WASHINGTON, DC – Traffic congestion dropped 30% last year from 2010 in the USA’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, driven largely by higher gas prices and a spotty economic recovery, according to a new study by a Washington-state firm that tracks traffic flows.
That was the largest drop since the nation plunged into recession in December 2007.
Of the 100 most populous metro areas, 70 saw declines in traffic congestion while just 30 had increases, says Jim Bak, co-author of the 2011 U.S. Traffic Scorecard for Kirkland, Wash.-based INRIX.
That was a reversal of what happened in 2010, when 70 had increases in congestion and 30 had declines. Tampa had the biggest increase in congestion, and Minneapolis the biggest drop.
“We’re experiencing a stop-and-go economy right now,” Bak says. “The data indicate the country may be experiencing the jobless recovery economists warned of during the recession.”
Bak says the data show that the reduction in gridlock on the nation’s roads stems from rising fuel prices; lackluster gains in employment and modest increases in highway capacity because of construction projects completed under the federal stimulus program.
In some cases, the connection between job growth and increased congestion was clear. Cities that outpaced the national average of 1.5% growth in employment experienced some of the biggest increases in traffic congestion: Miami, 2.3% employment growth; Tampa, up 3%, and Houston, up 3.2%.
Cities that had big drops in congestion often were those that saw road construction slow considerably from 2010 to 2011 and those where gasoline prices were well above the national average at the peak in April 2011.
The decrease in congestion in Minneapolis came as the number of road projects dropped from 283 in 2010 to 258 in 2011, Bak says. “So much of the roadwork and construction that was a result of the stimulus is now completed. Construction work in general is down, as governments are reining in spending.”
Prices at the pump affected how long motorists sat in traffic. “Cities that consistently had gas prices equal to or lower than the national average, and that experienced modest job growth, were the cities that tended to have increases in congestion,” Bak says. Atlanta, which had a 2011 average gas price 20 cents less than the national average and a 1.2% growth in employment, saw the fourth-biggest jump in congestion.
The busiest morning and afternoon commute times were 8 a.m. Tuesday and 5:30 p.m. Friday, INRIX found.