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Beat L.A.? Experts estimate that by 2015 San Francisco will beat its longtime rival to the south in time wasted in traffic.
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updated 7/15/2009 1:02:12 PM ET 2009-07-15T17:02:12

We're spending a little less time in traffic these days, but that's only a sign of the slow economic times.

There's no beating Los Angeles traffic. No matter the time of day, the highway or your direction, it's an unnatural event to drive the speed limit all the way to your destination. Angelenos spend an inordinate amount of time behind the wheel, foot applied firmly to the brake.

Yet, due to the national recession, the average L.A. commuter is spending two hours less, per year, in gridlock than they did last year, according to the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), a Texas A&M University transit research center. But those two hours come at the expense of high gas prices leading up to the recession and job losses keeping people at home during rush hour.

While the recent lightening of L.A. traffic doesn't mean drivers will get from the beach to downtown in 25 minutes (it's only 16 miles, but can take more than an hour), it's a positive change in a city that's had few over the past 12 months, including the state's double-digit unemployment and no functioning budget. It's a trend the TTI has seen nationwide: The amount of time people spend in traffic is decreasing, but only slightly.

"This is a very small change," says David Schrank, associate research scientist at TTI. "No one should expect to be driving the speed limit on their way to work because of this."

The average L.A. commuter is delayed 70 hours a year due to roadway congestion. And even with the slight reduction in transit time, L.A. still tops our list of the most congested cities for 2009. In second place was Washington, D.C., at 62 hours per traveler per year, followed by Atlanta, at 57 hours per traveler per year.

To generate this year's list of the most congested cities, we used data from TTI, which calculates delay ratings through the use of U.S. Department of Transportation, and individual states' transportation department traffic data for 429 metropolitan statistical areas (geographic entities defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget).

The TTI uses this information to calculate the additional amount of time travelers spend on the road, as the result of congestion, per year. If a commuter should spend 250 hours a year commuting, without traffic, but spends 300 hours a year commuting, TTI would assess the annual delay due to congestion at 50 hours. The more hours lost to traffic, the worse a city's congestion.

Delays across the country add up. In the 439 U.S. metro areas, the average commuter spends 36 hours a year in traffic, which amounts to $87 billion in wasted fuel and productivity according to the TTI. That works out to an average of $750 per traveler per year.

While that's an expense drivers can afford in good times, it's not a welcome problem during an economic downturn. Based on historic data from 1980s and 1990s recessions, congestion problems tend to increase once the country's economy begins to recover. When that happens, the problem increases unevenly across the country based on prevailing trends of population growth, roadway capacity, job growth and public-transit efficiency.

Detroit, a city with no rail system and where most of the population lives outside the city and thus has to commute longer distances, was high on this list, finishing eighth. Of course, if it meant an economic recovery for the city and the surrounding metro area, there's little doubt that residents wouldn't mind a bit more traffic.

When the economy recovers elsewhere, expect congestion trends of the last decade to persist — unless local governments are able to increase infrastructure capacity through road expansion or getting more citizens to use public transit.

"Based upon this data, if the traffic congestion rates since 2000 should continue, San Francisco and Chicago will have worse traffic congestion than Los Angeles by 2015," says Wendell Cox, principal of Demographia, a St. Louis-based public policy consultancy, and a member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission from 1977 to 1985.

Given San Francisco's inferiority complex with its southern neighbor, maybe Bay Area residents will be happy to surpass the City of Angels in something — even if it is traffic problems. After all, it's a sign that the economy there is faring better.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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