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Driving down in 2008, congestion down much more

Interstate 24 Traffic Originally uploaded by Transportation for America

Due to the impact of high gas prices, the economic slowdown, and a growing preference for public transportation and other options for getting around, congestion was down in 2008 over 2007, marking the first two-year decrease in congestion since the Texas Transportation Institute began keeping track in 1982. Today, TTI released their bi-annual Urban Mobility Report today on the state of congestion and traffic in the U.S.

Some key findings:

Travelers spent one hour less stuck in traffic in 2007 than they did the year before and wasted one gallon less gasoline than the year before. The differences are small, but they represent a rare break in near-constant growth in traffic over 25 years.

  • The overall cost (based on wasted fuel and lost productivity) reached $87.2 billion in 2007 — more than $750 for every U.S. traveler.
  • The total amount of wasted fuel topped 2.8 billion gallons — three weeks’ worth of gas for every traveler.
  • The amount of wasted time totaled 4.2 billion hours — nearly one full work week (or vacation week) for every traveler.

One cause of the decrease in congestion is the same cause responsible for the lower numbers of highway fatalities — Americans have been driving less and less. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) growth rates have been in decline since 2005 and in 2007, total VMT and per capita VMT actually decreased for the first time since World War II. High gas prices and the recent economic downturn have contributed to these declines, but VMT was actually in decline well before the shock of increased gas prices and the recession, and has continued to fall even as gas prices plummeted over the last year.

And while total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) went down just slightly, congestion is down much more significantly.

According to Feburary numbers from INRIX, a reputable traffic statistics service, just a 3.7% drop in vehicle miles traveled in 2008 resulted in a 30% drop in congestion in our 100 most congested metro areas. That means each commuter spent 13 less hours stuck in traffic in 2008 over the previous year. And in slight contrast to the TTI report, the report found that overall, “99 of the top 100 most populated cities in the U.S. experienced decreases in traffic congestion levels in 2008 as compared to the prior year.” Small reductions in how much we drive each year have a much larger impact on congestion.

The best way to reduce congestion and help Americans save money, time and fuel is to get smarter about managing traffic and offer increased options such as public transportation, telecommuting and incentives for carpooling, bicycling and walking. There is ample evidence that shows that reducing peak hour traffic by just a small percentage will dramatically reduce congestion and all of the costs associated with traffic.”
— James Corless, T4 America

There’s no doubt that the sagging economy had a hand in reducing how much we drive. But regardless of the current economy, most Americans seem to be looking for ways to drive less — not more. So what if we invested more in the positive ways to reduce the amount we have to drive by making other options for getting around accessible, convenient, and available to more people?

With public transportation ridership still going up — even as driving is going down — it’s clear that people who have choices for getting around use them. People are looking for other convenient ways to travel that can get them out of traffic and save them time and money.

And as the INRIX numbers show, if we can make it easier to get around and increase the options for doing so, everyone behind the wheel benefits as congestion decreases. (And despite the decrease overall, the current $87 billion in congestion costs isn’t good news, by any stretch of the imagination.)

It’s unquestionable that the recession has had an impact, giving us some momentary slack in congestion. But what will we do with the breather? When the economy begins to pick back up again and people start driving more, will we head straight back into gridlock? With driving down and public transportation up, will we make more investments in the kinds of transportation options people are clamoring for, the kinds of options that can reduce congestion and make travel more painless for everyone?

Or will congestion simply mount as the economy rebounds?