Traffic Congestion Dips As Economy Plunges
Survey Finds Rush-Hour Highways Less Packed in Downturn

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It might not seem like it when you're inching through crushing bottlenecks during your daily commute, but traffic congestion in the Washington region appears to have loosened up.

Don't thank innovative transit systems or better highways. A worsening economy, combined with record-high gas prices last spring, made the big difference, according to a study to be released today by the Metropolitan Council of Governments.

COG did a traffic count using aerial photos taken over three days last spring. Traffic had dropped 3.1 percent from 2005, including a sharp reduction in congestion in several choke points in the area. It was the first time the number of miles traveled declined in the 15 years the study has been conducted.

"This is certainly not the way we want to solve the region's traffic problem," said Ron Kirby, transportation planning director for COG, which led the triennial study. He said traffic congestion might have eased even more as the economy worsened this past winter. "The impacts of the economy are here."

Of course, some maddening spots across the region have gotten worse. Those include a stretch of Interstate 395 from Fourth Street in the District over the 14th Street bridge to Route 1 in Alexandria during the evening rush; parts of the outer loop of the Capital Beltway from 8 to 9 a.m.; and an eastbound stretch of Interstate 66 in Fairfax County during the evening rush.

Gas prices have started to increase again in the region, but they are nowhere close to the record highs of 2008. A year ago, a gallon of regular unleaded cost $3.81. This year, the price is $2.21. But experts don't expect more people to start taking to the roads.

Motorists have been driving less across the country, but declines in Virginia, Maryland and the District were particularly sharp. Motorists in the region drove a total of 600 million fewer miles in November 2008 than a year earlier, according to the American Automobile Association.

"People just stopped driving when prices were so high," said John Townsend, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "By the time those same prices declined, people were in the throes of the recession. They had grown accustomed to driving less, and they were concerned about their economic well-being."

The study analyzed 80,000 aerial photographs taken during morning and evening rush hours. It surveyed the region's 300-mile freeway system, including major interstates such as the Beltway (Interstate 495), but not smaller, interior roadways such as Route 29.

Even more striking than the decrease in vehicle miles traveled was the drop in the amount of congestion measured during the morning and afternoon rushes. The report found congestion during those three-hour peak travel times declined 24 percent, to levels not seen since 2002.

Officials said the study's results also support increased investment in transit by suggesting that it is effective in reducing highway congestion.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, public transportation ridership nationally increased 4 percent last year from 2007, which is unusual because transit use typically declines when employment and gas prices decrease.

In the Washington region, Metrorail, Virginia Railway Express and the MARC commuter rail system reported ridership increases.

"This really shows how a marginal shift in people getting out of their cars can have a huge impact on traffic congestion," said Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman (D), who also sits on the COG board.

Zimmerman called for a larger investment in transit but said, "We're seeing the opposite as transit budgets get squeezed."

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