Fewer Jobs + Expensive Gas = Less Cars on the Road

How about some transportation trivia? What do you get when you mix low employment with high gas prices? Less drivers on the road. Actually, a whole lot less, according to a study released Tuesday by INRIX showing that traffic congestion dropped by a whopping 30% in the U.S. in 2011 following two years of modest increases in 2009 (1%) and 2010 (10%).

In it’s fifth annual Traffic Scorecard, INRIX data showed that 70 of the top 100 most populated cities in the country showed decreases, with Honolulu, L.A. and San Francisco showing the highest decreases—also the cities where the gas prices exceeded the national average at their peak in April 2011.

“Americans are driving less and spending less fueled by gas prices and a largely jobless recovery,” said Bryan Mistele, INRIX president and chief executive officer.

Now back to INRIX, which determines decreases in congestion based on how many hours cars spent stuck in traffic -- what they refer to as “wasted hours.”

For instance, last year drivers in Honolulu “wasted” 58 hours in traffic, compared to nearly 80 wasted hours in 2010. That’s a substantial decrease, but in Hawaii those are hours could have been spent surfing, taking a long walk on the beach after a hard day’s work, or sipping a Mai Tai.

INRIX’s data shows that nationwide, Americans traveling the nation’s worst traffic corridors (of the worst 10, four are in Los Angeles, four in New York, one in Pittsburgh and one in San Francisco) experience up to 60 hours of delay annually on their afternoon commutes alone. Time that could have been spent with kids, spouses, walking the dog, preparing an evening meal, and generally improving your standard of living.

Great news that there were less cars on the road last year—good for the environment, less traffic for commuters, less “wasted” time, fewer resources used, but at the expense of job losses and high gas prices—highlighting our dependency on fossil fuels.

We need a transportation system that gives us choices besides being stuck in traffic “a little less” every year due to a collapsed economy. According to INRIX, “If you happen to drive any of the Top 10 Worst Corridors during rush hour you spend nearly three weeks per year stuck in traffic, and could ride a bicycle faster than you could drive your car to work.”

Sure, gas prices have dropped recently -- leading perhaps to an uptick in the number of people hitting the highways for the Memorial Day holiday weekend -- but we all know that higher gas prices are here to stay. So the secret to getting out of gridlock is to offer people more ways to get where they want to go. And that hinges on expanding our nation's travel options -- particularly public transit and walkable communities -- because when it comes to transportation, more choices means less traffic.