Will easy commutes linger?

January 29, 2010
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One of the few pleasant byproducts of the recession and its aftermath has been relaxed commutes—fewer people driving to work, fewer trucks delivering things, fewer service vehicles zipping about. There seems to be less congestion.

The observation is mine along with others who have mentioned similar experiences driving back and forth to work. If you see something different, chime in with a comment. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with anecdotal evidence because government statisticians don’t track traffic patterns consistently at the local level.

If you’re noticing comparatively hassle-free commutes, enjoy them while they last. Broader traffic counts, which dipped in 2008, are rising again.

Miles driven in the upper Midwest are recovering to 2007 levels. In Indiana, traffic already has exceeded 2007 levels on major city streets and highways; in November, traffic on these Hoosier “urban arterials” almost broke a record set in the same month in 2006.

All of which raises a question: If traffic is surging, why hasn’t gridlock of old returned?

Economist Morton Marcus thinks it’s because people who were laid off are still struggling to find jobs. So they aren’t on the roads during the heaviest drive times.

That explanation is borne out by employment in the Indianapolis area. The region has lost about 50,000 jobs, and the numbers were still dropping as of December.

Marcus believes overall traffic is rising because people who didn’t lose jobs are easing back into normal lifestyles. They’re packing popular restaurants and heading to malls. However, few of them are on roads during peak drive times, so they have little impact on commutes.

Trucks are replenishing depleted inventories in warehouses, but their presence is spread throughout the day, not just during peak traffic.

Eventually, employers will start hiring again, as they usually do during the final stages of a typical economic cycle. Until then, commutes promise to remain tolerable.

What are your thoughts?

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  • Response from one of the unemployed
    This makes perfect sense to me. As one of the scores of unemployed, I can say for certain I am no longer on the roads during the morning or evening rush hours. I commuted 30 miles for over 20 years and have been off the road during rush hours for the past 6 months. Multiply the effect of that by the number of unemployed commuters and it makes perfect sense.
  • Commuter Driver
    I have told many friends that commutes are getting worse, and that it is indicative of more people back to work. Maybe we are not back to the peak level but at the same time, look at the road improvements along the I69 corridor, 465 on the west side, 465 and I70 on the eastside a few years ago, Keystone from Carmel to 465 some of which is completed, and numerous other smaller projects. I would like to think our tax dollars have made commutes easier because of improved engineering and capacity, as much as fewer cars traveling the same routes.
  • depends...
    Well, it depends. I have seen a downward spiral from 2007 to about March 2009 - when I was let go (and I was off for 8 months), and when I was back in a new job, i noticed a lower car ratio. Since the hire date, I have seen an increase, but then again, the holiday rush has provided alot of that travel (in the afternoon/evening traveling). In this past month, there has been a little more than in march of last year, but it is too early to tell.

    Until the rehiring starts, I will enjoy the commute on 3-4 different routes that I take (pending on traffic on i65 and weather conditions).

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