Fewer workers, less traffic

Notice that your rush traffic drive is becoming less congested? Thank unemployment. Jeremy Hobson reports.

Kai Ryssdal: If you are actually in a car right now, you probably already know what I'm about to tell you. That traffic congestion is down, by one account more than 70 percent in some areas. The price of gas has nothing to do with it. Marketplace's Jeremy Hobson reports that unemployment might be the greatest highway decongestant of all.

JEREMY HOBSON: Hear that? That's the sound of traffic moving in Los Angeles. It's becoming a more common sound not just in L.A. but across the U.S., Scott Sedlik at the traffic-monitoring company Inrix, says congestion is down 29 percent nationwide. In fact, even before this year's job losses in 2008...

JSCOTT SEDLIK: We experienced the biggest drop in overall traffic congestion since the oil crisis of the early 70s.

He says the reasons are fewer workers, less freight and fewer non-essential trips by all of us. But the impact is adding up to an annual savings of 13 hours per commuter.

SEDLIK: Having a very small difference in the number of vehicles on the road can have a huge impact on decreases in traffic congestion.

That's because on roads that have reached oversaturation every car makes a difference. Michel Im drives every day from San Jose, Calif., to a train station. He then rides into San Francisco. It used to take him up to two hours.

MICHEL IM: Now it takes about an hour and 10 minutes to an hour and 20 minutes at the worst days. And I get a seat on the train, which is nice for my stress.

Still, the message from the experts is don't get used to it. Here's David Ellis of the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.

DAVID ELLIS: We tend to be creatures of habit and eventually once the stimulus that has caused us to change moderates, we tend to get back to some sort of norm if you will.

Luckily for me, that'll just mean packed subway cars.