Why congestion is a good economic sign

1:31 AM, Feb 23, 2010   |    comments
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By Larry Copeland

The historic drop in driving that began in 2007 and the dramatic decline in gridlock that accompanied it have ended, according to a report today by a firm that tracks congestion in the USA.

Using 12-month averages, the study found that driving increased by 0.3 percent in September, 0.2 percent in October, 0.3 percent in November and 0.2 percent in December over the same periods a year earlier, according to federal data.

Traffic congestion is still about two-thirds of 2007 peak levels but likely to get worse, says Rick Schuman, author of INRIX's 2009 National Traffic Scorecard. He cautions that further softening of the economy or a major hike in gas prices could cut congestion again.

"As the job situation goes, so goes congestion," he says. "If we have a recovery and we start seeing employment starting to grow, congestion will grow along with it."

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Kirkland, Washington-based INRIX collects data from 1.7 million GPS-equipped vehicles and other sources. Its findings are buttressed by Federal Highway Administration data on the miles vehicles travel on U.S. roads.

The rebound in driving and congestion is linked to the improving U.S. economy, experts say.

"Retail sales are up, the number of people filing for unemployment is up and down, but it's better than six months ago," says Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the non-partisan, libertarian Reason Foundation. He says rising toll collections around the USA are further evidence of an economy-fueled driving rebound. "More people are moving about, deciding to go back out into the world."

It's not clear whether the changes are permanent. The rebound is far from the 21 percent increase in miles driven from 1995 to 2007, says Ed McMahon, senior research fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit group that promotes innovative development.

The 2007-09 decline in driving, the steepest ever, fed a sharp drop in traffic deaths. Despite the rebound, road deaths are not expected to rise this year, says Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Among INRIX's findings:

• Despite the overall rise in congestion last year, it was down during the morning rush hour, reflecting high unemployment. Traffic was up during the rest of the day.

• Friday at 5 p.m. is still the busiest evening commute hour, the worst day and time during the week to travel.

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