Stranded in the Suburbs

At Connecticut’s Weston High School, in a small town where cars rule and pedestrians are in danger, the most important rite of passage is getting a driver’s license. "Having wheels" in Weston, as in many other suburban towns, means freedom from dependence on the dreaded soccer mom.Weston’s two-acre zoning, paired with a near-total absence of public transit, results in an inefficient series of residential cul-de-sacs with three-car family garages. Despite proximity to commuter rail run by Metro North, most commuters drive to work, citing a lack of parking at train stations. Long-time residents are frustrated by the increasing gridlock. "The congestion gets worse every year," says Remy Chevalier, a longtime Weston resident and an editor of Electrifying Times magazine.

Weston, Connecticut, a suburb with no public transportation, is experiencing growing gridlock.© Brian Howard

A Weston entrepreneur, who asked not to be named, is interested in running a private shuttle between residents" homes and the commuter train station, citing the environmental and economic benefits of carpooling, which dropped from 13.2 percent of the U.S. commuting public in 1990 to 11.2 percent in 2000. "I"m not looking for the town to subsidize this," he says, adding that politics have crippled previous efforts by residents to tackle the suburb’s transportation problem. In the late 1970s, Chevalier envisioned shuttle bus stops at the town center and the beach. "It was a simple idea, requiring minimal funding, that town officials complicated into impossibility," remembers Chevalier.

Weston is hardly unique in its transportation standstill. "Traffic congestion in small towns across America is increasing 11 percent per year—twice the rate in urban areas," says a spokesperson for the American Public Transit Association (APTA), citing the significance of city-to-suburb corporate relocation in the last 50 years. Like other Americans, Westonites waste 33 hours a year in traffic jams, says APTA, and delays force them to pay for an additional 60 gallons of gas.

Maybe there’s hope for Weston and other gridlocked towns. In 1995, APTA and the Institute for Alternative Futures drew up a plan for a national, intermodal transportation system that links major airports, railroad stations and other facilities to convenient, accessible transit service. That would be a real step forward for the U.S., which has two registered cars for every three citizens and currently accounts for one-fourth of total global carbon emissions, with 30 percent of the contribution from the transportation sector.

Some federal money is already flowing. Since President Clinton signed the $218 billion Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century in 1998, 80 percent of the authorized funds have reportedly reached state governments. But that doesn’t mean the money is being used well. Last March, Connecticut Governor John Rowland (R) announced $12 million in funding for a possible suburb-to-suburb commuter rail system, but then slashed the budget for the Transportation Strategy Board, just established in 2001.