MANATEE — Local roads became less congested as the economy worsened and gasoline prices rose, according to a study released Wednesday.
The average Sarasota-Bradenton driver spent 25 hours stuck in rush-hour traffic in 2007, two fewer hours than in the previous year, the Texas Transportation Institute said in its 2009 Urban Mobility Report. That made Sarasota-Bradenton the country’s 51st most-congested metro area, an improvement of four spots.
Those findings did not surprise local transportation officials, who said people are driving less because of rising unemployment and gas prices.
“People really changed their driving habits because of the economy and gas prices,” said Mike Howe, executive director of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization. “They’re being more selective in where they drive and how they drive their cars.”
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The number of miles driven on local roads fell by 3 percent from 2006 to 2007, according to the study. Mass-transit ridership rose locally by a similar percentage.
While the rankings are based on 2007 federal data, state data suggest the trend not only continued but accelerated last year as the recession deepened and gas prices broke the $4-a-gallon mark.
Traffic levels on roads in Manatee County fell by nearly 5 percent from 2007 to 2008, according to a Bradenton Herald analysis of traffic counts conducted by the Florida Department of Transportation. Much of the loss was on Interstate 75, where traffic fell by nearly 10 percent. Congestion cost the average Sarasota-Bradenton driver $480 in lost time and wasted fuel two years ago, the study said.
Overall, U.S. drivers spent one hour less stuck in rush-hour traffic in 2007 than they did the year before, the study said.
Los Angeles remained the country’s most-congested metro area, with drivers averaging 70 hours a year in traffic jams.
Orlando, at 53 hours, was the worst in Florida and tied for sixth-worst nationally. Tampa and Miami tied for 12th-worst, with 47 hours.