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Originally published Monday, May 21, 2012 at 9:01 PM

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Seattle-area drivers lost 33 hours stuck in traffic last year — an improvement

Drivers around Seattle wasted an average 33 hours a year in traffic for 2011. That's less delay than the year before, because rising gas prices and less consumer spending are keeping some people off the roads, says the INRIX traffic-data firm.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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You didn't necessarily notice, but drivers in the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett area spent less time in congestion last year than in 2010, according to a new traffic study.

They wasted an average 33 hours a year in slow traffic for 2011, compared with traveling at the speed limit. For 2010, the figure was 44 hours.

But traffic eased even more in most other cities — so that Seattle rose to the seventh-most congested place in the U.S., up from 10th place a year earlier, according to an annual report being released Tuesday by the Kirkland-based INRIX traffic-data company.

The six most congested cities were Honolulu; Los Angeles; San Francisco; New York; Bridgeport, Conn.; and Washington, D.C.

In most cities, a weak economic recovery combined with high gasoline prices to reduce trips, the company says. This comes after a large increase in delays for 2010 as the U.S. climbed out of recession.

"We're experiencing a stop-and-go economy right now, where fuel prices and a lackluster economy are really driving the state of congestion," said spokesman Jim Bak. He said that although jobs increased slightly, consumers have limited money to spend, so shopping trips declined.

This year is shaping up much the same, Bak said. Gasoline in the Seattle area currently averages $4.27 per gallon, compared with a $4.07 spring peak last year and a record $4.37 in spring 2008, according to gasbuddy.com.

Seattle had relatively strong job growth — 2.8 percent in King County for the 12 months ending in September, compared with 1.6 percent in the nation's 323 most-populated counties, says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the growth was countered by above-average gas prices, Bak said.

Congestion got worse on southbound Interstate 405 through central Bellevue, westbound Highway 520 approaching Lake Washington, and northbound I-5 from Boeing Field to downtown Seattle.

Traffic eased on Highway 167 southbound through Auburn, I-405 southbound in Bothell, and I-5 northbound past Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The report, which doesn't include effects of Highway 520 bridge tolls that began Dec. 29, will be posted at scorecard.inrix.com/scorecard/

Other data for the U.S., state and Seattle tend to show that total miles driven fell slightly in the last decade. Transportation wonks are debating whether that's the residue of recession, or if deeper cultural changes, including ecological awareness, caused people to drive less.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom.

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