Getting Out of Gridlock

Thanks to the Highway Lobby, Now We're Stuck in Traffic. How Do We Escape?
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Jerry Nichols, a musician, nurse and beer-brewer who lives in suburban Connecticut, has a long morning commute that can double if traffic is bad. His solution is unique to him: Zen-like detachment. "I simply tune it out," he says. "The traffic can be swirling around me, people can be yelling, honking their horns, and I hardly even hear it."

We need coping mechanisms like these, because commuting times are getting longer for many Americans. Tracy, California, a former farming community, is about 60 miles east of San Francisco. Because housing prices in San Francisco are some of the highest in the nation, Tracy has been absorbed into the city’s suburban commuter corridor. For the tradeoff of a four-bedroom house for $800 a month, Tracy’s commuters travel an average of 58 miles one-way to work.

In other news, pregnant women in Atlanta are increasingly having their babies in the car because of traffic jams on the way to the hospital. In a city with expansive suburbs and average 34-mile-a-day commutes, many mothers-to-be just can’t get to a medical center fast enough.

It can’t go on like this, can it? In the new millennium, when the futurists said we’d all be wafting to work in sky cars, we’re decidedly earthbound. According to Katie Alvord’s book Divorce Your Car, a third of the average city’s land is devoted to serving the car, including roads, service stations and parking lots. In 1970, Americans drove a trillion miles per year; it’s been more than two trillion a year since the mid-1990s. There are more than 220 million registered automobiles in the U.S. alone, and their numbers will soon overtake the human population.

As cities sprawl farther into distant suburbs, an hour a day in the car has become the national norm. The average family takes 10 car trips a day, mostly for shopping, socializing or recreation. For every 10 travel miles, nine are taken in a car. As Alvord puts it, this isn’t love, it’s addiction.

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Despite the fact that the national interstate highway system is fully built, governments spend $200 million every day constructing, fixing and improving roads in the U.S. What do we get for our money? The National Transportation Board predicts that delays caused by congestion will increase by 5.6 billion hours in the period between 1995 and 2015, wasting an unnecessary 7.3 billion gallons of fuel. Seventy percent of all daily peak-hour travel on interstates now occurs under stop-and-go conditions, and a measurable "rush hour" will soon be a thing of the past.

Highway Robbery

One of the major barriers to the fledgling automobile industry at the turn of the century was the poor state of the roads. One of the first highway lobbying groups was the League of American Wheelmen, which founded "good roads" associations around the country and, in 1891, began lobbying state legislatures.

Many of America’s roads were private and funded by tolls. One such early road was the 45-mile Long Island Motor Parkway, built in 1908 and entirely financed by the racing enthusiast William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. The toll collection plan fell short of expectations, and he gave up his road in 1938 in lieu of back taxes.

The Federal Aid Roads Act of 1916 encouraged coast-to-coast construction of paved roads, usually financed by gasoline taxes (a symbiotic relationship if ever there was one). By 1930, the annual budget for federal road projects was $750 million. After 1939, with a push from President Franklin Roosevelt, limited-access interstates began to make rural areas accessible.

There wasn’t necessarily anything sinister about all this. Highways were seen by many as just one aspect of the technological progress that would make life easier for all. In his book 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, David Gelernter argues that the General Motors (GM) Futurama exhibit, which took fair-goers through the imagined world of 1960, complete with a 14-lane Express Motorway that would crisscross the nation at 100 miles per hour, was wildly popular precisely because of the freedom and mobility the interstate highways promised.

Some modern historians, Gelernter says, suggest "that the Futurama exhibit was the launchpad of an evil GM scheme to foist highways on an unwilling public—and that is absurd." At the same time, however, there were vigorous protests against new highways in many cities, precisely because some people could see beyond the glitter to the roads" ultimate impact on neighborhoods and life in general.

In 1956, 72 percent of American families owned a car; by 1970, 82 percent owned cars, and 28 percent had two or more.© Photos To Go

If private cars were going to dominate American transportation after World War II, they needed newer and better roads to run on. GM also stands behind the creation of the National Highway Users Conference, otherwise known as the highway lobby, which became the most powerful pressure group in Washington.

GM President Charles Wilson, who became Secretary of Defense in 1953, used his position to proclaim that a new road system was vital to U.S. security. He was assisted by Federal Highway Administrator Francis DuPont, whose family was then the largest GM shareholder. Congress approved the $25 billion Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956. "The greatest public works program in the history of the world," as Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks called it, was on, and with it were planted the seeds of our current gridlock. In 1956, 72 percent of American families owned a car; by 1970, when the national road network comprised 30,000 miles, 82 percent owned cars, and 28 percent had two or more.

Suburbanizing America

As highways expanded, they carried Americans farther and farther from the city. Today, 50 years after ground was struck for Levittown, the influential planned community on Long Island, the process it heralded has become known as sprawl, a seemingly endless stretch of mini-malls and housing developments, reached almost exclusively by private cars. Since the mid-1950s, for instance, the city of Phoenix, Arizona has grown from 17 to over 400 square miles, and its traffic tie-ups are nightmarish.

The new suburbs didn’t have to be as car-oriented as they turned out to be. For this, we can at least partly blame "master builders" like Robert Moses, who had an elitist attitude towards any form of transportation designed to move the sweating hordes. On Long Island alone, Moses built 11 expressways, but he fought off any attempt to incorporate mass-transit rights of way into them.

Biographer Robert Caro writes that in 1952, Moses was informed by the General Electric Urban Traffic Division that "if provision for tracks was made in the original highway design their cost would be one-tenth of providing them later. Moses" reply? "The cost of acquiring additional width and building for rapid transit would be prohibitive and hundreds of families would be dislocated."" The bridges on Moses" parkways were deliberately made too low to allow passage by chartered buses.

Moses" legacy can be seen in the combined lobbying efforts of such current and former groups as the American Association of Highway Builders of the North Atlantic States, the American Association of State

Highway Officials, the American Concrete Paving Association, the American Road Builders Association, and the American Automobile Association (AAA)— and those are just the groups with "American" in the title. AAA—which most people think of as an apolitical group that aids stranded travelers and provides good maps—is also a lobbyist for highways and against clean air legislation.

The highway lobby is very much still with us today. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, for example, represents all 50 state highway departments and has a $14 million annual budget. The Washington, D.C.-based American Highway Users Alliance has a staff of 12 and a $2 million annual budget.

It’s not surprising, then, that the Highway Users Alliance sees the solution to America’s congestion problem as building more roads. "Our overstressed road system needs additional capacity at key points," the Alliance opines in a report entitled "Unclogging America’s Arteries: Prescriptions for Healthier Highways." If we remove strategic bottlenecks, the report said, "Emissions of smog-causing volatile organic compounds would drop by 44 percent, while carbon monoxide would be reduced by 45 percent." In other words, not only can we build out of congestion, but we can build out of pollution, too.

But if we got into this mess, we can get out of it, too, and there are innovative solutions—some of them growing out of advanced technology—for getting Americans off the road and out of relentless gridlock.

Taking Transit

The best way to reduce traffic congestion is to get people out of their cars and into alternative forms of transportation. And that is starting to happen. Last year, the Washington Post bannered an encouraging headline: "Mass Transit Popularity Surges in U.S." It seems that the number of people riding trains and buses is the highest it’s been in 40 years. Ridership is actually rising faster than automobile use. At least until September 11 forced a drastic and probably temporary decline in use, Washington, D.C.’s Red and Orange lines were running at near capacity, and planners worried that platforms would be too small to accommodate all the new riders.

That is good news, but it masks a grim little secret: all the forms of alternative transit together, including trains, buses, bicycles and that old standby the human leg, account for a tiny share of American transportation use. "Let’s not break out the champagne," said William Fay, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, in the Post story. "Highway growth is the real success. By real numbers, far more people are driving cars than taking transit."

Fairgoers take in GM"s utopian 1939 Futurama exhibit, which envisioned 14-lane cross-country expressways.© Photos To Go

Unfortunately, the Highway Users have a point. The transit numbers, although improving, only look good until they’re compared to auto use. According to Department of Transportation data compiled in 1995 as part of the "National Personal Transportation Survey," America’s 100 million households make one billion trips a day. But of that, 900 million trips were by car, 65 million by foot and bicycle, and just 19 million by transit. (The rest are "other.") Transit is just two percent of the total.

In one passenger mile, rail generates .01 grams of hydrocarbons, a bus .20 and a car 2.09. The figures for carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide are just as dramatic. So how can we get transit use up? The answer may lie in new technologies that are making trains, buses and ferries faster and more competitive with the commuter car. The Acela Express, for example, now travels at 150 miles per hour between Boston and Washington, D.C. As in an airplane, there are first, business and coach classes, with the former offering wide seats, personal audio programming, plug-ins for laptop computers, at-seat dinner service on china plates with microbrewed beer and gourmet coffee, and even hand-delivered hot towels.

Portland, Oregon now offers light rail links to just about everywhere, following a 1997 decision not to build an urban beltway, and to limit highway construction to less than 40 miles over the next 40 years. The result is that from 1990 to 1996, transit ridership grew 20 percent faster in the metropolitan region than did vehicle miles traveled.

In Sydney, Australia, graceful ferryboats come in past the famous Opera House, depositing hundreds of commuters on the dock right downtown. Sydney’s ferry services are so extensive that a color-coded route map looks like a guide to London’s Underground. Other cities, including Seattle and Vancouver, have made ferries an integral part of their daily commute, and fast catamaran boats have cut travel times.

A growing number of clean electric and electric-hybrid buses ply the public roads from Santa Barbara to Miami Beach, and some travel in dedicated roadways devoid of competing traffic, offering an attractive alternative to many commuters.

The National Transportation Board predicts that delays caused by congestion will increase by 5.6 billion hours in the period between 1995 and 2015, wasting an unnecessary 7.3 billion gallons of fuel.© Corbis

The Pricing Is Right

Only in America would commuters desperate to gain entrance to the congestion-free High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on freeways actually construct dummies to fake a traveling companion. As Robert D. Putnam documents in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, we’ve become a nation of solitary travelers—a phenomenon fundamentally incompatible with mass transit. "Over the last two or three decades," Putnam writes, "driving alone has become overwhelmingly the dominant mode of travel to work for most Americans
.The fraction of all commuters who carpool has been cut in half since the mid-1970s, and [declined to] only seven or eight percent by 2000. The bottom line: By the end of the 1990s, 80 to 90 percent of all Americans drove to work alone, up from 64 percent as recently as 1980."

One of the best methods of combating this distressing pattern may be through toll pricing. Removing existing tolls, which is often very popular politically, "is usually a mistake, because it encourages more driving," says Janine Bauer of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign in New York. She adds that people often consider mature highways to be "paid for," when actually the public continues to spend inordinate amounts of money on maintenance and improvements.

As annoying as they are, tolls serve an important function. Through what’s called "congestion pricing"—varying toll amounts by time of day—they can help reduce gridlock at peak travel times. And the revenue tolls generate can be diverted to worthy transit alternatives, which is beginning to happen in some states.

Congestion pricing is popular with libertarian critics of light rail transit systems. John Charles, environmental policy director of the Cascade Policy Institute in Oregon, believes that variable toll pricing will ease traffic conditions in ways that adding mass transit capacity cannot. "If you drive a lot, you should pay for it with a user fee," he says.

In a report entitled "Curbing Gridlock: Peak-Period Fees to Relieve Traffic Congestion," the National Academy of Sciences praised congestion pricing as a potentially powerful persuader for carpooling, mass transit, telecommuting, altered travel times and trip combinations. There have been feasibility studies and pilot programs in Boulder, Houston, Minneapolis and Lee County, Florida. In San Francisco

, where traveling in groups of three allows HOV travel and entitles drivers to skip the toll on the Bay Bridge, commuters—mostly strangers to each other—connect in parking lots and fill cars up for the ride into the city.

Critics, like California Assemblyman Bill Lockyer, say congestion pricing on public highways is elitist, penalizing economically disadvantaged drivers. Lockyer is especially incensed that California has allowed private companies to build for-profit toll roads (known as "Lexus Lanes") on public land alongside major congested highways. The new highways, such as 91 Express Lanes in Orange County near Los Angeles, allow drivers to pay for the privilege of getting to work faster.

The Lexus Lanes are controversial, but so are their more popular parent, the HOV lane. HOV lanes are a "road rage" magnet, provoking angry reactions similar to those of motorists who encounter jammed supermarket parking lots with blocks of unused handicap spaces.

Amtrak"s Acela train, which reaches speeds of 150 miles an hour between Boston and Washington, D.C., is an increasingly attractive alternative to the crowded highways.© National Railroad Passenger Corp / Amtrak

Almost any attempt to relieve congestion by expanding highways is doomed by data that suggest 20 to 50 percent of the new road capacity is immediately filled by opportunistic motorists who had previously been kept at home by the awful traffic. Adding a HOV lane to existing interstates, as many cities have done, provides only temporary relief, according to researcher John Holtzclaw. And because HOV lanes allow traffic to move faster, 10 to 25 percent more emissions are created in them.

The Electronic Commute

Another way to reduce congestion and emissions is through the vastly promising field of telecommuting, which is exploding across America and beginning to affect travel patterns. In 1999, 19.6 million Americans took advantage of the new digital workplace, up from just four million in 1990. In 2000, the "Telework America 2000" report concluded that telecommuting was growing at a rate of more than 20 percent a year. In a survey, Modern Office Technology magazine found that 95 percent of its readers did at least some overtime work at home, and 40 percent of all home computers are purchased to meet that need.

Portland, Oregon"s Tri-Met MAX light rail system is a model of efficiency that gets 90 percent approval ratings.© Steven K. Beals / Caelestic Productions

Jack Nilles, author of Managing Telework, runs a management consulting company from his home in California. "The annual growth rate of telecommuting is something like 20 percent," he says. "I’d expect to see 40 million people telecommuting by 2030, and after that I give up forecasting."

Nilles may be a bit optimistic, but there’s no doubt that the effect of even modest increases is great. He projects that Southern California could reduce daily trip generation by five to 10 percent. An Arthur D. Little study concluded that if only 12 percent of the U.S. workforce telecommuted a single day a week, it would result in 1.6 million fewer car accidents annually and 1,100 fewer traffic-related deaths.

According to a federal Department of Transportation projection, vehicle miles saved through telecommuting could triple between 1997 and 2002, from 10 billion to 35 billion. At the upper end, that means saving 1.6 billion gallons of gasoline (worth nearly $3 billion to consumers). Seen in terms of time savings, it means 110 hours for the average telecommuter over the course of a year.

Companies are beginning not only to encourage telecommuting, but have come up with novel ways of promoting it. At the insurance company Aetna, where two percent of the workforce stays home, telecommuters are assigned "office buddies" so they can stay in touch with home base. Ten percent of Sun Microsystems" 40,000 employees are permanently "unassigned," and are allowed to work anywhere there’s space, including at home. The telecommuting stars are mainly large companies, because corporations with more than 100 employees are feeling pressured by state law to reduce their commuter populations.

An array of state statutes, prompted by the federal Clean Air Act, encourages trip reduction (Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey and Washington) or telecommuting for state employees (Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Minnesota and Oregon). In Arizona, for instance, state employees can get full reimbursement for using transit or van pools, and can also get paid back for setting up a home office.

The whole business of work is changing, with vast implications for the rush hour commute. Remember the old Who song "Goin" Mobile"? That seems to be what is happening to jobs in the American suburbs, reports Neil Strother of ZDNet. He writes that large U.S. firms with more than 1,000 employees host nearly one million remote offices around the world.

These developments don’t quite add up to wholesale abandonment of the central office tower in favor of the "electronic cottages" that futurist Alvin Toffler imagined. But work is definitely changing. And so is shopping. Online shopping takes a huge number of cars off the road, though the environmental benefit of fewer visits to malls may be offset by new mileage for delivery trucks.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from America’s current state of gridlock, it’s that you can’t build out of congestion. If that were possible, Los Angeles would be a traveler’s paradise. Don Chen, director of Smart Growth America, points to a University of California study showing that a one percent increase in lane miles will generate a just under one percent increase in traffic congestion within five years. "If people see a free-flowing road, they"ll use it," says Chen. "This has been well-documented in dozens of surveys going back 50 years." Despite the best efforts of the highway lobby, we’ve got to forget about paving over our problems and apply new solutions.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E and author of the December 2001 book Breaking Gridlock: Moving Toward Transportation That Works (Sierra Club Books), from which this piece was excerpted.