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News Flash: Congestion Still Not Getting Worse

"Traffic congestion is better than it was a decade ago."

That is the headline you could have seen today in your local newspaper in coverage of the Texas Transportation Institute's (TTI) annual Urban Mobility Report.

After all, it is true. By both of TTI's major measures - delay per driver and Travel Time Index - the average driver experienced less traffic congestion than he or she did at the end of the Clinton administration. Even when considered in the aggregate, Americans are spending less time stuck in traffic than they did in 2005.

It's more likely, however, that the headlines in your local paper focused on the supposedly staggering costs of congestion, or on TTI's finding that congestion was slightly worse last year than the year before.

Talk about missing the forest for the trees!

Previous versions of the TTI study has been devastatingly critiqued by the folks at CEOs for Cities, who note that TTI's methodology makes the congestion problem in compact cities look worse - and the problem in sprawling cities look better - than it actually is.

But even if taken at face value, the TTI report is yet another example of the breakdown of the old assumptionsabout travel trends in the U.S. - specifically, the idea that Americans will always drive more miles, and create more congestion, with every passing year.

The apocalyptic spin put on what should be a good news story - less time stuck in traffic! - is nothing new. Nor are TTI's failed attempts to write off the decline in traffic as the result of a bad economy (which clearly has contributed to the trend but is not solely responsible for it) or the road-building proclivities of a few metropolitan areas, something we blogged about the last time TTI published its study.

Bad news sells, I guess. But there is good news to be found, too, and the TTI report demonstrates one more benefit of the shift away from increasing per-person travel that began in the early 2000s - less time spent in traffic.