Traffic Increases as Economy Rebounds: What are We Doing Wrong?

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A recent survey shows the highest increase in traffic congestion in two years, which is seen as a sign that the American economy is rebounding. What’s wrong with this picture?

Gridlock in the U.S. has staged a dramatic comeback after two years of post-recession lows. Data from the most recent INRIX Gridlock Index (IGI) shows that traffic jumped by almost 10 percent during February — the largest year-over-year increase recorded in two years.

INRIX, a leading traffic intelligence platform, considers this is a healthy sign of rising economic activity across major metropolitan areas. “Traffic is a great indicator of confidence on the ground,” said Bryan Mistele, CEO of INRIX. “People hit the road as they return to work, and businesses ship more freight as their orders increase. IGI shows the pulse of the economy is starting to beat faster.”

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American traffic is getting worse for the first time in year. Progress or lack of priority? Graphic via The New York Times

February’s composite IGI score of 6.8 meant that the average trip took drivers in the hundred most populated metro areas 6.8 percent longer because of increased traffic congestion. Here are some examples cited:

  • Gridlock in Chicago increased by more than 20 percent from February 2012 to February 2013, hinting that the metro area’s slow recovery may be gathering speed.
  • Gridlock in Phoenix increased by almost 19 percent from February 2012 to February 2013, confirming recent decisions made by several retail and casual dining chains to expand in the metro area.
  • Gridlock in New York increased by almost 18 percent from February 2012 to February 2013. This jump is in line with recent news of strong private sector job growth.
  • Traffic congestion in Houston increased more than 10 percent from February 2012 to February 2013, confirming University of Houston Economics Professor Barton Smith’s claim of a recent “boom” in the metro area.

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Although it may come as as surprise to those who live there, LA is only the world’s third most congested city. Graphic via INRIX

We should be happy to be stuck in traffic, it seems. But are we? Get on the 405 in Los Angeles during rush hour and I dare you to maintain a positive outlook and be grateful that you are contributing to our economic recovery. Gridlock, it’s safe to say, is not going to be the solution to our societal problems. And traffic is not progress. What are we doing wrong here?

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Portland has one of the country’s best public transportation systems. Photo by TriMet, Flickr Creative Commons.

Instead, as part of the economic recovery, we could be putting more efforts toward developing a functioning public transportation system. Because that is the future. We could put resources toward developing safe, dedicated bike lanes. Because cyclists are healthier, happier people. We could create walkable neighborhoods, where the only traffic jam you would get into would be a chance encounter with friends on the street. Because that is civilized. Sitting by oneself behind the steering wheel of a gas guzzling car is not.

The next time you have to go somewhere (which is probably soon), try taking the bus, or the train, or your bike. The more we start using public transportation options, the more of a priority they will become.

Top photo by bossco, Flickr Creative Commons

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