Will the Love Affair With the Automobile Get Stalled in Traffic?

It's 7:30 on one of the last weekday mornings before Labor Day. On a suburban commuter's route to an urban office, traffic is light, drivers are polite, and rush hour is - wonder of wonders - almost unrushed. As one radio announcer marvels, "It's a smooth ride all the way into the city."

Oh bliss! As commuting goes, things don't get much better than this. But next Tuesday the scene will change dramatically. Fleets of school buses will take to the road. Back-from-vacation workers will slip behind the wheel, and drivers with an attitude will jockey for space. Then traffic reporters will dust off their favorite "drive-time" phrases to talk about all the "slowdowns" and "backups" on clogged roads and jammed arteries.

"It's a mess out there," they'll say, barely disguising their glee.

A late-August driver can only wonder: What would it take to make this week's lighter traffic a year-round reality?

As one answer, Americans could take a cue from Britain's deputy prime minister, John Prescott. Last week he unveiled a plan to make the two-car family outdated by creating a public transportation system so good that people would switch to buses and trains. As further incentives, he proposes raising parking fees, taxing company car spaces, and charging motorists for driving into London.

"Having two cars is a symptom of the failure of the public transport system rather than a sign of prosperity," Mr. Prescott told British reporters.

At a time when the three-car garage is becoming the norm in many American suburbs, such controversial ideas produce skepticism, if not derision and even anger. But if nothing else, they could spark new debate about uncontrolled traffic growth everywhere.

In 1950, there were 50 million cars for the earth's 2.6 billion people. Today, the world's population has doubled to 5.5 billion, while the number of automobiles has increased tenfold, to 500 million. Within the next 30 years, that figure is expected to double to 1 billion cars.

Where will these vehicles drive - and park? And what will they do to the environment? Already the United Nations World Health Organization reports that carbon monoxide levels are above limits considered healthy in more than half of the world's big cities.

In the early 1970s I worked briefly as an editor in the transportation systems planning department of a research and development firm near Washington. Engineers spent their days developing ideas for mass rapid transit, from people movers and on-call jitneys to improved subways and light-rail systems.

My favorite was Dial-a-Ride, a computerized program that kept a network of small vans crisscrossing Haddonfield, N.J., as part of a pilot program. Cheaper than a taxi, more flexible than a bus, it offered the possibility of meeting one of the toughest transportation needs - suburban sprawl. Engineers hoped the vans would be ideal for trips to malls, grocery stores, and local offices.

In the quarter-century since then, almost none of these ideas have become a reality. Asked about Dial-a-Ride, for example, a woman at the Haddonfield town hall replies, "We haven't had that for many, many years."

Some modest efforts do exist for getting cars off the road, among them carpool lanes on expressways and corporate bonuses for workers who share rides. My daughter receives $100 a month from her Los Angeles employer for carpooling 12 times.

Still, weaning Americans - and everybody else - from their cars may represent an impossible task. Who doesn't love the freedom, privacy, and mobility of a car of one's own?

But what's the alternative? Highways so overcrowded that workers will spend more time on the road than they do on the job? Vacationers wasting half their vacation en route? Perhaps such potential scenes should be included in every driver education course to warn future motorists that driving too much may become as socially unacceptable as driving too fast.

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