We're going nowhere fast

America's immovable traffic

The automobile, that symbol of American capitalist independence, has a new hat: icon of immobility.

"I would compare people driving to work in cars with frogs in boiling water. They don't notice how bad it is," says Jim Motavalli, author of "Breaking Gridlock: Moving Toward Transportation That Works." The crux of the problem - and what should bring readers to his book for solutions: "We're driving more, but enjoying it less."

"Breaking Gridlock" offers a wealth of statistics, such as: "An hour a day in the car has become the national norm." But this observation, by the editor of "E, the environmental magazine," is even more telling: "Most of the environmentalists I know drive alone to work."

Motavalli draws together efforts already taking shape to address the developed world's frustration with ever longer, slower commutes. While mass transit is making modest overall gains in society, "it can be hard to get excited about increases that give cities bus and rail systems comparable to those they had in 1910" - before many urban trolley systems were dismantled.

The author spent several months riding the "rails" in communities across the US. Among other things, he examines:

• Urban planning and urban growth boundaries.

• Car-sharing programs.

• Toll-pricing schemes.

• Ferryboats, some as fast as trains.

• Bikeways.

• Overcrowded airports.

• Ever-expanding e-commerce and telecommuting.

He notes the promise of air travel and predicts, as anyone would have done before Sept.11, that it will keep growing unabated. In a phone interview, Motavalli admits that that premise has been upset. But he sees a silver lining: Travelers are reexamining their alternatives to air travel, and many are turning to trains for good.

The point of "Breaking Gridlock" is not to prescribe a magic bullet - the overnight elimination of the automobile, as some quixotic environmental groups advocate - but to offer a range of options that might entice travelers. Fast ferries could work well in Long Island Sound or Puget Sound, for instance. Dedicated busways, seldom used, are just as effective and far easier to permit and build than rail systems.

The book's most important premise is the need for smarter real estate development. And Motavalli visits several smart-growth cities in the US, most notably Portland, Ore. But even there, urban sprawl seems to be winning: "Compared to most European cities, Portland remains heavily auto- dependent." Automobile dependence in general is the biggest threat to American quality of life, Motavalli says. And that's before accounting for the dangers of foreign oil imports.

Motavalli's previous book, "Forward Drive" (reviewed May 11, 2000), dealt with solutions to pollution from petroleum-burning gas engines - such as hybrid cars. "Breaking Gridlock" is the logical next step, tackling the root of US oil dependence - and it's more likely to influence public policy. At the same time, the problems it addresses are more intransigent.

Even if every large city in America implemented smart-growth development, it would be hard to dismantle sprawling suburbs. And that's the problem with public transportation in the United States: Unlike Europe, held up as a model by environmentalists such as Motavalli, suburban American "edge cities" don't have the population density to make public transportation cost-effective.

Motavalli and others argue persuasively that the public needs to subsidize mass transit to make it work. Hopeful treatises like this may further that goal. But the road out of gridlock won't be easy.

• Eric Evarts is the Monitor's automotive correspondent.

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