Traffic congestion in the Washington region improves. Seriously.

You spent 11 fewer hours stuck in traffic last year.

Yes, skeptical Washington. Really.

The annual release of data from Inrix on Tuesday showed that the average Washington area driver wasted 45 hours doing the bumper-to-bumper dance last year. That’s 11 hours less than in 2010.

“You have to understand that when you’re sitting in traffic, that’s like watching paint dry,” said Jim Bak of Inrix. “I think a lot of people would say, ‘Gee, I spent 45 hours a year in traffic in D.C.? I thought I spent more than that.’ It feels longer than it actually is, but that’s actually down.”

Inrix’s congestion data are the current gold standard for traffic flow in the region and nationwide. Relying on transmitters installed in trucks and fleet vehicles, it is the hand behind many of the traffic-flow reports that define congestion in real time in color-coded green, yellow and red road maps shown on television and the Internet.

Nationally, Inrix reported that urban traffic congestion dropped, with 70 percent of metropolitan areas having declines or no change in traffic backups. That reversed the findings of a year earlier, when 70 percent showed more congestion than the previous year.

One of Washington’s dirty little secrets — that a lot of people don’t work on Fridays — also bubbled up again in the new data showing that the region’s get-out-of-town time falls on Thursday evening.

Keen observers of traffic flow, or people who regularly park in downtown garages, know that congestion abates slightly and parking spaces are more plentiful on Fridays.

But hard data always trump anecdotal information, and that emerged from Inrix, which determined that the worst of the worst — the time you least want to be behind the wheel — is from 5:45 to 6 p.m. on a Thursday, the peak of congestion in a region that regularly chokes on its own fumes.

Elsewhere in the nation, Friday is the most congested day of the week, as city residents headed out of town for the weekend add to the daily mix with commuters headed home.

Inrix’s annual report uses hours wasted caught in traffic per year as one yardstick to rank the nation’s most congested cities.

By that standard, Washington slipped from fourth worst last year to number five this year. Hono­lulu (58 wasted hours) came first, followed by New York (57 hours), Los Angeles (56 hours) and San Francisco (48).

Bak said that Washington’s ranking, relative to the rest of the congested world, is linked to two factors, both economic.

First, the region’s employment rate went up by half a percent last year, while elsewhere in the nation it rose by 1.2 percent, meaning that driving and the resulting congestion increased more elsewhere. Also, he said, gas prices higher than the national average kept some drivers off the roads in the Washington region.

For local drivers who take perverse pride in weathering some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion, it may come as a blow to learn that none of their worst makes it into the nation’s top 10 for highway congestion.

When it comes to bodacious traffic backups, Los Angeles and New York dominate the competition. The San Diego Freeway in Los Angeles, with an average 20-minute backup, topped the list. The Long Island Expressway came in second, followed by the Santa Monica Freeway and a three-mile stretch of the Van Wyck Expressway in New York.

The best the Washington region could do was 21st place for the notorious 24-mile stretch of Interstate 95 between Interstate 395 and Russell Road, near Marine Corps Base Quantico. And that was a drop from 14th place a year earlier.

The outer loop of the Capital Beltway from Route 1, which backs up horrendously as people commute into Northern Virginia each morning, fell 10 spots in this year’s rankings to No. 33.

In Virginia, Interstate 66 jumped 38 places to No. 60, a tribute to the construction delays on that highway.

The inner loop of the Beltway from the Mixing Bowl in Virginia and into Maryland for a total of 20 miles dropped from 30th to 76th in the rankings, likely influenced by progress in construction of the high-occupancy toll lanes.

The getaway evening commute out the Baltimore-Washington Parkway rounded out the region’s presence in the top 100, weighing in at 83rd after ranking 50th last year.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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