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American Idle: On the Road

By: Joseph B. White
Wall Street Journal
February 2, 2011

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Is spending an extra half hour a day with your kids worth $5 or $10 in extra tolls?

That's just one question people who drive to work will face as governments try to tame the time-sucking commutes in America's big cities.

The average commuter lost 34 hours—nearly a full work week—because of traffic congestion in 2009, and as the economy recovers, traffic tie-ups will likely increase. Tied for worst: Chicago and Washington, D.C., where drivers idle for an average of 70 hours a year in traffic jams, according to the latest Urban Mobility Report from the Texas Transportation Institute.

Congestion, particularly in the largest cities, has increased steadily as families moved farther from downtown areas, office parks sprang up in formerly rural areas, and government spending for roads and mass transit lagged behind the growth in population.

Beau Phillips, a partner in a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, commutes 15 miles "as the crow flies" from his home in suburban Virginia to his office in the city. That trip can take 25 minutes—or 90 minutes, he says. It all depends.

To speed his daily trip, Mr. Phillips often rides one of his motorcycles so he can ride in the faster high-occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes otherwise limited to buses, carpools and hybrid cars. Mr. Phillips says if Virginia offered him the chance to pay $4,000 to get an annual pass to a high-speed commuting lane for his car, he'd take it. "I would saw off my left arm for better weather and a better commute," he says.

Trading money for shorter commutes is just one of the ideas in the mix as transportation officials look to ease congestion without raising taxes. Among the options being considered are paying to drive in HOV lanes or to drive to city centers. Private toll roads, technology that adjusts red lights in real time, more tow trucks—and more alternatives to driving—all could make incremental improvements that add up to the difference between a busy road and gridlock. "If you can do 10 things that each handles one percent … you can make a huge difference," says Roy Kienitz, undersecretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Governments, of course, can build new roads. But in densely populated urban areas such as Northern Virginia, "we are simply running out of good options for making large-scale improvements to road capacity," says Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton. "We have got to get the most out of the capacity we have."

Here are some ideas to ease traffic in the works at the federal, state and local levels:

Speed as a for-profit service. In the early years of the nation, entrepreneurs built toll roads, offering travelers a faster carriage ride in return for money.

Now, the concept of the toll road is making a comeback. In Virginia, a key element of a $4 billion transportation package proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell includes expanding the use of "HOT" lanes, an acronym for high-occupancy toll lanes. These fast lanes will be operated by a private company within the existing freeway system. Toll rates could fluctuate according to demand, or be set based on time of day as they are on Route 91 in Los Angeles. Such pay-to-roll roads are in operation or on the drawing board around the U.S.

Crowd-sourcing the commute. In many cities, roadways are lined with sensors or cameras that feed information to traffic-management control rooms. Houston has one that looks almost like the one NASA used to run the moon missions—except it's bigger—and it is run by Houston TranStar, the multi-agency consortium that manages the region's traffic.

At the same time, the mobile phones and GPS systems aboard cars are rich sources of data about speed, traffic volumes, and where gridlock could pop up next.

Companies such as Inrix, Inc., which already harvests traffic data from a variety of sources, are looking to capitalize by connecting the pieces of the crowd-sourced traffic network and using the information to slice drive times by warning motorists to move out of a clogged lane, or slow down to avoid sudden stops that lead to more accidents, and more delays. Accidents slow traffic at least two ways: By blocking a travel lane, and by enticing motorists to slow down and gawk.

Ted Trepanier, an Inrix executive and former leader of traffic operations for the state of Washington, says better data feeding information to signs along a busy highway can result in fewer accidents and fewer tie-ups. A 7.5 mile stretch of I-5 headed into downtown Seattle has signs every half mile that warn motorists to slow down if there's congestion ahead, based on data from sensors in the road. Since the system started operating in August, wrecks have dropped to a third of their previous level, he says.

What's unglamorous can set you free. Traffic relief doesn't have to involve cutting-edge networking technology or pricey fast lanes. Hiring more tow trucks to clear wrecks and stalled cars faster can generate big gains at a moderate cost. Houston spends about $5 million a year to assure that there are roughly 100 tow trucks cruising the major commuting routes.

The Texas Transportation Institute's Mr. Lomax estimates Houston's tow truck army saves $25 million to $30 million in congestion costs and about $30 million in collisions that could have resulted from chain-reaction pileups.

Synchronizing stoplights on busy city streets can save millions of gallons of gas and keep traffic flowing. The catch: Doing it right is pricey. The hardware and software to synchronize stoplights in time to variations in traffic flow are complex, and the systems have to be maintained regularly.

Using lights on freeway entry ramps to control the flow of cars onto the main road can also ease the flow. Inrix's Mr. Trepanier says these systems require sophisticated software to work properly, but shave minutes if done right.

Go early, or stay late. Many employers let workers adopt flexible schedules or to work from home to avoid the 9-to-5 traffic rush. But that doesn't help much in cities such as Washington, where the morning and evening "rush hours" can each last three hours or more. Many businesses still demand personal contact with clients or colleagues.

Lobbyist Ed Kutler says he tries to leave his home in Columbia, Md. at 5:45 a.m. "at the very latest" to make it to his downtown Washington office. At night, he doesn't leave until 7:30 p.m. Even then, he has a 45 minute ride home, barring trouble. When his wife, whose commute is roughly half as long, has a bad drive, he says, "Welcome to my hell."

—Brody Mullins contributed to this article.


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