Highway gridlock beginning to strangle suburbs Widespread commuting between 'edge cities' brings slowdown


CORTLANDT, N.Y. -- At 7:20 on a misty workday morning, like soldiers mustering at dawn reveille, commuters in this suburb 45 miles north of New York City assembled in long snaking lines leading to a Y-shaped intersection.

The cars inched along the narrow, tree-lined roads, with 20 or so squirting ahead from each arm of the Y as the light went through its cycle, only to stack up at the next light, just 200 yards ahead.

"If you don't get here by 7, it takes a half-hour to go four miles," said Kathy Goldstein, an accountant who has stoically driven the route for six years. The light changed, and she crawled on her way - not to the metropolis to the south, but to her job 40 miles east, in the satellite city of Stamford, Conn.

In an informal survey of several dozen of her fellow commuters, no one was headed into the heart of the region, New York City. They all lived and worked in the periphery, in what urban planners call "edge city."

This congestion is the same in suburban fringes of big cities coast to coast. A new kind of traffic jam has emerged that bears little resemblance to the stereotype of the twice-daily tide of cars and trucks stewing in their own exhaust on the Santa Monica Freeway or on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Every morning and evening - and increasingly in the middle of the day - an overloaded network of small local roads clogs with traffic as commuters, shoppers, truckers and other drivers try to crisscross a landscape of dispersed neighborhoods, shopping centers and office parks.

The crush is a consequence of millions of workers and jobs migrating in recent decades from urban downtowns to outlying regions, drawn by cheaper housing and the prospect of a patch of lawn.

44 percent of commuting

Suburb-to-suburb commuting has quadrupled since 1960, now accounting for 44 percent of all commuting in the United States, according to a 1996 study by Alan E. Pisarski, a transportation consultant for the Eno Transportation Foundation, an independent consulting firm in Virginia.

In essence, suburban sprawl has created something that might be called "suburban crawl" - a chronic, creeping congestion.

This widespread slowdown is costing tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity annually, economists say, as workers, goods and materials are delayed, although it is hard to obtain firm estimates because the phenomenon is so dispersed.

Even worse, transportation experts say this traffic is likely to be far more difficult to untangle than the old-fashioned highway backup.

While travel into city centers can be eased by trains, buses and other ways, planners are not finding simple solutions to moving people around the periphery efficiently. And this traffic problem is growing far faster than congestion on city-bound highways.

All told, 13 million out of the 19 million new jobs in the United States between 1980 and 1990 were created in the suburbs. "If anything, that trend is growing," Pisarski said. "The organizations move where the people are and where the pool of skills is. But, of course, as things get crowded, then the people move out farther."

The cycle repeats, and the traffic grows and spreads.

Despite half-hearted efforts in some regions to organize car pools or other alternatives, almost all these new suburban jobs have been filled by people who drive to work alone.

With gasoline nearly as cheap as it has been in years, there is little incentive to change. Partly as a result, the number of trips made on public transportation in the United States declined by more than 10 percent during the 1980s.

The problem extends to the exurbs, regions that had been rural but are now growing more populated by people who work in the suburbs and want cheaper housing.

"We've created places where the only option is the automobile," said Jeffrey A. Zupan, a senior transportation analyst at the Regional Plan Association, a private group that has for decades studied long-term environmental and transportation issues around New York City.

Complicating the congestion are unpredictable driving patterns created by people who, pressed for time, combine chores into extended trips. On the way to or from work, a typical suburban commuter is very likely to drop a child at a day-care center, pick up groceries or stop at a bank or a gas station, each time exiting or entering the flow of traffic from a side street or a parking lot, resulting in what transportation engineers call interference. Or what drivers call a stop-and-start nightmare.

The overburdened roads, designed for a fraction of the traffic they are now bearing, are crumbling prematurely, causing new delays as "Road Work Ahead" signs sprout.

Transportation engineers see some hope for improvement in simple acts like reducing the number of places where cars can enter busy suburban arteries.

For example, adjacent shopping malls could be linked by side roads so that cars do not repeatedly exit and enter major streets, said William L. Schwartz, a transportation planner at Cambridge Systematics, a Massachusetts consulting firm. Another weak spot is officials' slow responses to traffic accidents or breakdowns that block streets, with a small disruption often leading to extensive delays, Schwartz said.

But re-engineering malls or cleaning up accidents is outside the purview of state and local transportation departments, and so these aspects of the congestion problem rarely get the necessary attention or money.

Nibbling at problem

Improving the timing of traffic signals and using sensors embedded in roads to monitor buildups can help, Schwartz noted, but too often these innovations are overlooked in favor of the usual response - lay more blacktop.

Other ways "to nibble at the problem," Zupan said, include reviving the suburban downtowns that have shriveled in the face of Wal-Marts and movie multiplexes. He added that the increase in flexible work hours and telecommuting could help.

Nevertheless, the fundamental shape of suburbia is the major challenge. The sprawling geography encompasses many counties, towns or villages, each with separate governments and transportation bureaucracies - and agendas. Zupan said that a result is "one small office building after another, each with its own parking lot, separated by a quarter-mile, with no bus possible. This is the biggest single evil in perpetuating the suburbs."

It may still be possible for a region to shift toward the old model of focal points for living, shopping and working, Zupan said, raising the chances that buses or light-rail lines could be attractive and profitable. Eventually, the old system of transportation spokes leading into a city hub could be combined with a rim around the perimeter.

"It sounds like heresy," he said, "but suburban centers may end BTC up part of the solution instead of the problem."

Others are not as optimistic. Timothy Lomax, a research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute in College Station, run by Texas A&M; University, compiles an annual congestion index, which has shown no signs of the trend easing. Lomax said that creating urban-style hubs might end up driving people farther out, to a new frontier of settlement and long-distance commutes. "It's not clear you can have your cake and eat it, too," Lomax said.

In the traffic trenches are people like Richard A. Peters, a planner for the New York state Department of Transportation. At his Poughkeepsie office, 70 miles north of New York City, Peters laid out a map showing several dozen suburban traffic bottlenecks he was trying to fix in the seven counties of the lower Hudson River Valley.

Purple and red squiggles and dashes represented roads or intersections where the "vehicle hours of delay per mile" - kind of a driver's pain index - was off the scale.

Here and there around the region, Peters said, commuters were being enticed to take buses or ride in van pools. But at a growing number of spots, he said, "there's really not much we can do." Many roads cannot be widened. Neighborhoods and jobs are spread out. Mass transit can nibble only at the edges of the problem.

And people seem willing to endure remarkable daily marathons to achieve the dream of a decent house and a good job - no matter how many miles apart those two goals might be.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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