Weak Economy Eased Congestion in 2009

Houston commuters were fortunate to spend less time sitting in traffic in 2009 than in 2008. That’s according to a transportation study released today by the Texas Transportation Institute. The slight drop in congestion was due to the lagging economy and higher prices at the pump. But as the KUHF NewLab’s Wendy Siegle reports, the respite from gridlock was probably short lived.

Tim Lomax is a research engineer with TTI, the Texas Transportation Institute. He says commuting in Houston in 2009 was less time consuming than in 2008.

“The amount of extra time that people spent on the roads in Houston went from 63 hours to 58 hours.”

So why the improvement? Lomax says it’s closely tied to the state of the economy.

“Economic recessions bring declines in congestion.”

Lomax says with more people unemployed, fewer people had jobs they needed to get to by car. The high cost of gas also persuaded people to drive less.

Still, a five hour savings over 2008 isn’t much. Let’s face it; spending fifty-eight hours twiddling your thumbs in a stationary car is a bit extreme, even if it is over the course of a year.

“You’re still spending on the order of a week and a half worth of vacation extra in your car.”

Despite the slight reduction in traffic jams, Houston ranks 4th on TTI’s list of the most congested big cities of 2009. Chicago, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles topped the list. And it wasn’t just time that was wasted. Again, Lomax:

“We also look at the amount of extra fuel that you burn in your car because you’re in stop and go conditions. In Houston, 2009, that was 52 gallons. So you’re burning 52 extra gallons, you’re wasting 58 extra hours of travel time, you put a value on those and you’re looking at a $1300 congestion tax, if you will, paid for by the average Houston commuter.”

That’s a lot higher than what drivers in other cities paid. Gridlock cost the average urban commuter in the U.S. 34 hours and $808 dollars. Across the country, congestion is expected to get worse in the coming years. Lomax says with the economy reviving, so too is traffic.

“As the economy recovers, get more people going back to work, we’re going to see more traffic congestion.”

Lomax says having serious traffic problems could stifle growth in Houston if transportation improvements aren’t made.

“You could look at five or ten years of a good economy in Houston and it’s possible that Houston could be topping the charts on our congestion list if the transportation network —all modes, all kinds of services — aren’t expanded to keep up with that. You can only add so many people and jobs before the traffic congestion starts to be a limiting factor on that growth.”

But expanding the city’s transportation system to match its growth will be a major challenge. Texas is facing a budget shortfall of between $15 and $27 billion dollars and current revenue sources for transportation spending are limited.