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Honk if Your Car Is Moving

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FOR commuters caught in gridlock, words fail to describe the frustration. But here are words that speak for all motorists with their motors idling, going nowhere:

"I shall never become reconciled to what is known here as 'traffic,' ... trucks, cyclists, buses, flying packs of automobiles.... Then it all comes to a standstill, a grunting and rattling flood, and it cannot move forward. Sometimes the whole lot comes to a standstill for half an hour.... In the meantime you in your vehicle can reflect on what it will be like in 20 years."

Is the writer a futurologist, squinting through exhaust fumes at the year 2012? Not quite. It is Czech essayist Karel Capek, writing about London in 1925, anticipating 1945 as the year of vehicular doomsday.

If Capek were alive today, he would find his commute-time scene beginning earlier and ending later, and plugging up not only the roads in cities but in suburbs farther and farther removed. The enormity of the problem is exceeded only by the love of the American motorist for the machine that causes the problem. Capek would find evidence of the obsession taking many forms:

In upscale suburbs from Edina, Minn., to Dover, Mass., the new status symbol is a three-car garage.

In St. Petersburg, Fla., a bumper sticker attests to the rigors of traveling on a congested road: "Pray for me. I drive on US 19."

In suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Boston, motorists now legally drive in the breakdown lane during rush hour to keep traffic moving.

Also in Boston, construction has begun on a third harbor tunnel. A behemoth dubbed the Super Scoop is dredging the harbor floor so more vehicles can head for the airport and points north.

Ever since the late 1950s, when radio stations began using traffic 'copters to help commuters thread their way through "stall-and-crawl" and "creep-and-weep" traffic, transportation experts have tried to devise ways to ease the congestion. Some map out "smart routes" to help motorists avoid traffic jams. ("It's clogged on Route 3, so if you head over to 3A....") Others see salvation in sensors that regulate lights and the flow of traffic.


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