Tie-ups. Backups. Gridlock. The American commute has never been so painful. Is there any solution?
With few appealing options, many traffic experts suggest that the growth of congestion is inevitable. That might not be the end of the world, says traffic expert Downs. To remain efficient and prosperous, people largely have to be traveling to the same places at the same times of day. Traffic is simply the equivalent of waiting in line. Downs contends that only a serious economic downturn-such as the one that sent congestion plummeting in Silicon Valley after the tech bubble burst-can reverse the cycle of rising congestion.
That doesn't mean government is helpless. Many cities are looking to Los Angeles for lessons in how to slow traffic's growth. To avoid blockages, the city has stopped road construction during rush hour, stiffened penalties for parking illegally, and deploys a roaming fleet of tow trucks to quickly clear stalled or damaged cars off the freeways.
Tech fix. New technology also gives the city an edge. Its Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control system uses sensors buried in the road to measure traffic flow and can automatically adjust 3,400 of the city's 4,400 traffic lights to ease congestion. The system can, for example, extend a green light for a bus that is behind schedule or an emergency vehicle rushing to an accident. At its high-tech command center, buried four stories under City Hall East in downtown Los Angeles, ATSAC operators can view bottlenecks from hundreds of cameras throughout the city and make their own adjustments.
The system has given Los Angeles unprecedented power to respond to unusual traffic patterns, from the Academy Awards to the 1994 earthquake that collapsed key sections of the city's freeway system. And the city is hoping to use some of its share of California's recently approved $19.9 billion transportation bond-the largest bond in state history-to link the remaining lights to ATSAC.
The city has most likely shaved minutes off its frustrated citizens' commutes, but such measures can go only so far. Each morning and evening, despite all their efforts, ATSAC operators still watch freeways clog and Wilshire Boulevard turn as suffocating as the La Brea Tar Pits it runs beside. "We're maxing out what our roads are able to do," says John Fisher, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
How bad can traffic in American cities get? Los Angeles's long-range transportation plan is a grim look at the future. By 2025, Los Angeles County is projected to have 3 million more people, which could prompt a 30 percent increase in car trips. At that rate, the report suggests, "congestion will last nearly all day long." None of the city's innovative solutions-from new subway lines to traffic management systems-are likely to change that. And at the rate traffic in other cities is snarling, they won't be far behind.