WASHINGTON – Drivers are spending less time stuck in rush-hour traffic for a second straight year, the first-ever two-year decline in congestion as high gas prices and the economic downturn force many Americans to change how they commute.
In individual cities, Los Angeles traffic is getting better but is still the worst in the nation. Washington’s is getting worse, now ranking second.
The average U.S. driver languished in rush-hour traffic for 36.1 hours in 2007, down from 36.6 hours in 2006 and a peak of 37.4 hours in 2005, according to a study being released today by the Texas Transportation Institute. Total wasted fuel also edged lower for the first time, from 2.85 billion gallons in 2006 to 2.81 billion, or roughly three weeks’ worth of gas per traveler.
The records go back a quarter-century, to 1982.
The last time traffic congestion had declined was in 1991 amid a spike in oil prices during the first Gulf War.
This time, demographers attributed the decrease to a historic cutback in driving as commuters reduced solo trips, took public transit or carpooled after gas prices surged toward $4 a gallon and then the economy faltered. The housing downturn beginning in 2006 also has played a factor by reducing U.S. migration to far-flung residential exurbs.
But it won’t last, assuming the economy recovers.
“Congestion won’t be as bad as before for a while, but it will still be very frustrating, very unreliable and it will take a lot of time out of your day,” said Tim Lomax, researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute, which is part of Texas A&M University. “The average traveler still needs 25 percent more time for their rush-hour trips.”
The Los Angeles metropolitan area, with its car pool lanes and emerging mass transit, shed two hours of wait-time in rush-hour traffic. Still, its sprawling freeway system remained the nation’s worst for congestion, with drivers wasting an average of 70 hours in 2007.
Other large metro areas showing congestion declines were San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth and Seattle.
In contrast, the Washington, D.C., area had more bumper-to-bumper traffic, surpassing Atlanta as the second worst in congestion. With the Washington regional economy faring relatively well, drivers heading to work in the nation’s capital and surrounding suburbs wasted 62 hours in rush-hour traffic in 2007, up from 59 hours.
Houston, Las Vegas, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., had worse or equally bad traffic compared with the previous year, victims of a fast-growing population that outpaced roadway capacity.
The report urged state and federal governments to act now to develop highways or mass transit, since these programs can take 10 to 15 years to complete.