Los Angeles and Orange counties continued to have the worst traffic congestion in the country in 2007, although motorists experienced slightly less delay as a surge in gasoline prices discouraged travel, a new national study shows.
Researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute said, however, that the current recession would prolong the respite only temporarily. When the economy rebounds, they added, the growth in traffic-related delay will resume.
"This is a very small change," said David Schrank, who studied traffic patterns in 439 cities for the institute's annual Urban Mobility Report released Wednesday. "No one should expect to be driving the speed limit on their way to work because of this."
The report states that the average driver in Los Angeles and Orange counties spent an extra 70 hours in traffic in 2007 because of congestion, about two hours less than in 2006. The amount of delay equals almost nine workdays and is 26 hours more than in 1982.
The delay represents the difference between how long it takes to travel during peak periods compared with when traffic is free-flowing.
Researchers found that the typical driver in the Inland Empire experienced about 44 hours of delay in 2007, one hour less than in 2006. In 1982, before the massive housing boom in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the annual delay was only five hours.
The study found that the typical motorist in Ventura County was delayed 38 hours, an increase of two hours compared with 2006. The total amount of lost time is about 10 times what it was in 1982.
Overall, congestion-related delay in the five-county area in 2007 was higher than the national average of 36 hours per motorist. It is also the 19th time that the institute has ranked the Los Angeles County-Orange County area No. 1 in the country for traffic congestion.
Since 1984, the Texas Transportation Institute, based at Texas A&M University, has prepared reports that assess traffic trends across the country and rank urban areas based on the delay for motorists. It is one of several assessments used by transportation agencies to gauge congestion.
Nationally, the report estimated that traffic-related delay and wasted fuel cost motorists $87.2 billion in 2007, more than $750 per traveler. The amount of wasted fuel topped 2.8 billion gallons, or three weeks' worth of gas for the average motorist. About 4.2 billion hours were wasted -- the equivalent of one week per motorist.
Researchers said the slight drop in delay for 2007 represents a "rare break in the near constant growth in traffic over 25 years." But, they said, they would be more encouraged if it were associated with something other than rising fuel costs.
Average gas prices across the country edged up in 2005 and 2006 before jumping from $2.29 a gallon to $3.19 a gallon in the latter part of 2007. In 2008, average gas prices ranged from $4 to $5 a gallon.
"It's not that transportation agencies are any more clever or efficient at reducing congestion," said Tim Lomax, one of the institute's researchers. "We are seeing the effects of gas prices and now the economy."
Transportation experts say that traffic congestion has dipped nationally before because of economic recessions and spikes in fuel costs. But each time the economy recovers or prices recede, they said, the growth in congestion resumes.
"The downturn in the economy has probably accelerated the reduction in delay, but it is temporary. We shouldn't relax our efforts to relieve traffic congestion," said Martin Wachs, director of the transportation, space and technology program at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica.
Local transportation officials say that county sales tax measures, state transportation bonds and federal stimulus money will bolster funding for a variety of transportation projects to reduce congestion across the region. They include highway improvements, better traffic management to clear accidents, more bus service and tollways, as well as rail and subway projects.
"The study shows that congestion remains a major issue and highlights the need to make significant investments in transportation projects," said Frank Quon, a deputy director in the California Department of Transportation's Los Angeles office. "There are multifaceted strategies in place to tackle this problem."