Honk if Your Car Is Moving

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FOR commuters caught in gridlock, words fail to describe the frustration. But here are words that speak for all motorists with their motors idling, going nowhere:

"I shall never become reconciled to what is known here as 'traffic,' ... trucks, cyclists, buses, flying packs of automobiles.... Then it all comes to a standstill, a grunting and rattling flood, and it cannot move forward. Sometimes the whole lot comes to a standstill for half an hour.... In the meantime you in your vehicle can reflect on what it will be like in 20 years."

Is the writer a futurologist, squinting through exhaust fumes at the year 2012? Not quite. It is Czech essayist Karel Capek, writing about London in 1925, anticipating 1945 as the year of vehicular doomsday.

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If Capek were alive today, he would find his commute-time scene beginning earlier and ending later, and plugging up not only the roads in cities but in suburbs farther and farther removed. The enormity of the problem is exceeded only by the love of the American motorist for the machine that causes the problem. Capek would find evidence of the obsession taking many forms:

In upscale suburbs from Edina, Minn., to Dover, Mass., the new status symbol is a three-car garage.

In St. Petersburg, Fla., a bumper sticker attests to the rigors of traveling on a congested road: "Pray for me. I drive on US 19."

In suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Boston, motorists now legally drive in the breakdown lane during rush hour to keep traffic moving.

Also in Boston, construction has begun on a third harbor tunnel. A behemoth dubbed the Super Scoop is dredging the harbor floor so more vehicles can head for the airport and points north.

Ever since the late 1950s, when radio stations began using traffic 'copters to help commuters thread their way through "stall-and-crawl" and "creep-and-weep" traffic, transportation experts have tried to devise ways to ease the congestion. Some map out "smart routes" to help motorists avoid traffic jams. ("It's clogged on Route 3, so if you head over to 3A....") Others see salvation in sensors that regulate lights and the flow of traffic.

But even doubling the number of tunnels and overpasses, smart routes and traffic copters will never solve a fundamental problem: Too many workers spend too many frazzled hours a day behind the wheel, dodging lane-changers and tailgaters.

The cost of the American obsession with the single-occupancy commuter car is usually calculated in terms of air pollution (automobiles are the No. 1 offenders), gas and oil, tolls, and wear and tear on the infrastructure. Perhaps it's time to start tabulating the social costs as well. A new index - call it the Gross National Drain (GND) - could measure the effects of commuting on personal energy, family time, hobbies, and community service. A suburbanite who commutes 30 minutes each way - five hours a we ek, 49 weeks a year - spends the equivalent of six 40-hour weeks a year on the road. Over a decade, that adds up to about 14 months of driving - or idling.

Already, some employees and employers are devising alternatives. The number of people who bicycle to work at least some of the time has more than doubled since 1983, to 3.5 million.

The ranks of telecommuters are also swelling. While most work at home, a new satellite office in southern California, the Riverside Telecommuting Center, enables some employees to work closer to home a day or two a week. Financed by the state, county, and local businesses, the center is designed to reduce freeway traffic and air pollution.

In the anguished debate over how to bail out Detroit, the new slogan is: Drive American. Filling bigger roads with more cars of any make, though clearly not a solution, remains the standard game plan for now and the future. Campbell's Soup envisions the turn of the century as a time when 25 percent of American cars will be equipped with microwaves to nourish gridlocked drivers.

Apart from academic task forces, who speaks for mass transit? Nobody wants to tell motorists that radical alternatives are required. But in the super-gridlock to come, even the most ardent car lovers may feel, like Capek, "a furious repugnance to modern civilization" and the jam it has put them in.

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