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American Gridlock

Traffic is making millions sick and tired. The bad news? It's going to get worse unless things change in a real big way

By Phillip J. Longman

On good days, it took Jen Wells 20 minutes to get to work, but the good days were rare. Usually, in fact, it took the 26-year-old art director up to an hour to get to her office in downtown Atlanta. Finally, she had had enough. So, like millions of Americans, Wells traded in the stress, tolls, and gas bills for a place in town and gave up the lousy commute. "It's the hassle factor," she says.

Traffic, everyone knows, is one of the bigger hassles of modern life. But just in time for Memorial Day, a blizzard of brand-new data confirms just how bad congestion has become. Since 1982, while the U.S. population has grown nearly 20 percent, the time Americans spend in traffic has jumped an amazing 236 percent. In major American cities, the length of the combined morning-evening rush hour has doubled, from under three hours in 1982 to almost six hours today. The result? The average driver now spends the equivalent of nearly a full workweek each year stuck in traffic.

That's not just lost time–it's real money. Congestion costs Americans $78 billion a year in wasted fuel and lost time–up 39 percent since 1990. In Houston, traffic jams cost commuters on the Southwest Freeway and West Loop 610 an average $954 a year in wasted fuel and time. In New Jersey's Somerset County, congestion costs the average licensed driver $2,110 a year.

Truckers–and the businesses that depend on them–say clogged roads are choking off economic growth and reducing the nation's competitiveness. Commercial truck travel increased by 37 percent during the 1990s. By 2020, it's expected to double in most parts of the country.

What's really striking, though, is how traffic is changing American life. New census data show that the rush to suburbia, which transformed the face of the nation over the past half century, began to slow in the past decade as many Americans decided the long commute just wasn't worth it. There are other factors, of course, including the drop in urban crime and the draw of restored historic districts. But if there is any doubt that traffic woes also were a big factor, consider this: After a half century of decline, ridership on mass transit is up dramatically. Survey data show more people are forsaking their cars for subway, train, and light-rail alternatives. "Many people, when they moved to the suburbs, had a vision," says Barbara McCann of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a public-interest group in Washington, D.C. "They loved the quick and easy ride to work. But now, instead, there's congestion."

Traffic influences not just where Americans live, but how they live. Studies repeatedly show that people making long commutes are at a higher risk for a host of maladies. High blood pressure, sleep deprivation, and depression top the list. Meni Koslowsky, a psychologist from Bar-Ilan University in Israel and author of the book Commuting Stress, notes that Type A personalities, competitive and anxious about wasting time, are particularly prone to being unnerved by traffic.

Koslowsky has also found that women who face long commutes are more stressed and depressed by the experience than men and show greater unhappiness with their home lives. Ugghhh! Not surprisingly, activists of all stripes are working to exploit the growing angst about traffic. Cultural conservatives worry that traffic is eroding family values. Liberals decry the environmental destruction and social inequities caused by sprawling, auto-dependent suburbs.

A decade ago, there were just 10 groups with paid staffs around the country committed to transportation reform; today there are at least 200. Everywhere, it seems, the impulse to build new roads is bumping up against a hardening sentiment against more asphalt. Last November, there were 553 state and local measures on ballots dealing with transportation and growth issues. According to the Brookings Institution, 85 percent of the initiatives calling for more mass transit and alternative types of transportation passed.

Few political issues touch more Americans' daily lives than traffic. On a typical day, the average married mother with school-age children spends 66 minutes driving–taking more than five trips and covering 29 miles.

Single moms like Linda Turner, of Chicago's South Side, spend even longer behind the wheel. Each day, Linda rouses her three children at 5 a.m. so she can leave the house by 7. The ride to school is only 15 miles, but it takes 45 minutes to an hour. Then it's on to her job, where she arrives at 8:30–totally wrung out. The return trip, especially if there are after-school activities to plan around, is usually worse. One night, Turner says, "I was coming home from work and every expressway I tried was jammed. Finally I was so angry, I rolled up the windows of the car and just screamed. I just let out a big 'uggghhh.' It didn't make me feel any better, and I was still sitting there."

According to the most recent federal data, the amount of time mothers spend behind the wheel increased by 11 percent just between 1990 and 1995, and there's every indication that the trend is continuing. Moms spend more time driving than they spend dressing, bathing, and feeding a child. Indicative of the growing concern about traffic among social conservatives, the Washington Family Council concludes in a report: "The long-term consequences of traffic reach far beyond simple economics; it seeps into the foundation of society–people and their families."

That seepage is easy to spot in Stockton, Calif., a bedroom community where many struggling young families have moved to escape the high costs of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. There, clinical psychologist Timothy Miller counsels 12 to 15 married couples each week; about half struggle with commuter-related stress. "They come in having only a dim awareness that commuting is the problem," says Miller. "Instead, they say we're quarreling too much, and the affection's gone, and so is the sex."

Miller counsels such couples to seek local jobs–even if it means a lower standard of living. When that's not possible, Miller recommends creating more-rigid schedules. "If you're going to have to have this kind of life, you have to schedule the sex, you have to schedule the quality time with the kids, exercise, dates between Mom and Dad. It's going to be a difficult way of life, but just possibly sustainable. If you don't keep to the schedule, your family and your marriage just slip away."

Stressed-out commuters with little time for loved ones also don't have much time for community involvement, it turns out. Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, has conducted extensive studies of the reasons behind Americans' decreasing involvement in social groups like the PTA, church, recreational clubs, and political parties. Putnam's conclusion? Long commutes are a bigger reason than almost any demographic factor. The relationship can be plotted on a curve, Putnam says: For every 10 minutes spent driving to work,involvement in community affairs drops by 10 percent.

Death toll. Traffic is also taking a major toll on public health. During the 1996 Olympics, Atlanta officials took dramatic steps to limit car traffic in the city. The measures worked so well the number of cars in the morning rush hour dropped by 22.5 percent. But there was another benefit: The number of children suffering asthma attacks, a leading cause of childhood illness, dropped dramatically. Accidents, obviously, create other health problems. Despite air bags and other safety features, some 42,000 people are killed in auto crashes each year, and 3 million are injured.

Many accidents, obviously, have little or nothing to do with congestion. But with one car for nearly every two Americans, each one driven an average of 12,000 miles a year, the chances for dangerous mishaps are certainly greater than if there were fewer cars on the roads. Suburbanites, with their heavy dependence on the automobile, have a particularly high risk of dying or being seriously injured in their cars.

Washington, D.C., once dubbed the murder capital of America, turns out to be a far less dangerous place to live than several of its sprawling, distant suburbs. That's because of the lower risk Washington residents have of being killed while driving.

These days it's hard to escape the dangers and frustrations of traffic even in remote areas. On a recent Saturday morning, Rod Moraga of Boulder, Colo., found himself 11,000 feet high and stuck behind a long line of cars just a few hundred yards from the top of the Continental Divide. "You don't expect traffic here," Moraga says. "So, it takes away from the experience. You're stressed out, uptight, and it takes longer to enjoy yourself. It's like New York."

Not surprisingly, many who can afford it are avoiding nightmarish commutes by moving closer to downtown. According to the latest census figures, the nation's largest cities grew nearly twice as fast in the 1990s as in the 1980s, with 3 out of every 4 urban centers gaining population. A recent study by Fannie Mae found that 18 of 24 major downtown areas saw the number of new residents increase. Suburbs, conversely, are becoming less attractive.

William Lucy and David Phillips of the University of Virginia studied 405 economically distressed suburbs around the country. Economic decline usually occurs, they concluded, "where the houses are located in inconvenient settings, where there are few public amenities, and where there often are no alternatives to automobile transportation."

Urban real estate may be expensive, but so is the cost of maintaining two or more automobiles and driving them constantly. Residents of New York City, for example, pay an average $2,500 per year less on transportation than do residents of sprawling Houston, even after accounting for the extra taxes New Yorkers pay to support mass transit.Because of such savings, Fannie Mae now offers special mortgages with lower earnings requirements for home buyers who purchase property served by good mass transit.

Many businesses, when deciding where to locate, now give increased consideration to traffic conditions and commuting times. Boeing Co., which just announced the relocation of its headquarters from gridlocked Seattle to Chicago, recently warned that its remaining jobs in the Seattle region are in jeopardy unless traffic congestion eases. In Atlanta, where a survey of local corporations found an overwhelming majority reporting "traffic congestion" as the most serious impediment to growth, BellSouth is consolidating all its suburban offices into three downtown locations convenient to the city's mass-transit system. A recent study by the Milken Institute, a think tank in Santa Monica, confirms that aging downtowns and former warehouse districts are often outpacing surrounding suburban locations as magnets of high-tech employment.

Unheralded boom. Another indication of how congestion is influencing the patterns of American life is the largely unheralded boom in public transportation. Reversing a trend going back to the time of the tin lizzie, ridership on the nation's public transportation systems has grown by 21 percent since 1995 (compared with an 11 percent increase in driving) and is now at the highest levels in more than 40 years. In San Francisco, nearly a fourth of all workers now use mass transit to get to their jobs. That means that while the city has the nation's second-worst traffic congestion problem, it ranks 29th in terms of the percentage of commuters affected.

So bad have the nation's traffic woes become that they are changing the politics of transportation–to the point that even some doctrinaire, free-market conservatives now support mass transit. Two years ago, Paul Weyrich and William Lind of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation called for more public investment in trolley services and commuter trains. Such investment, Weyrich and Lind said, "serves some important conservative goals, including economic development, which can be both spurred and shaped by rail-transit systems; helping the poor move off welfare and into jobs (which they have to get to somehow); and strengthening the bonds of community." Taking issue with traditional conservative objections to mass-transit subsidies, the two men noted that automobile drivers consume far more public resources than do subway riders. "The dominance of automobiles and highways," they wrote, "is a product of massive government intervention in the marketplace, intervention stretching back to World War I."

But moving to a safe neighborhood served by good mass transit isn't an option that most Americans can afford. In the Chicago area, for example, a home located within 500 feet to one-half mile of a suburban rail station now commands an average premium of $36,000 over houses that aren't within walking distance. Just moving a house 100 feet closer to a railroad station increases its value by 1 percent, according to a study by Aaron Gruen, an urban economist with Gruen Gruen & Associates.

Catch-22. Will building new highways help people who don't want to use mass transit or who can't afford to live where it's available? Not really. Consider what it would take just to accommodate the projected growth in traffic in San Diego over the next 20 years if auto dependency isn't reduced. San Diego is expected to grow by 1 million persons by 2020. If current patterns continue, that would mean an additional 685,000 cars.

Today, there are five parking spaces available for every car in San Diego and parking is still a problem. To find sufficient parking spaces for another 685,000 cars, the city would need an additional 37 square miles of parking lots.

What to do then? In the past decade, highway construction in major American cities outpaced population growth, and still congestion worsened–and worsened most precisely where the most new roads and highways were built. According to a study issued earlier this month by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, residents of the 23 American metro areas that added the most new road capacity per person in the 1990s saw the annual number of hours spent stuck in traffic increase by 70.4 percent. Meanwhile residents of the 23 metro areas that added the least new road capacity per person experienced a mere 61.9 percent increase in congestion.

Why do cities that build lots of highways wind up with more congestion than those that do not? Economists call it "induced demand." Build a new road, and sprawling new development will soon spring up to take advantage of the land that becomes accessible.

These trends cause many to believe that nothing can or will be done to alleviate congestion. But doing nothing is not an option, either. Traffic is a phenomenon subject to what engineers call "nonlinear effects." Joseph Sussman, a civil and environmental engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes that if you plot how the addition of new vehicles onto a highway affects their average speed, you get a graph that looks much like a hockey stick. You can put more cars and trucks on a highway without much loss of velocity–up to a point.

But as the highway approaches its carrying capacity, suddenly the addition of a single car will cause the speed of all of them to drop. At that point, the effect is completely out of proportion to its proximate cause. So when the proverbial traveling salesman decides to make that one last call at the end of the day, he can throw an entire metro area into gridlock.

The same principle applies to traffic patterns over the long term. Say your commute time has been increasing by about 5 percent a year for the past five years. It's annoying, but you're resigned to it. But then one year, the roads you travel finally reach their capacity. Suddenly, your commute time jumps by 25 percent. The year after that, it's an additional 60 percent. Now, leaving earlier for work doesn't help; taking back roads and assaulting speed bumps doesn't help; even having real-time traffic updates streaming into your car's newfangled telematic device still leaves you stuck in traffic for more hours a day than you have. So?

So, embrace change. A recent survey sponsored by Smart Growth America, a new coalition of public-interest groups, asked a cross section of Americans: "Which of the following proposals is the best long-term solution to reducing traffic in your state? Build new roads; improve public transportation, such as adding trains, buses and light rail; or develop communities where people do not have to drive long distances to work or shop."

Three quarters of respondents called for either improving mass transit or developing less auto-dependent communities; just 21 percent called for building new roads. Talk about a tipping point. America's long love affair with the car, it seems, may have finally soured into a less healthy relationship, one based not on freedom but on its opposite.

With Jim Moscou in Denver, Jill Jordan Sieder in Atlanta, Mike Tharp in San Francisco, John Slania in Chicago, and Mike Tobin in Cleveland

-- Swissrose (, May 19, 2001


One crucial aspect of this problem the article barely touches on only near the very end: The incredible fragility of the Nation's basic urban transportation infrastructure, and how easily it can be so massively disrupted. Even a strange object or occurrence roadside induces "gawking" and causes a traffic jam! If this is all it takes to disrupt traffic, then imagine how easy it would be for even a crude and small group of very low-tech terrorists to cause MASSIVE and CRIPPLING urban gridlock! The economic cascading effects could be staggering. This is now more true than ever, as the disruption would be superposed upon existing emerging bottlenecks, crises, and low infrastructure margins of safety against overload and breakdown.

-- Robert Riggs (, May 19, 2001.

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