Today's number: 38

Robert Harbison / The Christian Science Monitor /FILE
Commuters take to the crowded LA freeways after work.

The average urban American peak commuter spends an extra 38 hours stuck in traffic.
[Source: Texas Transportation Institute]

That's the equivalent of listening to Stairway to Heaven 285 times. It also amounts to 26 gallons of wasted fuel, and an extra 520 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted into our atmosphere.

The Texas Transportation Institute's 2007 Annual Urban Mobility Report found that cities of all sizes are facing increased congestion. Everywhere, from Anchorage to Akron to Atlanta, trips take longer, streets are clogged for more of the day, freight shipments are delayed, and travel times are getting less reliable.

"There is no 'magic' technology or solution on the horizon because there is no single cause of congestion," said Tim Lomax, one of the report's authors. "The good news is that there are multiple strategies involving traffic operations and public transit available right now that if applied together, can lessen this problem."

What you can do

Obviously the greenest option is to ditch the car and bike, skate, or walk to work. The next best thing is to join the growing number of Americans who are taking public transit. According to the American Public Transportation Association, public transit ridership, reduces America's carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons each year. That's the equivalent of completely cutting off electricity for every household in New York City, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Denver, and Los Angeles.

If you must drive, consider carpooling. If you don't work with people who live near you (or if you do but couldn't bear sharing a ride with them) then check out one of the myriad ride-sharing sites out there.

Looking ahead

Advances in communications technology are making it easier to connect empty car seats with commuters' backsides. This study by Nokia (PDF) describes how smartphones can facilitate digital hitchhiking. Basically you stand by the road and enter in your starting point and destination. A driver who is part of the same ride sharing network and who is approaching you gets a notification on his smartphone (probably in the form of their irritating ringtone), pulls over, and after some kind of electronic authentication process, lets you in. Your phone account is billed, and the driver gets a cut.

Technology can also help you avoid traffic. TrafficGauge is a subscription-based service that gives you current traffic conditions to certain cities via your cellphone or their special hand-held wireless device. Many GPS services also incorporate real-time traffic data.

Cities are getting into the act, too. Atlanta, one of the most congested areas of the country, launched a "Cash for Commuters" program as part of its Clean Air Campaign (if that stock photo of the carpoolers looks familiar, it's probably because you saw it first in this Onion story). The program will give commuters up to $3 a day simply for not driving alone.

Sharing is just not for cars. Next month, Washington, DC, is launching the nation's first bike-sharing program. Similar public-private ventures are being considered in San Francisco. Chicago, and Portland, Ore.

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