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Why commuters stay stuck in drive

By Samar Farah Special to The Christian Science Monitor / October 23, 2000



Sonja Jones-Shin lives about 30 miles from downtown San Francisco, where she works as a media specialist for NASA. A proponent of public transportation, she wanted to believe it could work for her.

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She recently relented and bought a car.

Although Ms. Jones-Shin can count on stop-and-go traffic every day, she says her worst days driving to work are still better than the 1-1/2 to 2 hours she used to spend sitting on the train.

If shuttles and trains ran faster and more frequently, Jones-Shin says, she might reconsider. Still, "whenever I saw [the city] expanding the highway, I was very happy," she says.

An era of big government spending appears to be having a positive impact on road conditions around some urban hubs, even as automated tolls and other advances attempt to loosen the traffic flow.

Add to that all the reports about the rise of work-from-home "e-lancers" and flexible hours, and you might conclude that for those left stuck with a daily drive, commutes must be getting easier.

Not so fast. Across the board, studies show generally prosperous Americans are driving more frequently, going longer distances - and doing it solo more than ever.

According to the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a nonprofit group that analyzes transportation data, traffic delays in 68 cities increased 235 percent between 1982 and 1997. In that same time, population in those cities rose only 22 percent.

Americans make nearly 90 percent of all trips in a private vehicle, and more than 20 percent of those trips are work related, according to the US Department of Transportation.

The outlook for change isn't good.

"Slowing the growth of congestion is the best thing that most areas can hope for," says Tim Lomax, a research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute in College Station, Texas.

The reality, say experts, is that Americans remain a free-wheeling lot. Not even rising gas prices significantly ease their craving for mobility.

For now, the best hope to reduce congestion rides with technology. Electronic tolls, collision warning systems, and on-board computers that retrieve traffic updates from satellites have the potential to ease rush-hour traffic. And bigger projects loom 15 to 20 years out, says Steven Shladover, the deputy director of the PATH (Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways) project at the University of California, Berkeley.

In Mr. Shladover's perfect universe, we'll commute on "smart highways," on which drivers sit behind the wheel reading the newspaper while auto-pilots navigate traffic. In San Francisco in 1997, PATH demonstrated eight such automated cars, which drove safely within inches of each other at normal highway speeds.

Sounds like mass transit? That may be part of the problem for consumers.

"People who won't take the bus might have a similar objection to being controlled by computers in a caravan of cars," says Richard Hart, a science author and former co-host of the Discovery Channel's "The Next Step," who has been tracking technology for decades.

That issue of personal control, of course, has extended into the workplace. And that could help.

"We're shifting in a dramatic way to a knowledge-based workforce where it is increasingly less important where you work," says Ed Potter, president of the Employment Policy Foundation in Washington. There are now 21 million telecommuters, by some estimates.

According to Mr. Potter, the real future of telecommuting is not just an explosion in the number of people who work from home (more than one-third of the workforce by 2030, he says), but also the elimination of corporate centers.

Potter and other experts recommend building pods within walking distance of residential areas. Workers could stop for e-mail or teleconferences.

"It's going to take an evolution of how work is done, how workers are socialized," Potter concedes.

There are, of course, more traditional ways to get people to leave their cars at home. After a steady decline since the 1960s, mass-transit ridership has been increasing for the past three years, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Experts maintain railroad and subway systems have yet to reach their full potential. But until service improves - as commuters like Jones-Shin attest - most cities won't see a real exodus from highways.

Nor is the urban commute the sole choke point. The most common commute today, in fact, is between suburbs.

That's problematic, because most city transit systems have been designed to carry people from the suburbs to the urban core, says Roger Stough, a professor at George Mason University's Center for Transportation Policy and Logistics, in Fairfax, Va.

That's also why many of the experts calling for disincentives on cars are also the ones generating buzz around "smart growth." The concept can take the form of "new urbanism," planned communities (where ad-hoc growth is restricted in favor of a master blueprint), or modest measures like Washington's initiatives to concentrate development along transit lines.

It's a long-term plan to create cities and towns where people don't need a car to rent a video, let alone get to work.

Vukan Vuchic, a transportation professer at the University of Pennsylvania, likes to contrast American cities with pedestrian-friendly ones in Europe - laid out before cars, but zoned to limit automobiles today.

He, like others, favors baby steps. It wouldn't take much, Dr. Vuchic argues, to enhance mobility. "We could greatly increase the number of kids walking to school all over the country," he says, "with minute efforts at sidewalk-building."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society