The Myth: Traffic congestion is getting worse

The Reality: Congestion has declined almost everywhere

It’s a common movie trope – a busy commuter rushes out of his downtown office at 5pm, hoping to get only to enter a citywide traffic jam. In reality, traffic congestion across the country has been in steady decline thanks to Americans choosing to drive fewer miles every year and increasingly biking, walking and taking transit for many of their trips—especially in cities.

Using data from GPS devices in millions of vehicles, Inrix tracks highway travel times in the nation’s large metropolitan areas (when they aren’t fear mongering about the costs of congestion). In its past two annual reports, Inrix pointed out that time lost to congestion has fallen dramatically in the United States. In 2011, congestion levels declined 30 percent nationally, and they declined a further 22 percent in 2012. Their travel time index measures the additional time that a typical peak hour trip takes compared to the same trip taken during free-flowing road conditions. A travel time index of 12 means that a trip that takes 20 minutes during free flowing travel conditions takes 12 percent longer—about 22 and a half minutes—during the peak travel period. Traffic congestion, as measured by the travel time index has fallen by about forty percent, from between 11 and 12 in 2010 to about 7 in 2013.

The distance we’re driving has decreased as well. Americans have cut their driving from a peak of 27.5 miles per person per day in 2005, to about 25.5 miles per person per day now.


Cities are remarkably effective at reducing commute times – the closer you live to work, the less time you spend in the car.

You can learn more about traffic congestion and the dreaded “Carmageddon” in the Questioning Congestion Costs card deck.

Congestion and crime are dropping, kids in cities are safer and healthier than their suburban counterparts, and urban air quality is better than it’s been in decades. The sooner we can shed these outdated myths about city living, the sooner we’ll be on a path to building better places for Americans to live.

Photo courtesy of Neil Kremer on Flickr.