Longer commutes, but signs of progress

As the Senate takes up the transit bill, a new report unlocks gridlock's mysteries.

Visitors to Ralph Lauren's automobile collection at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts goggle at 16 cars, mostly antiques, symbols of speed and endless possibility.

But when they return to the parking lot, their own Hondas and Volvos are more likely to remind them of endless gridlock.

In Boston and beyond, US traffic is getting worse, according to the 2005 Urban Mobility Report released Monday by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI).

Between 1982 and 2003, the average time commuters spent delayed in traffic nearly tripled, from 16 hours to 47. In 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, Americans lost 3.7 billion hours and 2.3 billion gallons of fuel in delays, for a total cost of $63 billion. The report was released the same day the Senate was set to resume debate on a transit bill that would allocate $284 billion for highway, mass transit, and safety programs over six years - which critics say is not enough.

Drivers in Los Angeles spent 93 hours in traffic delays, the equivalent of over two weeks of work, followed by San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Houston.

But researchers say there is some good news, too: Improvements, from better coordinated traffic signals to quicker incident-response teams, could ease congestion.

"For the first time, the numbers are starting to look pretty big," says David Schrank, associate research scientist at the TTI and coauthor of the report. In 2003, savings amounted to some $6 billion. "Technology is making it easier to implement them every day."

Not all measures, such as more public transportation or faster incident management, work in all locations. Cities are limited by geography, climate, and budgets. Some corporations could help ease traffic with flexible work schedules - but that's not realistic for all companies.

One of the most effective and popular measures is traffic-signal coordination. "It is something that motorists will see and feel immediately," says Dr. Schrank.

While the number of hours and gallons of fuel wasted are up from 2002, many cities showed improvement. Los Angeles and Seattle have eased their traffic problems over the past decade. Los Angeles has implemented freeway-entrance-ramp signals to pace the traffic flow as cars enter roadways, and Seattle has bulked up its incident-management readiness.

Congestion has made commutes longer, but the distance that workers travel to their jobs has also increased, says Alan Pisarski, an expert on American commuting patterns, as people seek better housing or schools away from their workplaces.

He and Tim Lomax, coauthor of the Urban Mobility Report, often testify side-by-side in front of Congress, Mr. Pisarski says. They measure different aspects of the commute, but their findings on time converge: Americans are spending more of it in traffic. "And time is so immensely important to everyone," he says.

While commutes tend to be most harrowing in big cities, where congestion is worse and commute times are longer, the stress is subjective. For one thing, says Pisarski, some actually enjoy commuting as a time to decompress or listen to music.

And, says Jennifer Lucas, associate professor of psychology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., stress does not directly correlate with time lost or length traveled, but with the unpredictability of the commute. A driver whose travel time fluctuates between 20 minutes and an hour is more likely to grow frustrated than someone with a consistent two-hour drive.

Commuter nightmares are not just the stuff of big cities anymore. Schrank says that road systems in small urban areas can quickly be overrun by traffic.

Even in a small community outside Honolulu, Leon James, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii and coauthor of "Road Rage and Aggressive Driving," says during his daily 6 a.m. drive to the beach for a morning walk, motorists exhibit signs of rage. "People will trail me," he says. "It's a cultural phenomenon."

To ease the growing congestion, some groups are calling for greater investment in the transit bill, which has been stalled for the past two years, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, a sponsor of the Urban Mobility Report.

But spending more has been controversial. Said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta in a statement last week: "If the Congress chooses to irresponsibly add billions to the cost of the bill, it is setting itself up to raise gas taxes or risk bankrupting the highway trust fund in the very near future. Neither option is acceptable."

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