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Rejoice! That traffic means the economy is improving

FILE: It's not your imagination — Los Angeles traffic has gotten worse since the end of the recession. But maybe that's not such a bad thing.
FILE: It's not your imagination — Los Angeles traffic has gotten worse since the end of the recession. But maybe that's not such a bad thing.
Photo by Jonathan Tardif via Flickr Creative Commons

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Drivers in Southern California frustrated with slow commute times as they rush to get their holiday shopping done can at least be thankful they are experiencing signs of economic growth.

Since the recession, traffic volumes have increased in the Los Angeles area and across the country, according to annual reports from the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. The institute named the L.A.-Long Beach-Anaheim region the second worst for traffic in the country last year.

"The average auto commuter in the L.A. area spends an extra $1,700 in time and the extra fuel that they burn," said Tim Lomax, a research engineer with the transportation institute who co-authored the report.

Extrapolating that out, Lomax said it means a loss of about $13 billion for the entire region.

But those who study the issue say any measure of traffic's economic effect must take into account the better opportunities provided in dense, congested areas.

"If people wanted to escape congestion, they'd move deep into Alaska," said Matthias Sweet, a professor of urban planning at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.

While he acknowledges traffic is a major pain, he said it's the tradeoff we accept to have urban amenities like highly concentrated jobs, shopping and entertainment.

"Congestion itself is certainly an indicator of high-functioning urban places," he said.

You can see such gridlock on display in the area around 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue in mid-city Los Angeles.

Thousands flock there daily to browse The Grove mall, eat at hip dining destinations and shop at a supermarket that's so well-known for its parking difficulties, it inspired a viral video:

 

Perhaps nobody knows the pain of that traffic better than Melissa Bailey, a shopper for Instacart based in the area. Its app offers on-demand shopping and delivery service from stores like Costco, Ralph's and Whole Foods.

"Traffic anytime in L.A. is bad, but at this time of year and, in Hollywood, it’s doubly bad," said Bailey. "I know every backroad to every place in L.A."

Bailey complains that the extra time in traffic chips away at her bottom line since she has to pay for fuel and upkeep on her car. But she said she knows that working in a thriving, congested area brings her more business.

"Something like Instacart really relies on a dense, urban fabric," said Sweet. "In general, those (areas) tend to be the most high traffic."

Sweet has found that congestion can reach a tipping point where it starts to slow job growth. But he notes in large markets like New York or L.A., where big industries such as entertainment are well-established, most residents simply adapt to the delays.

A recent UCLA study also found L.A. neighborhoods with high traffic delays correlate with better access to employment opportunities. Other studies have found that American cities with the most congestion also have the highest economic production.

But those facts are unlikely to take the sting out of traffic for the average commuter or delivery drivers like Bailey.

"Traffic is still a pain," she said.