CHICAGO — Chicago drivers may find it hard to believe, but a new study says Chicago's traffic congestion significantly dropped in 2012.
INRIX, an international provider of traffic data, released its Traffic Scoreboard Annual Report on Wednesday, which shows congestion on the city's many roadways eased by 23 percent last year.
According to the report, Chicago drivers spent 30 hours stuck in traffic last year, compared with 37 hours in 2011 — a seven-hour difference.
This decline has dropped Chicago from its list of top "10 Worst Cities for Traffic in America." The city was eighth in 2010, 10th in 2011 and now slides into to the 12th-worst traffic city.
Unfortunately, the reason for the improvement is not good news.
According to Jim Bak, INRIX's director of community relations, Chicago drivers can credit the city's generally weak economy and high unemployment rate for the traffic improvement.
"A poor economy is great for drivers," Bak said. "From a driving perspective it's great. We think this is largely employment-related. The good news is you're not facing as much traffic as you did last year."
Los Angeles took the No. 1 spot in the 2012 Top 10 Worst Cities for Traffic, with drivers there spending a stunning 59 hours a year stuck in traffic. Honolulu came in sedond, followed by San Francisco; Austin, Texas; and New York City.
Overall, traffic congestion fell by 22 percent nationally.
Unlike other national traffic congestion studies, INRIX's Traffic Scorecard does not factor in traffic volume, but measures traffic flow. Chicago routinely ranks in the top 10 in the annual Urban Mobility Report, coming in at No. 6 in 2011.
According to Bak, the reason cities smaller than Chicago rank higher on INRIX's list is because those places experience longer and more frequent instances of traffic gridlock.
"We don't factor in traffic volume," says Bak. "To us, traffic is either running fast or running slow."
INRIX uses data from pavement sensors on highways and crowdsourced traffic information from mobile devices and in-car navigation units to measure delays on arterial and side streets in real time.
Other highlights of the study show local traffic is at its worst on Fridays between 4 and 5 p.m., with Tuesdays between 8 and 9 a.m. as the worst morning commute.
Not surprisingly, Chicago's most congested roadway is the Dan Ryan/Kennedy Expy. (I-90/94) between Pershing and Sayre, which ranks as the ninth-most congested roadway in America. According to INRIX, that 15-mile stretch of road takes motorists an average of 72 minutes during Friday's commute, with vehicles traveling a painfully slow 13 miles per hour.
WBBM Radio 780 traffic reporter Steven Haas has been covering local traffic for more than 20 years and is skeptical about Chicago's traffic congestion improving as much as the INRIX report contends.
"I haven't noticed any real change from this year to last, but I have noticed an overall drop in volume since the economic downturn," Haas said. "It really hasn't returned to previous levels, say, before 2008."
But if traffic congestion is a measure of the strength of the economy, Bak said INRIX's data seems to indicate the economy is improving nationally and here in Chicago.
While traffic congestion has fallen for the last two years nationally, the first three months of 2013 has seen a 4 percent increase. In Chicago, congestion fell only 1 percent in the first quarter.
"The cities with the largest increases in congestion are cities that have seen dramatic increases in employment," said Bak. "It's just a matter of time until we see Chicago's economy improve. Then we'll see Chicago's traffic come roaring back."