More congestion means … more freight?

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"So goes traffic, so goes the economy. An excellent indicator of economic trends, traffic congestion can tell us whether businesses are shipping products, whether people are going to work, and whether shoppers are going to the mall.” –Bryan Mistele, president and CEO of INRIX

Sometimes, it seems, traffic congestion might not be a bad thing. In fact, it could be an indicator that better days (economically speaking) are close at hand – strange as that may seem.

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At least, that’s the conclusion reached by traffic and navigation service provider INRIX. They use statistical analysis techniques, originally developed by Microsoft Research, to aggregate and enhance traffic-related information from hundreds of public and private sources, including traditional road sensors and the company's own unique network of more than 1.6 million GPS-enabled vehicles and cellular devices.

Now, according to INRIX’s third annual National Traffic Scorecard, traffic congestion and commuter travel times started rising again in 2009 – and indication, the company believes, that the overall economy is emerging from recession. “Our analysis indicates that what happens going forward in terms of increasing gridlock can be summed up in one word: jobs,” said Bryan Mistele, president and CEO of INRIX.

That’s because the company believes – as illustrated by Mistele’s quote at the start of this post – that more congestion means more people are heading off to work, and that more trucks are on the road trying to make deliveries. That activity, in their view, forms a picture of an economy on the march. For truckers, that in turn should translate into more freight activity.

Yet traffic congestion as definitely a two-edged sword – make no mistake about it. Because more gridlock also translates into longer delays for freight deliveries and commuters alike; more fuel wasted as vehicles sit in traffic jams, going nowhere; and of course the sheer psychological frustration that comes from sitting in gridlock (even the joy of my “Best of Metallica” iTunes playlist wears thin very quickly when I'm stuck in traffic.)

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According to INRIX’s analysis, gridlock across the U.S. bottomed out in March and April of 2009, then started rising again – ending the year slightly ahead of the congestion levels experienced in 2008.

In fact, 58 of the top 100 most populated cities in the U.S. experienced modest increases in traffic congestion levels last year, INRIX said.

While increased unemployment kept morning commutes lighter than normal, according to the company, traffic was up nearly every other hour of the day as individuals hit the roads in search of work or other trips - a 25% increase.

By analyzing traffic on major highways in the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas, INRIX also compiled the ubiquitous “top 10 list” of U.S. cities with the worst urban traffic congestion last year:

1. Los Angeles, Calif.

2. New York, N.Y.

3. Chicago, Ill.

4. Washington, D.C. (up from 6th in 2008)

5. Dallas, Texas

6. Houston, Texas (down from 4th in 2008)

7. San Francisco, Calif.

8. Boston, Mass.

9. Seattle, Wash.

10. Philadelphia, Pa. (up from 11th in 2008)

These cities account for half of our nation's traffic congestion with four of the “top 10” cities experiencing modest increases in traffic congestion in 2009 (L.A., New York, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia), INRIX’s data indicated.

Of the nation's top 30 largest cities, Las Vegas, Baltimore and Washington D.C. experienced more than 10% increases in congestion during peak commute periods, year-over-year.

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The increase in Las Vegas congestion was primarily due to major construction along I-15 that began in the summer of 2008, while congestion in the nation's Capitol indicated – in INRIX’s words – a city “bustling with activity” as the federal government enacted policies and increased spending to combat the recession.

Here’s another “top 10” list with even less joy to share – the worst metro traffic bottlenecks in the U.S. Not surprisingly, New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago continued to dominate the rankings in commuting nightmares:

1. New York: The Cross Bronx Expressway/I-95 Southbound at the Bronx River Parkway. This stretch of road is so bad that traffic crawls more than 94 hours along it each week at an average of only 11.4 mph.

2. Chicago: I-90 Westbound at Cermak Rd. (up from 7th in 2008)

3. New York: Cross Bronx Expressway at I-895 (up from 5th in 2008)

4. New York: Cross Bronx Expressway at White Plains Road (up from 5th in 2008)

5. New York: Harlem River Drive Southbound at 3rd Ave. (down from 2nd in 2008)

6. New Haven, CT: I-91 Southbound at Hamilton St. (up from 62nd in 2008)

7. Los Angeles: US-101 North bound at Los Angeles St. (up from 13th in 2008)

8. Chicago: I-90 Westbound at 18th St. (up from 24th in 2008)

9. New York: Cross Bronx Expressway at Westchester Ave. (up from 11th)

10. Chicago: I-90 Westbound at Ruble St. (up from 26th in 2008)

Finally, a few other interesting tidbits INRIX’s National Traffic Scorecard reveals:

• Showing the after effects of a battered economy, 2009 congestion levels were still one-third less compared to peak levels set in 2007. While varying by region, on a national level, the clock on traffic congestion has been turned back to at least 2005 – a silver lining of the tumultuous past few years.

• The nation's "Travel Time Tax" in 2009 was 8.9%, indicating the typical random peak hour trip took 8.9% longer than it would in uncongested conditions resulting in the typical urban commuter with a 30 minute commute sitting 22 hours a year stuck in traffic.

• Wednesday from 8 to 9 a.m. continues as the busiest morning peak travel time nationwide and Friday from 5 to 6 p.m. continues to be the busiest evening (and overall) commute hour - with a travel time tax of 18.8%.

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• Get this one: the best day to commute is MONDAY with a Travel Time Tax of just 7.1%; the worst day is Thursday with a Travel Time Tax of 9.7%.

• Population centers experiencing high unemployment, reduced tourism and/or less convention activity experienced the highest drops in traffic congestion including Detroit, Honolulu, San Diego, and Chicago. Detroit, where the jobless rate reached a high of 17% in 2009, dropped from 18th to 27th in the rankings.

• Los Angeles has the nation's highest metropolitan travel times during peak commute hours, followed closely by Honolulu, Washington D.C. and San Francisco.

• The worst region and time to be on our nation's roads is between 5 and 6 p.m. on Thursdays in Los Angeles, where the travel time tax is 69%

• Stimulus spending on road projects nationwide is starting to have an impact on congestion, particularly in off-peak periods – and not in a good way. Delays across the country during off-peak periods – mid-days, evenings, overnights and weekends – were up 25%. Of the nation's biggest new work zone slowdowns in late 2009, more than half were directly tied to stimulus projects.

• More than 2,500 miles of the U.S.’s most important roads are congested more than 5 hours each week. Drivers on more than 437 miles of these roads experience more than 20 hours of congestion each week, or 4 hours each work day.

You can learn a lot from tracking traffic congestion, it seems.

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