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The Surprising Upside to America's Worsening Traffic Jams

Apr 02, 2015

Cities in the U.S. are getting increasingly clogged with traffic — but at least one expert says that's not all bad.

Over the last two years, every city in the U.S. has experienced an increase in traffic congestion, according to a new report by GPS navigation company TomTom. Leading the pack, unsurprisingly, is Los Angeles, followed by San Francisco, Honolulu, New York and Seattle.

According to TomTom's Traffic Index, Los Angeles has a "congestion level" of 39%, which represents the total average percentage increase in travel time due to traffic. For example, L.A. drivers experience an overall 25-minute delay on a commute that should take 30 minutes, and spend 95 hours a year stuck in traffic, according to the report.

The city with the worst traffic congestion in the world, according to TomTom, is Istanbul, Turkey, which has a 58% "congestion level." Drivers experience a delay of 29 minutes for a 30-minute trip and will spend 110 hours in traffic.

This is mostly bad news. Commuting delays are not just endlessly frustrating for drivers, they also cost money due to wasted gas and lost productivity. One study predicts road congestion will cost each Los Angeles household $8,555 by 2030.

But there's also a silver lining to more traffic on the highways, says Nick Cohn, TomTom's senior traffic adviser. "It's a sign of urban health," Cohn says.

Traffic in the U.S. eased up during the recession because more people were unemployed and weren't driving to get to work. But as the economy has picked up, congestion has increased almost across the board. "It appears that more people are going to work, or at least are more mobile.”

The one city that's experienced an overall decrease in congestion? New Orleans — but that may be an aberration rather than an indication of its economic health. Traffic congestion decreased by just 1% in New Orleans between 2012 and 2014.

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