Tie-ups. Backups. Gridlock. The American commute has never been so painful. Is there any solution?
Some cities, including Houston, have embarked on aggressive programs of road building, trying to stay ahead of their swelling populations. But significantly increasing capacity is just not feasible for metropolitan areas with high population densities. Building more roads in places like Chicago or Philadelphia would involve either leveling buildings or tunneling-an option that is now virtually unthinkable after Boston's troubled, and fabulously expensive, Big Dig project. Even when new roads are built, they are often quickly filled to the point of congestion by drivers who previously traveled at other times, took other roads, or used public transportation, says Brookings Institution traffic expert Anthony Downs.
With that in mind, more cities are looking to enhance public transportation options. In January, Denver opened new lines that more than doubled the miles covered by its light rail system, to 33. By 2017, the city hopes to have laid down 119 miles of track and 18 miles of bus rapid transit, at a cost of $4.7 billion. Charlotte, N.C., will unveil the first of what is expected to be a five-line rail system in November, joining cities like Salt Lake City and Dallas, whose low population densities don't make them obvious candidates for rail.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Los Angeles, where driving is almost a religion, is undergoing a veritable transit boom, furiously digging new subway tunnels and expanding a rapid bus system that will let buses zoom down their own designated lanes. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is pushing hard for his dream of a "subway to the sea," a Metro line running under the notoriously jammed Wilshire Boulevard. "This city will one day have a world-class transportation system, period," he proclaims.
There is cause for optimism. Less than 18 months after the October 2005 opening of the city's Orange Line-a high-speed bus line using an old railroad right of way to avoid traffic-ridership had reached the city's 2020 projections. And unlike nearly every other city, Los Angeles drivers spend less time in traffic now than they did a decade ago, thanks to both mass transit and aggressive traffic management.
But experts are skeptical that public transportation offers a real solution to congestion problems. In the 2000 census, just 4.7 percent of people said they used public transit to get to work, and transit represents only 2 percent of daily trips in Southern California. In most cities, even if the percentage of trips using transit tripled, which is not likely, the resulting drop in congestion would be overwhelmed by the projected growth in population. And it would no doubt be extraordinarily expensive. Villaraigosa estimates that a public transit system that would seriously reduce congestion, rather than just slowing its growth, would require funding "that has heretofore been unprecedented. I'm talking about ... tens of billions of dollars and beyond." That's in Los Angeles alone.
The prohibitive cost of alleviating gridlock is one factor behind the Department of Transportation's new congestion initiative, announced last year. The department hopes to partner with cities to show the usefulness of charging tolls based on the level of congestion, raising the price during rush hour to deter some commuters from traveling during peak times. DOT believes this would keep highways near capacity without descending into gridlock, and increase the number of cars able to travel on a road daily by 40 percent. "What we are trying to do is push states to be as aggressive as they can be," says Transportation Secretary Mary Peters.