Ways to Unjam Highways

Elect the right officials, raise taxes, and use mass transit

Traffic jams, like the weather, are good conversation starters. What's more, both often seem to be getting worse. That's probably not true for the weather, but for traffic, it's been confirmed.

Drivers in US metropolitan areas spend an average of 36 hours a year stalled in traffic, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute. That's more than triple the time from nearly two decades ago. In some cities, rush hours are now six hours long.

And these delays cost an estimated $78 billion in wasted time and fuel, not to mention costs to one's well-being.

Is enough being done to solve these highway slowdowns?

Obviously, spending on highways and mass transit isn't keeping pace with the growing population of people and vehicles in most cities. That's mainly because drivers, as voters, just aren't converting their frustrations into electing officials or approving tax hikes that will solve the problem.

Nor are driver-citizens very much concerned about how development "sprawl," which may be good for some folks, creates more traffic for others. Metro planners need all the help they can get.

The problem isn't money alone. Substantial changes to transportation systems usually require substantial disruption of normal life and fierce political fights over where new roads or transit lines will go. It takes a courageous politician to tell people that sacrifices are needed for the sake of the wider community. Ideally, the political burden would be shared by many leaders in a metro area or region.

The good thing about snarled traffic is that it can be improved by the application of human intelligence and technology. An analysis of the Texas report by another group, the Surface Transportation Policy Project, says cities that offer commuters good mass-transit options can significantly reduce traffic tensions.

But better mass transit is only one part of a solution. Expanded roadways, improved traffic signals, even better accommodation of bicyclists and pedestrians, all have a role.

Step one has to be a realization that traffic jams aren't an inevitability.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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