunt of the mobility crisis. In India, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore account for about 5 per cent of the nation's population, but 14 per cent of its total registered vehicles. About 50 per cent of automobiles in Iran, Kenya, Mexico and Chile chug in their capital cities. Weekday traffic speeds reportedly average 9 kilometres per hour (km/hr) or less in Seoul and Shanghai, 10 km/hr or less in Bangkok and Manila, and 17 km/hr or less in Kuala Lumpur and São Paolo.

  • The economic costs are formidable: Bangkok loses up to 6 per cent of its economic production - in terms of money - to congestion; in Brazil, congestion increases public transport operating costs by 10 per cent in Rio de Janeiro and by 16 per cent in São Paulo.

    This state of affairs exists despite motorisation being still at a relatively early stage in most developing and transitional economies. Most developing countries have less than 100 cars per 1,000 people compared with 400 or more in the more industrialised nations. But they also face the danger of being transported into an extremely congested future.

The above information was extracted from The Anatomy of Congestion, published in Down to Earth (Vol 11, No 24, 2008).