On the Road Again: Driving Decline Ends
Economic recovery is good, but increased driving and congestion is not.  How can we have both at the same time?  Photo: Atwater Village Newbie, flickr.

Economic recovery is good, but increased driving and congestion is not. How can we have both at the same time? Photo: Atwater Village Newbie, flickr.

It’s official – the historic decline in driving we’ve seen for the past two years has ended. From 2007 up to a few months ago, the economic crisis and high gas prices combined to produce some of the largest decreases in driving since the 1970s. We know that recessions lead to reduced driving, but still, these numbers along with the increased transit ridership we saw gave sustainable transportation advocates hope that we were witnessing a paradigm shift. The drop in miles driven even continued as gas prices plummeted in the fall of 2008. As the Boston Globe reported at the time:

“The fact that the trend persists even as gas prices are dropping confirms that America’s travel habits are fundamentally changing,” Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said.

While driving declined, subways, buses, commuter rail, and light-rail systems have reported record increases in ridership. Amtrak, the nation’s intercity passenger railroad, said it carried the highest number of passengers and brought in the most revenue in fiscal 2008 in its 37-year history.

The hope of a fundamental travel behavior shift faded a little with the release of INRIX’s 2009 National Traffic Scorecard today.

DRIVING AGAIN

The study found that driving increased by 0.3% in September, 0.2% in October, 0.3% in November and 0.2% in December over the same periods a year earlier. Traffic congestion is still about two-thirds of the peak levels it hit in 2007, but it will likely rise as economic recovery continues, the study says.

Increased driving and traffic may be a sign of economic recovery, which is obviously a good thing. And with more people going back to work, more driving is inevitable. But the growth in public transit ridership that took place as miles driven fell leads us to believe that some motorists shifted to transit. We must take advantage of the interest of these people in trying transit. It is crucial that transit agencies and the federal government make their best efforts to retain these riders by adequately funding existing systems and focusing on efforts that coordinate land use and transportation planning.

CRAMMED CITIES

The INRIX report also ranks the 100 most congested metro areas and 100 worst traffic bottlenecks in the United States by analyzing data from billions of discrete “GPS-enabled probe vehicle” reports, covering the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas and nearly all of the major roadways. The top three most congested cities remained the same as last year – Los Angeles, New York and Chicago – and Washington, D.C. moved up two spots to number 4.

One of INRIX’s most interesting results of the study is the “Peak Period Travel Time Tax.” For example, in D.C., this travel time tax is 22.4%. In other words, according to the study, the average Washington commuter spends 22.4% more time traveling than if the roads were not congested. That’s a serious chunk of time. If an economist valued it, it would surely be worth a considerable amount of money, and that doesn’t include the dollars lost on gas while idling in traffic. It would be interesting to compare these costs to the amount each resident would spend on road tolls or a tax bump that would fund higher quality transit. This comparison could show commuters the real benefits of smarter transportation systems.

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