Dear EarthTalk

Short of massive efforts to build a public transportation infrastructure, which doesn’t appear likely anytime soon, what is being done to address traffic congestion, which is reaching absurd levels almost everywhere?

John Daniels

Baltimore, MD

Traffic congestion has gotten way out of hand — and not just in developed countries anymore: Traffic jams and smog plague dozens of cities in China and in many other parts of the developing world. Here in the U.S., road congestion now causes commuters to spend an average of a full work week each year sitting in traffic, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. While alternative modes of getting around are available, most of us still opt for our cars for the sake of convenience, comfort and privacy.

The most promising technique for reducing city traffic is called congestion pricing, whereby cities charge a toll on entering certain parts of town at certain times of day. The theory goes that, if the toll is high enough, some drivers will cancel their trips or opt for the bus or rails. And it seems to be working: The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) reports that Singapore, London, Stockholm and the three largest cities in Norway have reduced traffic and pollution in downtown areas thanks to congestion pricing.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg continues to push for congestion pricing to ease traffic in Manhattan. The latest proposal — rejected by the State Legislature in 2008 — called for an $8 toll to enter Manhattan between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., with monies funding public transit maintenance and expansion.

Another way to reduce rush hour traffic is for employers to implement flex-time, which lets employees travel to and from work at off-peak traffic times to avoid rush hour. Those who must travel during busy times can do their part by carpooling. Employers can also subsidize employee mass transit costs, and/or allow more workers to telecommute (work from home) so as to keep more cars off the road altogether.

Some urban planners still believe that the best way to ease traffic congestion is to build more roads — especially expressways that can take drivers around or over crowded city streets. But such techniques don’t really keep more cars off the road; they only accommodate more of them. Forward-thinking city planners, knowing that more and more drivers and cars are taking to the roads every day, are loathe to encourage more private automobiles when mass transit options are so much better for people and the environment.

And Americans are getting it. According to EDF, public transit usage has steadily risen since 1995, with Americans taking 10.7 billion public transportation trips — the largest number in a half century — in 2008. Light rail, hybrid buses and other promising options are working their way into some U.S. cities. To this end, the Obama administration has committed some $7 billion in stimulus dollars to help transit systems increase capacity and upgrade to more efficient technologies.

But environmentalists complain that such funding is a drop in the bucket compared to the $50 billion committed to roads, bridges and highways, and that transit authorities can’t use any of it to fund maintenance and operations, meaning that jobs must be cut and routes shut down. EDF is calling on Obama to include significant funding for transit operations in the jobs bill now being debated in Congress.

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