There is at least one positive thing about the recession: it's making Americans' morning and evening commutes a bit more tolerable.
For the second year in a row, rush hour traffic has fallen, easing the commutes of many Americans, according to a new study by the Texas Transportation Institute, part of Texas A&M University.
The ebb in traffic started in the last half of 2007 as gas prices started to climb. Then the recession took hold. Fewer trucks were transporting good and fewer people were driving to and from jobs they no longer had.
Travelers spent one hour less stuck in traffic in 2007 than they did the year before and wasted one gallon less gasoline than the year before. The differences are small, but they represent a rare break in near-constant growth in traffic over 25 years.
"This is a very small change," researcher David Schrank said in a statement. "No one should expect to be driving the speed limit on their way to work because of this."
The average U.S. driver languished in rush-hour traffic for 36.1 hours in 2007, down from 36.6 hours in 2006 and a peak of 37.4 hours in 2005.
The report does not look at 2008 when job losses really started to pile up, but those losses – despite lower gas prices – are likely to further ease congestion.
But the authors of the study warn that the slowdown in traffic growth will be temporary.
"When the economy rebounds, expect traffic problems to do the same," they wrote.
The research also pointed up other effects of the nation's traffic problems.
The overall cost (based on wasted fuel and lost productivity) of congestion reached $87.2 billion in 2007 – more than $750 for every U.S. traveler.
The total amount of wasted fuel topped 2.8 billion gallons – three weeks' worth of gas for every traveler.
The amount of wasted time totaled 4.2 billion hours – nearly one full work week (or vacation week) for every traveler.
Traffic in Los Angeles is getting better but is still the worst in the nation. Washington's is getting worse, now overtaking Atlanta for second-worst in the nation.
The least-congested metro areas were Lancaster-Palmdale, Calif., and Wichita, Kan., where drivers were delayed an average of six hours a year.
In order, here are the worst metropolitan areas for commutes:
Los Angeles: Motorists spend an average of 70 hours a year stuck in traffic
Washington, D.C.: 62 hours in traffic
Atlanta: 57 hours in traffic
Houston: 56 hours in traffic
San Francisco: 55 hours in traffic
Dallas: 53 hours in traffic
Detroit: 52 hours in traffic
Miami: 47 hours in traffic
New York: 44 hours in traffic
Phoenix: 44 hours in traffic
Seattle: 43 hours in traffic
Boston: 43 hours in traffic
Chicago: 41 hours in traffic
Philadelphia: 38 hours in traffic