Driving through the relentless crush of Los Angeles traffic, it hits me like a bolt from the blue: There may be no way out of this. Traffic, I mean. Congestion. The slow smothering of large cities coast-to-coast by rising oceans of commuters.
I live in the Washington, D.C., area, so the idea of a 10-mile trip taking an hour is not foreign, but after a look at what California is facing, I am left wondering about the future.
Traffic experts say, basically, everything we have done to ease traffic problems has largely failed.
We've added lanes to busy highways, only to find that businesses and neighborhoods expand right alongside them, devouring the new capacity.
We've added carpool lanes to encourage conservation, only to find that the added speed of these lanes lets people move further from the city center, promoting sprawl.
We've talked about adding more public transit, but the amount required to make a substantial difference is enormous. In Los Angeles, 48 million trips are made every day, but less than one million of them are on public transit.
The Southern California Association of Governments has a three-pronged plan to address traffic congestion:
1. Push to build more communities with jobs, homes, shopping and recreation all within a relatively small area.
2. Make businesses and individuals who add to congestion pay for it directly through more toll roads, development fees, that sort of thing.
3. Educate drivers about their own bad habits. The association says 50 percent of the region's congestion could be eliminated if drivers just learned to avoid accidents, breakdowns, and other bad maneuvers that create traffic jams.
Can all this work? Maybe. But it's going to require basic changes in how we live, changes that so far we have not warmed to despite $3 gallons of gasoline and traffic delays that are, on average, eating 47 hours of an urban commuter's life every year.
The question is: Are we ready, willing, or even able to make enough changes to make a difference?