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Driving Workers Around the Bend

As highway capacity increases, more cars hit the road. Suburban sprawl spreads the congestion and the cycle repeats.

June 12, 2005|Robert Tanner | Associated Press Writer

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — By 7 a.m. on a Wednesday, traffic is backed up through four stoplights along this city's main drag. Cars are circling for spots in a "park and ride" lot, where carpoolers meet and buses head off for Philadelphia or New York -- 50 and 100 miles away, respectively. The highways are jammed, brake lights flashing for miles.

"Having grown up in the area, I'm absolutely shocked," said Nancy Shadlow, who moved back two years ago to the eastern Pennsylvania valley where she grew up. "I'm shocked how much traffic there is, all day long, not during just rush-hour times."

Shadlow's complaint echoes across scores of American cities, home to tens of millions of beleaguered commuters. Every day, they're dealing with more cars on the road, longer tie-ups and an epidemic of traffic congestion that has spread far beyond big cities. Clogged roads have become a headache in once-quiet places such as Omaha, Charleston, S.C., and Colorado Springs, Colo.

Disagreement over what to do -- and a lack of money and political will to either dramatically expand roads or radically change the way the nation gets around -- means that Americans are stuck with traffic just as much as they're stuck in it.

Estimates of the waste caused by the situation are boggling.

* According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the field's leading research group, time lost to traffic delays in 2003 hit 3.7 billion hours. Add that up and it equals more than 400,000 years. That's a time span that would stretch back pre-car and pre-civilization, to the days when scientists believe that Homo sapiens was just starting to appear.

* Fuel lost to traffic jams in 2003 could fill every car in the country for six days of driving. That becomes even more costly now with gas at more than $2 a gallon.

* That old idea of rush hour? Now it's closer to a rush day. Roads are congested 7.1 hours every day, on average, in cities across the country. In Allentown alone, the number of cars on the main route on a busy day practically equals the city's population of 106,000, said Mike Kaiser, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.

Still, numbers are awfully abstract to a driver who just lost 10 minutes of her day crawling through a traffic jam. To her, the costs are very personal.

It means leaving home earlier to make sure that you're not late for work, missing family events, putting off errands until the weekend. Add rushing, worry and frustration and you get stress, and all the detrimental health effects it -- and sitting longer in your car -- can bring.

"It's definitely getting worse. It shocks me some days when I have to leave work, go to one location and then go home, and realize I just drove 60 miles and didn't really go anywhere," said Mike Reymann, 38, a bank vice president in Minneapolis. "Suddenly, you're like, 'My God, I was just in the car for an hour and a half.' "

Over the years, it has become harder to find a place where the traffic isn't grim.

Five metro areas were gridlocked so badly in the 1980s that the average driver experienced at least 20 hours of delay a year, according to the Texas institute. By 2003, that number had grown tenfold to 51 metro areas.

Now cars outnumber drivers in the nation: 204 million to 191 million. Road-building hasn't kept up with miles traveled, and neither has the traditional source of funding for roads.

The federal gas tax brings in less per mile traveled because improving gas mileage over the last 30 years -- although slowed by the popularity of SUVs -- means that each tax dollar has to cover more wear, tear and repair.

"It's kind of like getting up and eating breakfast -- I'm going to get up and sit in traffic. You plan your life around it," said Elizabeth Adams, 28, a marketer for an Atlanta hospital. "It's kind of your fate and [you] accept it."

Solutions are elusive; each proposal must win support from a seemingly impossible-to-please group of competing interests. Road builders and motorist groups want more asphalt; environmentalists want more mass transit. Highway and transit projects would eat up scarce and expensive land, and taxpayers don't want to pay.

"There are some things you can do to slow down the [rate at which it is] getting worse, but I don't think there's anything you can do to get rid of it," said Anthony Downs, a traffic expert at the Brookings Institution. "It's part of being alive in a modern metropolitan area."

Like water, traffic just fills up the space available, swallowing new capacity soon after a road is built, as Downs describes in a frustrating dynamic he calls "triple convergence."

Open new lanes on a crowded highway and drivers will swoop in to take advantage -- altering their times and routes, and even dumping alternatives like bus or rail that they've already chosen, he said.

The history of traffic seems to bear out his view.

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