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Why commuters stay stuck in drive

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Sonja Jones-Shin lives about 30 miles from downtown San Francisco, where she works as a media specialist for NASA. A proponent of public transportation, she wanted to believe it could work for her.

She recently relented and bought a car.

Although Ms. Jones-Shin can count on stop-and-go traffic every day, she says her worst days driving to work are still better than the 1-1/2 to 2 hours she used to spend sitting on the train.

If shuttles and trains ran faster and more frequently, Jones-Shin says, she might reconsider. Still, "whenever I saw [the city] expanding the highway, I was very happy," she says.

An era of big government spending appears to be having a positive impact on road conditions around some urban hubs, even as automated tolls and other advances attempt to loosen the traffic flow.

Add to that all the reports about the rise of work-from-home "e-lancers" and flexible hours, and you might conclude that for those left stuck with a daily drive, commutes must be getting easier.

Not so fast. Across the board, studies show generally prosperous Americans are driving more frequently, going longer distances - and doing it solo more than ever.

According to the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a nonprofit group that analyzes transportation data, traffic delays in 68 cities increased 235 percent between 1982 and 1997. In that same time, population in those cities rose only 22 percent.

Americans make nearly 90 percent of all trips in a private vehicle, and more than 20 percent of those trips are work related, according to the US Department of Transportation.

The outlook for change isn't good.

"Slowing the growth of congestion is the best thing that most areas can hope for," says Tim Lomax, a research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute in College Station, Texas.

The reality, say experts, is that Americans remain a free-wheeling lot. Not even rising gas prices significantly ease their craving for mobility.

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