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Traffic Congestion Is Growing Three Times As Fast As U.S. Economy; Situation Worst In Los Angeles

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Highway traffic

Highway traffic

When it comes to predicting and tracking traffic trends, INRIX is the go-to authority. The company says that traffic congestion surged in 2013, growing over three times as fast as the U.S. economy.

According to INRIX, traffic in the U.S. reversed two consecutive years of declines with a six percent increase in 2013. The country's GDP, by comparison, grew 1.9 percent last year. INRIX suggests that continued economic growth will result in more traffic congestion, longer commutes, and more productivity losses. (We're not so sure: see below.)

Not surprisingly, INRIX found the country's worst traffic in Los Angeles, California. There, drivers lost 64 hours to traffic jams last year. Rounding out the ten most congested metro areas were Honolulu, HI; San Francisco, CA; Austin, TX; New York, NY; Bridgeport, CT; San Jose, CA; Seattle, WA, Boston, MA; and Washington, DC.

INRIX also identified some future trouble spots. Traffic in Colorado Springs, CO is up a whopping 58 percent from last year. It's trailed by Charleston, SC; Grand Rapids, MI; Little Rock, AR; Providence, RI; Salt Lake City, UT; Riverside, CA; Boston, MA; Denver, CO; and New Haven, CT. 

Traffic is worsening in Europe, too, where stats have also ticked up after two years of decline. Commuters have it roughest in Belgium, where they wasted 58 hours of their lives in traffic last year. The Netherlands, Germany, France, and Luxembourg round out the top five. 

INRIX's Bryan Mistele believes that the figures are actually cause for optimism, implying that increased traffic stems from economic improvement, as more people join the workforce. However, he cautions that the situation could get much, much worse in the future, and it's time to take action: "“If we’re to avoid traffic congestion becoming a further drain on our economies, we must invest in intelligent transportation systems and connected car technologies now."

WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

INRIX theorizes a direct link between economic growth and traffic congestion, which makes sense on the surface. After all, as the economy improves, more jobs are created, meaning more commuters on the roads, right?

Maybe, maybe not.

Yes, the worst traffic tends to be in areas with strong job growth. That's why places like San Jose and Boston are on INRIX's worst-congestion list and Toledo, OH and Scranton, PA aren't.

But INRIX's theory creates as many questions as it answers. For example, the U.S. GDP has been steadily growing since 2009. So, why did congestion decline in 2011 and 2012? Surely it's not because of vast improvements to the country's crumbling infrastructure of roads and bridges, because getting money for that is like pulling teeth. 

Also, at least two major studies have shown that driving peaked in the U.S. in 2004. In other words, the number of miles that each American drives each year is on the decline. Granted, our population continues to grow, meaning more cars on the roads, but if individuals are driving less during both boom years and bust, wouldn't that indicate that the economy isn't the sole factor behind congestion?

Then there's the question of urbanization. As even INRIX points out, more of the world's residents are living in urban areas. In fact, by 2050, 70 percent of us will. On the one hand, this seems to explain why cities are experiencing gridlock. On the other hand, numerous studies have shown that many people -- especially younger people -- are forgoing cars altogether, often because they can get around using mass transit and other means. If that's the case, why the congestion?

Bottom line: roadways are complex ecosystems, and congestion results from jobs, commuters, road work, mass transit, and countless other factors. While it's encouraging to see traffic jams as symbolic of economic growth, that's not an accurate or complete picture.

Until someone is able to paint that picture for us, check out INRIX's Traffic Congestion Scorecard for 2013. (Be sure to click the "Scorecard Country" tab toward the top.) At least you'll know how your city stacks up.

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