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News Flash: Congestion Still Not Getting Worse ... Still!

The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) is out with its latest Urban Mobility Report, which purports to measure and compare traffic congestion in major metropolitan areas nationwide.

The annual TTI report has come in for more than its share of methodological criticism - the core critique being that TTI's central measure of congestion, the Travel Time Index, makes congestion problems in dense cities with shorter travel distances look worse than those in sprawling cities with longer commutes - even though the average commuter in a compact city might spend less overall time stuck in traffic. CEOs for Cities and Streetsblog have much more on the methodological issues for the wonks among you.

My personal hobby horse over the years, however, has been the way TTI's press releases (and the breathless and unquestioning coverage given the report by some in the media) feed into the narrative of continually worsening traffic congestion in defiance of the available facts.

Here, for example, is TTI's headline in its press release for this year's report: "As traffic jams worsen, commuters allowing extra time for urgent trips."

Based on that headline, you'd expect the report to show, at minimum, that traffic jams are getting worse. Yet, even by TTI's own methodology, the congestion picture looks far better than it was a few years ago . By most measures - including average time spent in trafffic and Travel Time Index - the congestion experience of the average driver is no worse than it was a decade ago, and even the total amount of time wasted in traffic is less than it was in 2005. The most charitable thing that could be said is that congestion per driver and overall increased by a tiny tick between 2010 and 2011, but the increases are still dwarfed by the declines in major congestion measures that have occurred in recent years.

Meanwhile, TTI continues to cling to the economic recession as the reason why congestion has failed to grow, failing to acknowledge that while the economy has certainly had some influence on declining vehicle travel in recent years, it is not the full story. Indeed, there is no mention of the broader trend toward reduced vehicle travel in the TTI report, even though one might think that the fact that vehicle travel nationally remains at roughly mid-2004 levels might have a bit of power to explain the dip in congestion over roughly the same period of time.

There's a useful debate to be had about the amount of public resources that should be invested in stamping out congestion. But we can't even begin to have that debate until the perception of growing congestion created by TTI and others begins to align with the new reality of slower growth in driving.