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Jon Bruner,
Feb 24th, 2010
The Great Recession cleared the country's roads, but a recovering economy and stimulus-fed construction projects will lead to worse delays. Got satellite radio in your car? Now might be a good time to think about installing it, as you're likely to be spending more time in traffic as the economy recovers.

Although high gas prices and lost jobs during the 2007-2009 recession led to a decrease in the number of Americans on the road, congestion is poised to increase as workers return to the nation's highways and stimulus-funded construction projects create bottlenecks. That's according to the latest National Traffic Scorecard from Inrix, a Microsoft spinoff that tracks congestion across the country using GPS data from commercial vehicles.

In Depth: America's Worst Bottlenecks
"We've turned the clock back on congestion," says Rick Schuman, the scorecard's author, pointing to the fact that 75 of the country's largest 100 metro areas had less congestion in 2009 than they did in 2006. Nevertheless, as the economy began to recover at the end of 2009, so did congestion.

What Inrix calls the "travel time tax"--the extra time added onto a typical trip because of congestion--rose from 8% to 10% between August and October 2009. Some of that change is seasonal, but much of it is linked to the GDP increases during that time, says Schuman. More congestion will likely return to the country's roads as the recovery continues.

"Employment is the biggest impetus for traffic congestion," says Schuman. "If jobs come back slowly, congestion will come back slowly. If employment snaps back, we'll be back on the old curve," he says, referring to the trend of rising congestion before 2008. In 2007, the latest year for which a figure is available, congestion cost Americans $87 billion, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

Drivers in the Los Angeles area, which has the worst traffic in the country according to the report, faced a travel time tax of 35% in 2009. That figure peaked for Los Angeles in 2007 at 45% before falling to 33% in 2008.

The travel time tax amounted to 20% in New York, 16% in Chicago, 22% in Washington, and 12% in Dallas--the other cities among the worst five in Inrix's report. Traffic congestion in all of those cities peaked in 2007 before falling dramatically in 2008 as high gas prices and then rising unemployment pushed driving down across the country.

Behind the Numbers
Inrix identifies traffic congestion by gathering location and speed data from 1.7 million commercial vehicles equipped with GPS tracking devices, as well as from state departments of transportation. By comparing that information--which amounts to billions of data points over 110,000 miles of major highways in the country's 100 largest census-defined metropolitan statistical areas--to free-flow speeds, Inrix computes its travel time tax. That index represents the percentage increase in travel time that a driver encounters during congested periods compared to travel time at free flow.

To compile this ranking, Inrix multiplied each highway segment's 2009 travel time tax by that segment's length to create a measure of likely driver pain.

Construction had a substantial impact on traffic in 2009. Every new bottleneck in Inrix's report is construction-related and, according to Schuman, at least half were related to construction funded by last year's federal stimulus program, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The results of this year's study illustrate the geographical unevenness of the recession. The Detroit area, where the auto industry's troubles have cut total employment by more than 220,000 jobs since 2007, slipped from 18th to 27th place on Inrix's ranking of city congestion (the population of its metropolitan statistical area ranks 11th in the country). With fewer workers commuting to jobs, time lost to congestion there fell by more than 30% in 2009.

Meanwhile, congestion in the Washington-Baltimore region worsened as commuters drove to new government-related jobs. That area's ranking rose to fourth place from sixth last year, and time lost to congestion increased by 10% on a typical trip.

There were no changes in the order of the top three cities--Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago--this year, however. Bottlenecks there are "matters of chronic under-capacity," says Schuman. The worst single bottleneck in the country this year was the same as last year's: New York's Cross-Bronx Expressway, which is congested for 94 hours per week on average, where it meets the Bronx River Parkway at exit 4B.

Other bottlenecks on last year's list have dropped off the top 100 entirely. In 2008 drivers in Marin County, Calif., endured the fourth-worst tie-up in the country where the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge (Interstate 580) meets Route 101. The California Department of Transportation reconfigured the interchange and widened Route 101, and weekly hours of congestion there fell from 65 to 19 in 2009.

Two big economic drivers influence congestion: Employment and gas prices. Both have seen big swings in the last two years, and through much of the recession, the two factors were opposed. The price of regular gasoline peaked above $4 per gallon in July 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration, but fell sharply over the following five months, bottoming at $1.59 at the end of December 2008.

Over the same period, the national unemployment rate rose from 5.8% to 7.4% (it finally peaked at 10.1% in October 2009). The drop in congestion in early 2008 that began as motorists confronted high gas prices continued as would-be commuters lost their jobs. "People really changed their behavior when fuel prices went up," says Schuman. "The economy didn't tank until October of 2008, but congestion was already abating because of the fuel price spike."

Inrix compiles its data in real time to find traffic jams. It also analyzes the data to find patterns in traffic and sends its findings to in-car navigation systems like those in Fords, BMWs, and Volvos, that route drivers around predicted bottlenecks.

America's Worst 5 Bottlenecks
1. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Calif.
Worst bottleneck: Hollywood Freeway/U.S. 101 Northbound at Los Angeles St.

2. New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, N.Y.-N.J.-Penn.
Worst bottleneck: Cross Bronx Expressway Westbound/Interstate 95 Southbound at Bronx River Parkway/Exit 4B

3. Chicago-Joliet-Naperville Ill.-Ind.-Wisc.
Worst bottleneck: Dan Ryan Expressway/Interstate 90/Interstate 94 Westbound at Canalport Ave./Cermak Rd./Exit 53

4. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, D.C.-Va.-Md.-W.V.
Worst bottleneck: Custis Memorial Parkway/Interstate 66 Eastbound at Virginia 267/Exit 67

5. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas
Worst bottleneck: Loop 820/Interstate 820 Westbound at Rufe Snow Dr./Exit 20

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84 Posts
we're number 1! we're number 1! we're number... wait... doh. heh

Actually I have never driven the 101 around LA.
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