RNA polymerase II (Pol II) transcribes hundreds of kilobases of DNA, limiting the production of mRNAs and lncRNAs. We used global run-on sequencing (GRO-seq) to measure the rates of transcription by Pol II following gene activation. Elongation rates vary as much as 4-fold at different genomic loci and in response to two distinct cellular signaling pathways (i.e., 17β-estradiol [E2] and TNF-α). The rates are slowest near the promoter and increase during the first ~15 kb transcribed. Gene body elongation rates correlate with Pol II density, resulting in systematically higher rates of transcript production at genes with higher Pol II density. Pol II dynamics following short inductions indicate that E2 stimulates gene expression by increasing Pol II initiation, whereas TNF-α reduces Pol II residence time at pause sites. Collectively, our results identify previously uncharacterized variation in the rate of transcription and highlight elongation as an important, variable, and regulated rate-limiting step during transcription.