Tie-ups. Backups. Gridlock. The American commute has never been so painful. Is there any solution?
For Kathy Kniss, staying calm while getting to and from work is about sticking to her rules. The 29-year-old publicist must be out the door of her Long Beach, Calif., home by 7:45 a.m. at the latest. Some car-choked neighborhoods are just off limits. When leaving her office in Culver City, she must shut down her computer by 5:54 p.m., so she can be in her car by 6:00 to avoid the traffic buildup on side streets and make it to La Cienega Boulevard before 6:15.
Five years ago, Kniss says, commuting caused so much stress that she had panic attacks on the road and had to see a hypnotherapist. But moving closer to her office is out of the question. "I live on the beach, and I pay the same amount for a two-bedroom that I would be paying in the middle of Los Angeles for a complete dump," she says.
It's only about 25 miles from Kniss's office to her home, but driving to her little bit of heaven in the evenings is a grueling 75 minutes, meaning that, on average, her speedometer is hovering just above zero. That's on a good day, when weather, accidents, or bad luck don't interfere. "It's Murphy's Law," Kniss laments about her drive. "If something can go wrong, it will."
The status of the City of Angels as a commuting hell is nothing new. But by 2030, according to some estimates, driving in Atlanta, Minneapolis, and nine other urban areas will be worse than present-day Los Angeles. Nationwide, more and more people will see their roads clogged for longer periods of time. With Mayor Michael Bloomberg's rollout last week of a plan to charge hefty tolls for driving in most of Manhattan, New York became the most recent city to try to fight back. Others are investing in mass transit or high-tech traffic management. Across the country, new technology, new thinking, and cold cash are being leveraged in aggressive efforts to combat congestion.
But serious doubts linger about whether any of these plans will amount to more than a finger in the dike.
People have been complaining about congestion since the time of Julius Caesar, who banned some traffic from downtown Rome. But in America, the 50-year-old Interstate Highway System is showing its age, more people are on the roads, and traffic has grown dramatically worse. Americans spent 3.7 billion hours in traffic in 2003, the last year for which such figures are available-more than a fivefold increase from just 21 years earlier. The amount of free-flowing travel is less than half what it was in the '80s, and the average commuter now loses 47 hours to congested traffic every year.
Disconnect. The issue mainly boils down to population growth outpacing road building. America has about 70 million more people than it did a quarter century ago, but highway miles have increased by a little more than 5 percent in that time. The Department of Transportation estimates that the demand for ground transportation-either by road or rail-will be 2½ times as great by 2050, while highway capacity is projected to increase by only 10 percent during that time.