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Minimalist mass transit in Hartford, Conn. Model program's goal is to reduce volume of traffic on existing roads

Jim Otis usually leaves his house in a leafy suburb 30 miles south of here and makes it to work in downtown Hartford 35 minutes later. Such a commute would hardly seem taxing to much of urban America. But in Hartford, half an hour on the expressway is as popular as a bad insurance claim. ``Thirty minutes here is considered a big deal,'' one local resident says.

So the city has been waging war on traffic congestion, and Jim Otis represents one of its principal weapons. Instead of driving to work alone, the pin-striped administrator with the Travelers Corporation hops in a blue-and-white van and rides with 11 other employees.

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Hartford is emerging as one of the country's most prominent experiments in what could be called ``minimalist transportation.''

Faced with growing legions of commuters and declining government aid for public transit, the city is trying to alleviate traffic woes without building any new highways or big rail systems.

Instead, it is relying on some of the more unglamorous techniques first made popular in the energy-shy days of the 1970s: car pooling, van pooling, parking bans, flexible employee working hours, and computerized traffic lights.

Such shoestring strategies are being pursued by many other cities. But Hartford has put together a more comprehensive package of measures to limit the number of vehicles on city streets than most, and it has received an unusual degree of support from the private sector in devising and carrying them out.

The results, concede local officials, have been only partly successful. But ``a lot of cities are looking at what they're doing seriously,'' says Richard Bradley, president of the Washington-based International Downtown Association.

Predictably, the city also receives kudos from the Reagan administration, which has been promoting such private-sector involvement. ``A lot of communities right now are in different stages of trying to get local business leaders interested in the types of things that Hartford has done,'' says Richard Doyle, regional administrator for the Urban Mass Transportation Administration.

Hartford's traffic problem is peculiar. The city not only has to cope with commuters in its cramped downtown -- 44 percent of the work force rides to work alone by car vs. 15 percent in San Francisco -- but through traffic on Interstates 84 and 91, which brush downtown, adds to the city's traffic.

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Local officials once considered building a loop around the city, and a light rail system has been considered. When an office building boom threatened to aggravate the city's traffic woes in the early 1980s, local corporations put up $175,000 to study the situation.

The result was a blueprint that forms the basis of what is being done today. At the core of Hartford's approach is a simple but hard-to-observe maxim: Reduce the volume of traffic on existing roadways instead of building new ones to accommodate more drivers.

The city has chipped in by cajoling truckers to avoid making deliveries during rush hours and by upgrading its antiquated traffic-light system with a computerized one, which helps divert cars away from congested intersections. A convoy of tow trucks also moves in before rush hour to clear out illegally parked cars on busy streets.

But most of the burden has fallen on the city's 13 major businesses -- ``the bishops,'' as they're known locally -- which include several banks, insurance companies, and retailers. Several companies have adopted flexible working hours for workers to help avoid hundreds of cars being dumped in the streets at once. Some also sponsor van pools (Travelers has a 65-vehicle fleet) and encourage workers to car-pool by giving reduced rates on parking. A couple of businesses subsidize employees' bus fares as well.

``We don't know of another group in the country that has become as involved at the corporate level as this one,'' says Jonathan Colman, president of the Rideshare Company, a nonprofit group that runs a commuter van service and organizes many of the transportation efforts.

All this has helped reduce traffic gridlock but hasn't solved all the city's transportation problems. Mr. Colman estimates that 4,500 cars have been pulled off city streets in the past four years. His company alone has helped set up 2,400 car pools. The corporate sector wants to reduce single-driver vehicles by 20 percent over three years. But last year they achieved only 4 percent.

``We're on our way, but it is coming building block by building block,'' says Emily Mokriski, a transportation planner for the city.

Colman, who preaches the merits of ride sharing to companies with the zeal of a carnival barker, believes further big reductions won't happen unless local corporations raise the rates they charge employees for parking. But they are reluctant to do so for fear of driving workers into a competitor's camp.

Some say Hartford's grass-roots efforts -- Rideshare in particular -- are only putting off the day when the city will have to expand public transit. ``The more the federal and state people make a big fuss about Rideshare, the more they're going to ignore other public transportation,'' says Charlotte Kitowski of the Connecticut Transportation Coalition, an activist group.

Local officials face a big enough task trying to change people's driving habits in these days of plentiful gasoline. Says one local computer scientist, jumping in a yellow Nissan (alone) to brave rush-hour traffic: ``I like my independence.''

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