America, it seems, is in a jam. As more and more commuters – some 134 million now – cram America's roads at rush hour, the debate over how to manage all that traffic is as tangled as Atlanta's fabled "Spaghetti Junction."
Part of the discussion is whether upward mobility – which traditionally includes auto ownership – can be reengineered in a way that does not automatically impede suburban mobility. Embroiled in the debate are issues of race politics, the level of transit services for suburbs versus cities, and whether to focus on traffic relief or building for the future.
A decennial dipstick reading of the American commute, released in a new study this week, poses as many questions as it answers, including the main one: Should government try to force people away from the automobile, or does the country that made the auto a household appliance embrace its four-wheeled, solo-driver legacy and look for other solutions?
"We have the chance for a solution [via more realistic transportation planning], yet it doesn't seem like it's working out," says Alan Pisarski, author of "America's Commute III" and the country's top commuter expert. "It seems that things are getting worse despite the fact that growth rates [of the population] are nowhere near the challenges of the past. Previous generations met their challenges better than we're meeting ours."
Led by the Northeast and, especially, New York, commutes are getting longer, wearing on people's patience, national productivity, and even happiness at home. Commute times grew by less than 1 minute from 1980 to 1990, when an additional 22 million single-occupant vehicles hit the roads, the report says. Between 1990 and 2000, the average commute got 3 minutes longer – from 22.4 to 25.5 – although only 13 million single-occupancy vehicles joined the national commute.
In metro Atlanta, highway construction has not kept pace with population growth in the suburbs, resulting in a five-minute leap in the average commute between 1990 and 2004 – the fastest growing rate in the country.
"We're a car-struck society," says Brenda Ayler-White, who commutes 45 minutes each way from Snellville, Ga., into Atlanta. She's one of 10 people from her company who joined a van pool to ease the commute.
Increasingly, commuters go from suburb to suburb: Commuters traveling outside their home counties went from 20 million to 34 million since 1990. A rise in single-occupant ridership, cuts in car pooling, and new immigrants add about 1 million commuters a year, the report said.
"The Department of Transportation realizes there's a congestion problem in the United States and has designated that as its top priority," says DOT spokesman Dave Longo.
But when played out in cities from San Diego to Charlotte, N.C., federal incentives and grants can spark a political firestorm. The US DOT currently is partially funding 18 light-rail projects. The government also gives tax credits to companies that get their employees to use mass transit. But, according to the study, most commuters are staying in their cars, and overall transit use is down slightly since 1990.
"The standard reaction to [building mass transit] is, 'Great. Hopefully everybody else will do it so I can drive on uncongested roads,' " says Denise Starling, executive director of a vanpool service in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood.
Proponents of light- and commuter-rail say transit is not about easing today's rush-hour gridlock, but building a transportation system for the future. Commuters today don't pay enough for the true social and environmental cost of car travel, they say. Building light-rail and setting up "peak-time" tolls for motorists are tactics that would drive people from their cars.
"Pricing transportation based on what it costs is in our future, and that will change the demand and cause a shift in our mobility," says Catherine Ross, a transportation expert at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
Critics say light-rail has become a dubious collaboration between environmentalists and developers, gambits designed to reduce smog and congestion that often cost so much that transit agencies must cut bus service to poorer areas. "The whole point of rail is to attract white suburbanites out of their cars while cutting service for minority, low-income people," says Randal O'Toole of the libertarian Thoreau Institute in Portland, Ore. He sees irony in the focus on mass transit for mostly white suburbanites, even as blacks – who are four times more likely to use public transit – are opting to buy more cars. Among black households, auto ownership now stands at 76 percent, up from 69 percent in 1990.
For now, Atlanta's focus is on optimizing traffic flow – and it has become a model for rush-hour management, says Mr. Pisarski. "One thing we have to learn to do is operate the existing system better, to squeeze as much as we can out of it," he says. "Then you can talk to the public about the need to build more."