The last train to....

If not joined at the hip, Americans are close to inseparable from their cars.

Wide-bodied, gas-slurping personal transport is one of the better known inalienable rights. And in a land of vast distances and wild weather, a car or two is one way to assert your independence.

But when the drive-alone culture meets city living, highway cruisers tend to stall in the urban parking lot.

Take Manhattan. Every day 700,000 cars pour into the city to join the 176,000 already cramming the streets. Add 12,000 cabs and a few thousand more delivery trucks, and the average speed just dropped to 7 m.p.h. The luxury of being in command is to honk your way home at a slow jog.

So what of the alternatives? If the Big Dig in Boston - home of that rather pointed tea party - is any clue, automotive dependence is still preferable to the downward mobility of public transit. The $12 billion project to carve an underground highway through the heart of the city will help keep drivers firmly strapped to their car seats.

Weaning Americans of their autos is a long haul. Less than 3 percent of urban travelers use mass transport. But PRT - personal rapid transit - may yet bridge the public-private divide. Suman Bandrapalli's story, at right, walks us through these futuristic people pods that promise to deliver you direct to your destination without the jam of traffic or a strap-hanging ride.

If speed is the ultimate status symbol (as in the 56K modem, the Concorde), the American commuter may yet be persuaded to cash in a little independence for something truly rapid.

* Susan Llewelyn Leach is the assistant Ideas editor. Comments? Send e-mail to Ideas@csps.com

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