THE bumper to bumper traffic that has long clogged many of the nation's larger cities during rush hour has been edging into more hours of the day. Gridlock also increasingly affects suburbs and even rural areas as Americans move further out from city cores in search of affordable housing and as suburbs build major office complexes. New York and Los Angeles commuters know well, for instance, that the Long Island Expressway and the Encino, Calif., portion of the Ventura Freeway are two of the most heavily traveled roads in those busy metropolitan regions. Traffic jams beside fields of grazing cows are no longer uncommon. Current traffic volume on all the nation's roads is expected to triple over the next three decades. Reserving highway lanes for vehicles carrying more than one occupant can help. Yet building more and more roads is unlikely to ease the squeeze. The cost is steep, construction takes time, and most new roads tend to fill up with cars as soon as they open.
The best answers lie in quelling demand through improved public transit. Employers and employees can take numerous small steps to reduce the number of solo commuters and stretch out peak travel hours. More flexible work hours, carpools, transit discounts for employees to match company-provided free parking space - all can help. More than 1,000 firms in New York City now offer fare subsidies to workers who use public transportation. The city will also experiment with computerized toll booths at bridges and tunnels that will automatically charge enrolled drivers without obligating them to stop.
Several dozen other cities are forming transportation-management associations with local employers. New clean-air standards and the likelihood of more expensive gasoline in the years ahead may prompt more communities to follow suit.
Strong business and city leadership, a cooperative approach, and a clearer understanding of why so many employees feel a need to drive (it's not just a love affair with the car, but errands and emergencies that cause people to drive) are all key parts of the solution.