Tough economy has an upside: Traffic congestion is down

While traffic congestion has stabilized in recent months, or even decreased slightly, it's not time to do celebratory cartwheels, experts say. It took elevated gas prices and a recession to produce only a minuscule behavior change from motorists.

"It's actually more of a dimple than a dent," said Tim Lomax, co-researcher on the Texas Transportation Institute's 2009 Urban Mobility Report, which measures 25 years of traffic in 439 U.S. urban areas.

Topping the congestion list this year was Los Angeles with 70 hours of commuter delays in 2007. It was followed by Washington, D.C., with 62 hours of delays, Atlanta with 57 hours and Houston with 56 hours.

The least-congested communities were Wichita, Kan., and Lancaster-Palmdale, Calif., with six hours of delay.

The sad reality is that neither higher gas prices nor the economic downturn will likely produce any lasting effect on motorists' behavior or the traffic they sit in, Lomax said. Historical patterns indicate that what little breathing room we've had on the highways recently is temporary at best.

The report cites three periods from regional recessions in the past — the Northeast in the early to mid-1980s, Texas in the mid-1980s and California in the early to mid-1990s). In each case, congestion problems re-emerged as soon as the economy rebounded.