Tie-ups. Backups. Gridlock. The American commute has never been so painful. Is there any solution?
Changes in consumer behavior also aggravate traffic congestion. A strong economy has driven car ownership to new heights; the average household now has slightly more cars, 1.9, than drivers, 1.8.High property values and restrictive zoning in many areas have made finding quality housing near one's workplace virtually impossible for many, and the quest for affordable housing has sent people to ever more-distant locales. Commuters to New York City increasingly call the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, two hours away, home, while workers in Washington have streamed into Gettysburg, Pa., a full 85 miles away.
Folks in places like these are considered "extreme commuters," those traveling 90 minutes or more to work every day. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 3 million people-about 2.8 percent of workers-now have such commutes, a 95 percent increase from 1990.
Dave Givens, 47, hits the road at 4:30 a.m. each day for a three-hour drive from his home in Mariposa, Calif., on the edge of Yosemite National Park, to his job at Cisco Systems in San Jose, Calif. It's an hour before he even stops for his first coffee and picks up his carpool partner. He adds 372 miles to the odometer daily. "It's kind of a daily mind game of what's on the radio traffic reports," says Givens, who won first place in an "America's Longest Commute" contest run by Midas Inc. Givens says the drive is a small price to pay to live in the town his family has inhabited since the Gold Rush. And he says he enjoys the rural lifestyle.
But all that driving takes a toll on a commuter's time, money, and peace of mind. David Lewis, a British scientist who studies the brain's response to stress, found that the tension commuters experience when stuck in traffic is comparable to that felt by first-time parachutists. Part-time New York cabdriver Sol Soloncha knows that all too well. "I'm a Buddhist," he says. "I do yoga, I practice meditation, and weekday traffic gets so bad that even I can't keep my composure during it."
Traffic can be more than an annoyance. Medical symptoms ranging from sleep deprivation to digestive problems are linked to long commutes, and a 2004 article in the New England Journal of Medicine found that being stuck in a traffic jam more than doubles one's chance of experiencing a heart attack in the subsequent hour.
Consequences. Traffic inflicts social costs as well. Harvard public policy Prof. Robert Putnam found that community involvement falls 10 percent for every 10 minutes spent driving to work. And leisure pursuits are casualties, too. "It sort of turns me off to have to go far to see any sort of entertainment or any arts, or even to go to the beach," says Donald Pierce of Granada Hills, Calif. "Any good day at the beach, there's going to be a lot of traffic."
Major improvement in traffic congestion not only requires massive government intervention but also involves getting all political forces on the same page. And that can be an insurmountable hurdle. In Virginia, years of fierce legislative battling over who should foot the bill for traffic relief in heavily congested Northern Virginia finally resulted in a compromise between Gov. Tim Kaine and antitax Republican legislators in April. The bill authorizes $3 billion in borrowing for statewide improvements, such as widening highways and improving rail service, and lets car-choked regions raise taxes and fees for local projects. But even backers urged Virginians not to set their hopes too high, with a Republican state Senate leader calling the bill "one of the ugliest bastard stepchildren" to pass the Senate.