The next time you're bumper-to-bumper on the Beltway, complaining about the commuters clogging up the road, take another look. Chances are, that station wagon loaded with shopping bags shoulders much of the blame for the suburban crawl.

Because of regional malls, factory outlet centers, warehouse stores, consumer demand for low prices and vast selection, and above all, urban sprawl, Americans are driving farther to shop. The nation that once walked a mile for a Camel now drives 20 miles for the right brand of dog food.

Shopping trips add 1,700 miles a year to the average American car -- and have increased since 1969 at a rate five times faster than commuting trips, according to the 1990 National Personal Transportation Study. In the Baltimore area, 21 of the 86 minutes the average resident spends in the car each weekday are for shopping trips.

And while transportation planners concentrate on easing traffic backups for commuters, far-flung shopping centers are adding to the headaches of suburban driving. Given the problems in designing a transportation system to accommodate workers, planners see little hope of perfecting a system to handle shoppers.

"There's been a radical change in the geography of retail trade," says Harvey S. Bloom, director of transportation planning with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a regional planning agency. "We can't build our way out of this."

A few years ago, a 20-minute drive to a store was a major family outing. But Walter Munshower of Bel Air didn't think twice about jumping in his car recently and driving 20 minutes to the PTC PetsMart on Pulaski Highway to buy dog and cat food.

These days, local mall managers say their shoppers typically come from 30 miles away or more. At the Perryville Outlet Center, for example, the average driving distance for shoppers is 45 miles. And on a recent day, one Little Italy mother drove 40 minutes to the Sports Authority in White Marsh searching for tennis shoes for her teen-age son.

Jim and Jane Harris used to shop at the J.C. Penney and Hecht's stores 10 minutes from their Silver Spring home. Now those stores have closed and the Harrises drive 20 minutes to Laurel or 30 minutes to Columbia to shop.

One day recently, they went even farther, dropping by the Perryville Outlet Center after a visit to Havre de Grace. Mrs. Harris was hoping to find a blouse to match a piece of blue denim fabric she clutched in her hand.

"The stores we used to shop at aren't there anymore," Mrs. Harris said.

Increasingly, stores seem to be plopped down in the middle of nowhere. Sites are selected not because they are close to a particular neighborhood, but because land is readily available and near the growing suburbs. Downtown department stores have closed, so even city residents face long drives when they shop.

Ironically, one reason shoppers are spending more time on the road is that they have less time to shop, said Rene Daniel, president of the Daniel Group, a Baltimore-based shopping center consultant.

Life in the suburbs is a life on the road. Typically, both parents drive to jobs and spend their free time chauffeuring children to club meetings and team practices.

"They're limited in the time they can shop so they try to go to a place where they can get the most selection," Mr. Daniel said.

That relentless search for selection and bargains has fueled the popularity of superstores and factory outlets. Such stores usually require large chunks of land, so they tend to be in outlying suburbs where land is plentiful and cheap, said Tom Saquella, director of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association.

The Price Club Plaza on Pulaski Highway, which includes superstores such as Price Club, Home Depot and Sports Authority, is one of those remote shopping centers. Three miles east of the Beltway, it was carved from a landscape of past warehouses, business parks and recreational vehicle sales lots.

But Sports Authority manager Deborah Gardiner says the location doesn't faze customers. Most customers live within a 15- to 17-mile radius, although about 40 percent come from farther away.

"People don't put much thought into how far they have to drive," she said.

Carol Liszewski drove 20 minutes from Bel Air to buy a volleyball shirt for her daughter. Harford Mall would have been closer, but she couldn't be certain she would find what she needed.

Sometimes shoppers go to the stores; in other cases, the stores go to the people.

In May, a shopping center opened at Routes 2 and 214 to serve the growing population in southern Anne Arundel and Calvert counties. A few years ago, the land was forest and tobacco farms.

Cliff Coryelle remembers driving from his home in Edgewater to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, traveling on Route 214 and passing hardly a car. "The land was dirt cheap."

Now, the new shopping center, the Commons at South River Colony, includes a 123,000-square-foot Kmart, a Food Lion, several smaller stores and fast-food restaurants still being built. A residential development is being built nearby.

Shoppers say they don't see all the growth as an intrusion.

But such remote shopping centers trouble transportation planners, who still are stumped by the problems of getting workers to their jobs.

Twice a day, the Beltway turns into a parking lot. The Baltimore area's mass transit system -- designed to carry workers from the suburbs to downtown -- doesn't meet the needs of an increasingly suburban work force. Meanwhile, the area racks up record numbers of days with unhealthy air, largely because of automobile emissions.

Josef Nathanson, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's director of economic research and information systems, sees some positive signs. No new major retail centers are planned for the area. The emphasis has shifted to redeveloping old malls and shopping centers inside the Beltway, such as Towson Town Center and Westview Mall. And the increase in mixed-use developments places stores closer to homes.

Shoppers also might be changing their attitudes. Mr. Nathanson is encouraged by the growing popularity of shopping through catalogs, computers and specialized television networks.

Ultimately, the increasing preciousness of time may be what changes shoppers' habits. Baltimore-based retail consultant Michael Ewing sees evidence that consumers may be forgoing price savings for time savings.

"We are finding that people are looking more for the convenience of close shopping," he said.

But predicting the future of shopping isn't easy, he points out. "What you find out in the retail business is that there's never-ending change."

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