For Americans who still have their jobs, an easier commute between home and work may be a silver lining in the current economic clouds.

According to researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute, traffic jams and road delays declined in 2007, thanks in part to the slowing economy and rising gas prices, which encouraged many to use public transportation rather than cars. For example, travelers wasted one fewer gallon of gas (24 vs. 25 in 2006) and spent one fewer hour in traffic delays (36 vs. 37 in 2007) while traveling during rush hour.

This year's version of the detailed annual report on traffic trends around the country was released in early July.

Unfortunately, these incremental improvements on the road are not likely to last. “Travel may grow slower than in the past, but that will only mean ‘things get worse slower’--hardly a positive goal statement,” the authors of this annual report write. “The Urban Mobility Report database includes a few similar periods from regional recessions in the past (the northeastern states in the early-to-mid 1980s, Texas in the mid-1980s, California in the early-to-mid 1990s). In every case, when the economy rebounded, so did the congestion problem.”

Builders have a vested interest in such issues. Many of the country's largest housing markets (see "Cities With The Most Congestion" list below) also have some of the worst transportation issues, with rush-hour travelers spending the equivalent of a week's paid vacation sitting in traffic.

Additionally, in this housing recession, the combination of high gas prices and long commutes has been devastating to both working families who “drove until they qualified” to buy and sales of new-home communities in the exurbs.

Unfortunately, the problem of congestion appears to be contagious. In 1997, only 10 of 439 urban areas registered an annual delay of 40-plus hours per rush-hour traveler; in 2007, 23 urban areas reported those delays.

Such traffic and economic trends have caught the attention of the federal government. Earlier this year, HUD, the Department of Transportation, and the EPA announced an initiative to create more sustainable communities, which would include more transportation choices for residents and additional affordable housing.

The Texas study’s authors also offer a number of solutions to the challenge of traffic congestion, such as:
1. Use low-cost improvements such as appropriately timing traffic lights or improving intersections to “get as much service as possible from what we have.”
2. Boost capacity along important routes by adding to the road or public transportation networks—or both.
3. Use new ways of working—telecommuting, flex hours—to reduce the crush of vehicles during “rush” hour.
4. Offer more transportation choices to people, from toll lanes to public transportation so that people have multiple ways to get between work and home.
5. Maintain “realistic expectations,” particularly in big metro areas. Traffic is a part of life, the authors acknowledge, “but congestion does not have to be an all-day event.”

Their last recommendation? “Diversify the development patterns,” they write. “These typically involve denser developments with a mix of jobs, shops and homes, so that more people can walk, bike or take transit to more, and closer, destinations. Sustaining the ‘quality of life’ and gaining economic development without the typical increment of mobility decline in each of these sub-regions appear to be part, but not all, of the solution.”

Alison Rice is senior editor, online, at BUILDER magazine.

Cities With The Worst Congestion
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Calif. (70 hours of delay per traveler each year)
Washington, D.C.-Va.-Md. (62 hours)
Atlanta  (57 hours)
Houston, Texas  (56 hours) 
San Francisco-Oakland, Calif.  (55 hours) 
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington  (53 hours) 
San Jose, Calif.  (53 hours)
Orlando, Fla.  (53 hours) 
Detroit  (52 hours) 
San Diego, Calif. (52 hours) 
Miami (47 hours) 
Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla.  (47 hours) 
Denver-Aurora, Colo.  (45 hours) 
Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif.  (44 hours) 
Baltimore  (44 hours) 
Las Vegas  (44 hours) 
New York-Newark, N.Y.-N.J.-Conn.  (44 hours) 
Phoenix  (44 hours) 
Seattle (43 hours) 
Boston-N.H.-R.I.  (43 hours)

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Dallas, TX, Detroit, MI, Washington, DC, Atlanta, GA, San Francisco, CA, San Diego, CA, San Jose, CA, Tampa, FL, Riverside, CA, Houston, TX, Miami, FL, Orlando, FL, Phoenix, AZ, New York, NY, Baltimore, MD, Seattle, WA, Las Vegas, NV, Boston, MA, Los Angeles, CA.