What is Congestion?

Congestion is relatively easy to recognize—roads filled with cars, trucks, and buses, sidewalks filled with pedestrians. The definitions of the term congestion mention such words as “clog,” “impede,” and “excessive fullness.” For anyone who has ever sat in congested traffic, those words should sound familiar. In the transportation realm, congestion usually relates to an excess of vehicles on a portion of roadway at a particular time resulting in speeds that are slower—sometimes much slower—than normal or “free flow” speeds. Congestion often means stopped or stop-and-go traffic.

Previous work has shown that congestion is the result of seven root causes, often interacting with one another.

  1. Physical Bottlenecks (“Capacity”) – Capacity is the maximum amount of traffic capable of being handled by a given highway section. Capacity is determined by a number of factors: the number and width of lanes and shoulders; merge areas at interchanges; and roadway alignment (grades and curves).
  2. Traffic Incidents – Are events that disrupt the normal flow of traffic, usually by physical impedance in the travel lanes. Events such as vehicular crashes, breakdowns, and debris in travel lanes are the most common form of incidents.
  3. Work Zones – Are construction activities on the roadway that result in physical changes to the highway environment. These changes may include a reduction in the number or width of travel lanes, lane “shifts,” lane diversions, reduction, or elimination of shoulders, and even temporary roadway closures.
  4. Weather – Environmental conditions can lead to changes in driver behavior that affect traffic flow.
  5. Traffic Control Devices – Intermittent disruption of traffic flow by control devices such as railroad grade crossings and poorly timed signals also contribute to congestion and travel time variability.
  6. Special Events – Are a special case of demand fluctuations whereby traffic flow in the vicinity of the event will be radically different from “typical” patterns. Special events occasionally cause “surges” in traffic demand that overwhelm the system.
  7. Fluctuations in Normal Traffic – Day-to-day variability in demand leads to some days with higher traffic volumes than others. Varying demand volumes superimposed on a system with fixed capacity also results in variable (i.e., unreliable) travel times.

(sources : http://ops.fhwa.dot.gov)


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