Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Might be no way out of this traffic jam
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?
Posted By Tom Foreman, CNN Correspondent: 6:56 PM ET
  38 Comments
Most of the focus seems to be punitive; I don't know about you, but my kids respond with rebellion when my discipline focuses solely on the negative consequences or punishments for poor behaviors.
I find much more cooperation when I offer rewards for compliance: tax cuts for consistent carpoolers (they can take photos of participants in daily transits, copy gas tickets, and even have their bosses confirm (card or ticket stamps, online link-verification, etc) via programs promoting carpooling---this would directly benefit companies with limited parking space for employees as well---it's a win-win. (Extra points and deductions for carpoolers with four or more occupants.)
Secure, preferred parking, tax deductions and employment or community perks for commuters able and willing to find alternate modes of transportation: bikes (there are bike lanes everywhere in CA---pack your no-iron ready-to-wear outfit and shower at the office), public transport, etc.
Only a couple of ideas off the top...but let's face it: want change? Speak to the wallet, 'cause the attitude ain't listening.
Posted By Anonymous Anne Brown, Jacksonville, FL : 7:24 PM ET
Oh, and another thing...
consider allowing proven self-driven employees, especially those outside of a given radius to work from home: sure the upstart cost is there, but consider lost work hours due to tardiness, absenteeism, etc and figure the math.
Companies could still require attendance in-office for meetings, training, etc. Companies could also establish and enforce policies that mandate that employees with productivity loss not attributable to system limitations in the home be required to return to the office daily, and the expense of the in-home set-up could be deducted from the employees' pay to discourage abuses. Agreements constituting contracts could be signed by the employee in advance as a condition for consideration for the privilege.
Posted By Anonymous Anne Brown, Jacksonville, FL : 7:42 PM ET
1-2-3, OK. But if we eliminated "illegals" would we move to a lower population? less demand for fuel? less traffic? If we go forward with the Senate immigration plan which would by estimates increase our population by 1/3 in 10 years, we would see the this problem increase at a rate we could not possibly keep up with. So NUMBER 4 would be population control through enforcement of immigration laws without guest worker or amnesty per the Senate/President.
Posted By Anonymous linda, bella vista, ar : 7:46 PM ET
I believe everyone should look into the ideas of using alternative transportation, for example, carpooling or bike riding.
We will all save on the money being spent on high gas prices; there will be less congestion on the roads, fewer car accidents, reduce pollution, and might even become healthier by bike riding and/or walking (if living in a fairly close distance to their destination).
But that's just my idea.
Posted By Anonymous Natasha, Tucson, AZ : 7:53 PM ET
One word - motorcycles!
Posted By Anonymous Rider in Lexington, KY : 8:02 PM ET
... and yet the job that most people do could be done as easily at home with a high-speed connection, webcam and messaging.

How many people have to be in the same room with you for you to get your job done? If the answer is one (you), telecommute.
Posted By Anonymous Arachnae, Sterling VA : 8:04 PM ET
I feel high technology will be the answer for the workplace travel arena. A expansive wireless internet will allow many to work and teleconference from more strategic locations.
Posted By Anonymous Dave Winfield Quincy, Il : 8:09 PM ET
Hi Tom,
I've lived in California all my life..Nothing ever changes as far as traffic goes, except to get worse..With the price of our housing pushing nearly everyone into living hours from work, what can be done? Maybe if more companies will let workers work from home it might help a little bit..But as a native Californian, all I can say is we probably shouldn't have a freeway without traffic..Hey, It's California,no one here would be able to see an empty road and hold it down below 100mph..Yep, better leave well enough alone..Take Care
Posted By Anonymous Lorie Ann, Buellton, Calif. : 8:10 PM ET
As long as people continue to move into the area, and the building of new homes continues, traffic will certainly increase. Despite the hike in gasoline prices, modern-day folks will continue to drive. Why? Because they will not revert back to horse and buggy. We have become accustomed to getting places in a relatively short time. Unfortunately, the adding of traffic lanes will not be a success because there are more and more people using them. This is a tough situation with no easy answers. This issue goes deeper than traffic jams, our air quality is horrendous. Yes, this is quite a dilemma.
Posted By Anonymous Tina Loy Stockton, California : 8:36 PM ET
I think we should look at this problem from the other side so to speak. I think companies should look at opening new offices and such thoughtout our nation. Instead of humungous offices in DC, NY, Atlanta and such, why not open smaller offices in smaller areas. It would open up employment opportunities for people who like living in small towns, it would cut commuting time and allow us to preserve much of our green spaces.
Posted By Anonymous Christina, Windber, PA : 9:00 PM ET
I can't imagine communities with jobs, homes, stores, etc. working in Los Angeles. This city loves it's cars. The thought of facing such long distances in public transportation is frightening. Car pooling seems even worse. The toll roads down in Orange County don't seem to be slowing anyone down. To the Urban Planners out there, all I can say is good luck. I can't speak for other cities in the US but those of us in Los Angeles are a stubborn, individualist lot.
Posted By Anonymous Rachel, Sherman Oaks, CA : 9:08 PM ET
It takes me one hour to travel approximately 16 miles to work. Since it took half an hour to go past three exits on the 170 South, I now mainly use side streets to avoid the freeway parking lot. I've considered public transportation but just to get to the nearest Metrolink station I still have to drive and leave my car there which leads to the next problem of limited parking (walking takes over half an hour - I tried). Unfortunately the public transportation does not meet the needs of the people. The city recently added stretch buses which are filled to the gills whenever I pass one.

A possible solution is to institute a 4 day work week where companies rotate on certain days of the week the employees would be off. On a side note- during the boycott made by the illegal aliens where businesses closed and they refused to work on May 1, I had the best commute time ever - 20 minutes.
Posted By Anonymous M. Wong, Van Nuys, CA : 10:34 PM ET
How many times can you recall seeing news footage taken in China on their public streets? There are people on bicycles everywhere! It seems very simple and perhaps not very convenient, but imagine if huge numbers of Americans suddenly made the decision to use bicycles as much as possible- there are the health benefits, the savings on gas ( and car insurance if you drive a lower number of miles) and, of course, the reduction of emissions in the environment.
There is no shame getting around on a bike!
Posted By Anonymous Elizabeth Morgantown, WV : 10:40 PM ET
People do like to drive. But if you design areas with sidewalks, crosswalks, and sufficient parking at mass transit people will try it. If I could spend the commute reading or getting other thigns done, I would.
Posted By Anonymous Leigh, Charlotte, NC : 10:59 PM ET
I agree with solution number 3 "Take Public Transportation." I depend on the buses and trains to get around throughout Los Angeles Country and I encourage people to start taking public transportation.
Posted By Anonymous Myron Chai, Manhattan Beach, California : 11:54 PM ET
If you build it, they will come. The rule of thumb, in my opinion, in California is: build a freeway or a surburb (not necessarily in that order, either) and the population moves further away from the metro areas. A dog chasing its tail.

I grew up near the Hollywood Hills. I visited the area a couple of months ago. The Valley is more congested than what I saw in Manhatten in the Fall last year. Manhatten is easier to commute to/from, get around in, than most places in Southern California.

Those who are familiar with Riverside and San Diego Counties understand about the growth that has taken place in the past 4 years. The pace of construction/growth is nothing short of terrifying.
Posted By Anonymous Melissa, Murrieta, CA : 11:58 PM ET
Everyone here has proposals that seem feasible-- ride bike, telecommute, better city planning, better incentives for carpool, pay-as-you-go lanes, and what not. But in the end, all of these solutions are small patches to a big wound that will not heal unless we look into the root of the problem.

The root of the problem is that Americans want everything without paying much for anything. They want the biggest SUVs, fastest computers, and the biggest homes they can afford. Prior CNN polls show that they are so willing to live in big homes that they don't mind getting stuck for hours in traffic everyday. Americans in general hate living in dense, walkable, European-style cities-- it requires giving up a little bit of their precious freedom. They are overly individualistic and are accustomed to living in big McMansion miles and miles away from where they work. They want to buy the typical 5 bdrm 6 baths 3000sqft homes without paying an exorbitant amount of money, so they live far away from where they work. Developers understand this very well and instead of creating unprofitable compact European-like cities, they develop cheap big homes in the middle of nowhere. While this business model works well in places like Texas where land and resources are abundant, it creates problems in congested coastal cities. Endless suburbia creates a dependency on automobile, and wasted utilities such as water, gas, and electricity since single family homes in general need much more energy than denser, compact homes.

Until Americans stop being Americans and build sustainable cities instead of suburbia, traffic jams will get worse and worse.
Posted By Anonymous Motd, Berkeley, CA : 11:59 PM ET
One big problem is that most drivers do not know how to merge. Convert the right lane to a merge only lane to allow folks to come up to speed and merge safely. Also close down on-ramps that share off-ramp lanes. This is a merging nightmare with people trying to get on in the same space people are trying to get off our freeway system.

Maybe require that freeway engineer/designers must have 20 years experience driving the California freeway system before allowed to design one.
Posted By Anonymous Mike Morin, Riverside, CA : 12:02 AM ET
I lived in Northern California several years ago and it took me about 45 minutes to drive 8 miles toward San Francisco every morning (normally with a late, disgruntled driver riding my bumper the whole way).

When I moved to Montana...let's just say, to see a hand go up by a passing motorist and have it be a friendly wave rather than "the finger" was quite a surprise!
Posted By Anonymous Lori Missoula, MT : 12:26 AM ET
I've lived in Los Angeles for nearly 10 years now. Getting around town without a car doesn't work here.LA is a vast city . Public transport takes way too long to get you from one city part to another and and doesn't even save you money!Not enough anyway, to make up for the enormous inconvenience . LA is not NYC. I wish we had a great web of underground trains, but we just don't .Riding a bicycle is too dangerous in this city and so is riding a motorcycle. For me, the biggest problem about our traffic is not the amount of cars on the road, but the amount of bad,slow and plain oblivious drivers .
I'd be very happy if everyone would drive a hybrid car. That wouldn't ease traffic, but it'd at least be better for the environment.
Posted By Anonymous M.M. Bissell, Studio City,CA : 12:53 AM ET
The cost of living in the LA/Orange Country metro area is so astronomical (try $700,000 for a 3bed/2ba 1300 sq ft. home) that it forces people to move hours away and commute. Sure traffic is always going to be bad in California but real estate is also a big part of the blame game. There is no affordable, safe real estate in greater Los Angeles. Sad, but true.
Posted By Anonymous Julie, Redondo Beach : 1:50 AM ET
The current controversy reminds me of the first Arab oil embargo in 1972(?) or 1973(?). I was living in Houston and the papers were filled each day with stories of people cheating in carpool lanes, breaking in line at the gas station, etc. A co-worker of mine had been a Lt. Commander in the US Navy during WWII. She commented that Americans seemed incapable of denying themselves anything even during times of war. She told me stories of people cheating on their ration cards during the war.

When you add that proclivity to the attitude that we have developed in this country that whatever I WANT to do is my Constitutional RIGHT to do...well, let's just say I don't think there is a workable solution.
Posted By Anonymous Jim, Dallas, TX : 1:51 AM ET
There is no answer to the "traffic jam" at this point in time. As far as pushing to build more communities with jobs, homes, shopping and recreation all within a small area...good luck. I live in a development that was developed in the very early 60's that was supposed to be self-contained...School, Church, Shopping Center, etc. But, the local government, school board, etc have over the years deminished the concept. As far as businesses and individuals who add to congestion paying for it directly through more toll roads (Just what this country needs...the government gets richer and the traffic jam continues) development fees, etc....get real! Why don't we just jail these individuals? (which are all of us!). We as a nation are becoming very intense on sending people to jail for just about talking...let's get real....No answer to the traffic jam problem, unless you want to give up your license to drive!
Posted By Anonymous Moe, Liverpool NY : 2:01 AM ET
How about public transportation??? Why is it that you have to drive everywhere. Why not to try to car pull and use and build more public transportation systems that are efficient and cheap. I think that this is a valid option that most Americans are not willing to put on the table and to accept as part of the solution.
Posted By Anonymous Angelo, Washington, DC : 2:21 AM ET
And then I wonder why I haven't seen a BLUE sky in about 4 years...
Posted By Anonymous Sarah Shaw, Charlotte, NC : 4:46 AM ET
There is no way that mass transit, public or private will work on a large scale because of two things. There are no provisions to get off and get to remote goods and services, especially in rural areas, and people are so used to convienience of coming and going where they please when they want to go.
Regardless of the push for privatized mass transportation, there is no replacing the private vehicle. I live in a remote area and this would not work for me or anyone else I know.
Posted By Anonymous Joe, Danville, IL : 6:25 AM ET
Perhaps it is time for us to follow the German or European Model. When you look at large cities like Frankfurt, Berlin, Munich, you really do not see traffic jams (unless it is World Cup time). The reason is that we look at cars as a necessity and a status symbol whereas the average european looks at his car as a necessary luxury. People still walk in Europe, they ride bikes, they rollerskate, they take trains and try to live near their work. This is largely due to the fact that the dream of the average European is not to have a large center-hall colonial with vinyl siding and a two car garage in the suburbs. They live in efficient brick buildings, some centuries old, and they take care of them. We however, live in houses made of wood and we are lucky if they hold up as long as the mortgage. We spend thousands on cars and make car payments on vehicles that do not hold their value. We have been taught that we have to buy new things. Europeans are taught to take care of history. The only solution to this problem is a total remaking of the American psyche. Until we each realize that our personal actions in this throw-away economy effect society as a whole, we will never get out of this traffic jam.
Posted By Anonymous Kyle, Odenton MD : 6:52 AM ET
I, for one, would dearly love to be able to use mass transit for my commute. Unfortunately, in the Boston area, all the mass transit runs from outside of Boston into Boston. There are no bus runs up and down I-95 or I-495. There are no commuter rails on these hub roads. So unless your commute takes you into the city, you're out of luck for mass transit. And even if it -does- take you into the city, you may still be out of luck -- in our area, if you don't catch the first train of the morning, there are no parking places left in the lot. The I-495 commuter rail station in Littleton, MA has a whole FIFTEEN parking spaces!
Posted By Anonymous Faith, Bolton, MA : 7:23 AM ET
Good piece Tom:

This country is in love with cars, and to be honest so am I. however building extra lanes, or building extra roads, car-pooling lanes is not the solution. I am originally from Santiago Chile, I must tell you in 1975 the first Subway line was finish in Santiago, since then there are a few more subway lines in Santiago a city of 4.5 million people. Public transportation in Santiago is world class, in one world �awesome�. Santiago also has bus services (most bus lines run every other minute, not a long wait), a zillion taxis (means for many people to make extra money with their cars) . But the best by far is the subway it takes only minutes to go from one end of the city to the other (they run ten minutes apart) at a cost of only 50 cents/person I think. Such a trip would take an hour or more by car and on top of that you have to park at a rate higher than NY, and guess what? The subway is a combination of Chilean capitals and private capitals, and they �make money��.
Los Angeles city planners should get a look at examples such as Buenos Aires, Santiago, Tokyo, and other cities with good mass transportation systems, and look at the possibility of expanding or re-engineering the existing transportation systems in LA. They should attempt to develop a cheap efficient mass transportation system that would also would accommodate future needs, a mass transportation system that would make cars impractical in the city. The construction of park and ride lots so people still would use their car in a limited way should they choose to do so.
Some times is not necessary to reinvent the wheel, some times is better just to improve the concept.

Any Ideas at what city planners are working on?
Posted By Anonymous Walt From Pittsburgh : 7:42 AM ET
Much like the current gas price crisis, one can look to Europe for answers. Every major western European city has a very well developed mass transit system -- subways, buses, suburban trains, and trams depending on the country. In general, more people there walk, use mopeds, or ride bikes.

There are two changes necessary for this to work. First, the city and state government must put up funds to expand public transit in most cities. Second, the American mindset must change.

Not everyone needs a driver's license and a new SUV when they turn 16. Let them use mass transit.
Posted By Anonymous Andy Chicago, IL : 9:04 AM ET
One idea is more commuter rails like they have from New Jersey to New York and Maryland into D.C. I live in Atlanta and we need commuter rails badly. Our traffic is horrible and although we have our MARTA system (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) which does include a localized rail system it does not address the needs of those living way out in the suburbs. As communities grow you can just add more rail cars to accommodate more commuters. Dig the weeds off the old railroad tracks that crisscross Atlanta and start a commuter rail service is my bright idea.
Posted By Anonymous Alisa, Atlanta, GA : 10:06 AM ET
No. A small but growing percentage of people may choose an urban lifestyle to reduce commutes. The majority of people, especially raising children will still pay the price to have the suburban home. Only when the negative completely offsets the positive will there be enough reason to change. 4 hour commute times each way to work. Or gas prices so high it eats a much larger percentage of pay.
Posted By Anonymous chrs, Litchfiield Park, AZ : 10:30 AM ET
To listen to people complaining about possible soloutions, you would think they like sitting in traffic, so long as they can do it alone, in their own cars. I can think of a million better things to do with my time.
Posted By Anonymous Paul L, Sterling VA : 10:33 AM ET
This problem can be aided by technology. There are many jobs that could be done from home. Corporate structure needs to change to allow the flexibility.
Posted By Anonymous Mike Youngstown, OH : 10:36 AM ET
Bicycles. One simple thing that can be done is for law makers to create financial incentives for people to ride bicycles to/from work.

At this time HR 807 and S2635 are in committes. The current 1986 IRS tax code allows companies to grant fringe benefits to employees that use mass transit riders or van pool. These bills will extend the definition of "transportation" to include "bicycle commuting".
Posted By Anonymous Ron Rizzardi, North Little Rock, AR : 10:46 AM ET
The situation with traffic shouldn't surprise anyone since many drivers are below average intelligence, and their driving habits reflect that lack of intelligence. Those people cause consequences for the rest of us, and until we are willing to invest a lot of money and resources into teaching people to drive correctly and then enforce the traffic laws, the situation will only get worse. We need many more traffic officers on the road, and they need to write tickets for more than just speeding. Illegal lane changes, running red lights, rolling road blocks in the passing lane, and those that can't stay in their lane all need to be addressed as much as the person who is speeding. Until law enforcement learns this, and acts accordingly, nothing is going to change the traffic situation.
Posted By Anonymous Matt Yoder, Durango, CO : 11:16 AM ET
The United States government subsidizes automotive transport by providing free motorways using taxpayers dollars. If you wish to take mass-transit then you can expect to pay. If you really want to cut down on automotive use then simply make people pay for how much they drive. Toll roads are a start. That being said I commute by car 70 miles every day on back roads so I obviously would be opposed to anyone attempting to end my free ride.
Posted By Anonymous Michael Lowell, MA : 11:54 AM ET
The problem is that for the last 50 years we've been building cities around the car. Most of the major today's problems are direct results of our unnatural dependency on cars; global warming, traffic congestion, drunk driving, high gas prices, obesity, dependence on foreign oil (with all the monstrous dictators and wars that come along with such a dependence).

In the suburb of DC I live in, the only places within walking/biking distance are other houses. We need to begin developing our city regions in coordination with regional transportation authorities to build denser communities closer to mass transit to encourage higher ridership and end the outdated zoning laws that encourage and perpetuate sprawl. People will only make the switch to mass transit if it becomes a convenient alternative to driving.
Posted By Anonymous Alex, springfield va : 8:49 PM ET
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