The spread of traffic jams in urban networks has long been viewed as a complex spatio-temporal phenomenon that often requires computationally intensive microscopic models for analysis purposes. In this study, we present a framework to describe the dynamics of congestion propagation and dissipation of traffic in cities using a simple contagion process, inspired by those used to model infectious disease spread in a population. We introduce two macroscopic characteristics for network traffic dynamics, namely congestion propagation rate β and congestion dissipation rate μ. We describe the dynamics of congestion spread using these new parameters embedded within a system of ordinary differential equations, similar to the well-known susceptible-infected-recovered (SIR) model. The proposed contagion-based dynamics are verified through an empirical multi-city analysis, and can be used to monitor, predict and control the fraction of congested links in the network over time.