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The down side to a good economy

Traffic congestion hasn’t gotten any better.

Rising gasoline prices in the last half of 2007 produced less traffic, according to an annual study by researchers at Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute. The typical urban commuter spent one less hour stuck in traffic that year, and wasted one less gallon of gasoline than the year before.

Although the study analyzed data only through 2007, the researchers said they were fairly confident that the trend continued in 2008, as the recession kept people and products off the roads.

“Not as many people are driving, they are sitting at home because they don’t have a job to go to,” said Tim Lomax, a research engineer who co-authored the study of 439 urban areas.

The national average time lost to traffic in 2007 was 36.1 hours, down from 36.6 a year earlier.

But the Houston region did not see a dip in congestion because the recession has not hit as hard here, Lomax said. Rush-hour delays in Houston stayed flat from the previous year. In 2007, drivers here wasted an average of 56 hours in stopped or slowed traffic, and burned 40 gallons of fuel while doing it.

That means Houston, the nation’s fourth-most populous city, also ranked fourth in time lost to traffic. Los Angeles, at 70 hours, ranked highest. Houston has been steadily climbing in the ranks for years.

“The places like Houston where the ranking got worse, those are the places that had pretty good economies,” Lomax said. Urban areas like Oklahoma City, Raleigh-Durham, and Charleston, S.C. also experienced the blessings of economic growth and the related burden of more traffic, Lomax said.

All in all, that’s a tradeoff most of us would take. But maybe one of these days we’d like to keep our traffic from getting worse as our economy grows. Then what?

The study concludes that congestion can only be eased through a mix of solutions, such as adding lane capacity, increasing public transit, offering workers flexible hours and telecommuting, using technology to better manage accidents and traffic flow, and promoting “denser” land use so people don’t have to drive as far to work and shop.

In other words, expect the trend to continue for the foreseeable future. Eye on Williamson has more.

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