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Think Your Commute is Bad?

Here are five of the nation's worst, Including Detroit

October 20, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

A version of this article was published in the New York Times, October 20, 1999

It wasn’t long after workers jumped off their horses and into trains, buses, and cars that commuting became a small American obsession. Few people really enjoyed it. Even 30 years ago, when more people commuted by public transit, and highways weren’t nearly as crowded, train delays, bus breakdowns, and traffic jams marred many a family dinner.

Today, though, commuting is often the most distressing part of working. American communities are much more spread out than they were 30 years ago. More people commute and do everything else in a vehicle, usually alone. As a result since 1960 the vehicle population grew seven times faster than the human one. Traffic jams that once made commuting a headache are now horrendous.

And while everybody who works has their favorite commuting horror story, in several cities the drive to work is especially wicked. Here are some of the nation's worst commutes and the reasons why.

Silicon Valley
It’s 35 miles from Livermore, California to the heart of Silicon Valley in Santa Clara County. But for computer industry workers who jump into their cars in Livermore after 5:15 a.m., the commute south over the notorious Sunol Grade on Interstate 680 has become an infernal mess. “You can't believe it,” said Constance Allen, a Video Conference Specialist at the Amdahl Corporation in Sunnyvale. “If you leave during the week before 5:00 a.m., it takes 45 minutes. If you leave at 5:15, you can count on 90 minutes to two hours.”

Certainly, Santa Clara County merits acclaim for its useful electronic inventions and remarkable wealth. But the transition from orchards to computer chips also drove up housing prices and many workers cannot afford to live close to their offices. They now descend by the tens of thousands from distant counties.

Even in California, where traffic jams are a familiar symbol of a car crazy culture, the rush hour commute over the Sunol Grade at an average speed of 17 miles per hour is so bad it may be the worst in the state, and just possibly the nation.

Last year, to begin easing congestion, the nation's newest commuter rail started service between Stockton and San Jose. The 85-mile long, $54 million Altamont Commuter Express serves 1,100 people a day on two trains that stop in nine communities, including Livermore. The line, which is operating at capacity, is so popular that a third train will be added next year.

Among the most ardent supporters of the ACE train is Ms. Allen, who climbs aboard weekday mornings at either 5:30 or 6:38 a.m. for the hour-long trip to Santa Clara where she takes a free shuttle to her job at Amdahl. “The train is wonderful,” said Ms. Allen. “I read the paper and drink coffee. Some of the cars are darkened in the morning so people can sleep. You know, I moved here in 1970 and you could drive between San Jose and San Francisco in 22 minutes. Nowadays, forget it. Even on Saturdays, you’re in traffic that’s backed up. It’s a quality of life issue. At least in Los Angeles, everything keeps moving. Here, it’s a traffic jam all the time.”

Aspen, Colo.
What happens when tons of people move to a beautiful, unspoiled setting? They diminish the very thing they came for. With average home prices in Aspen in the $1 million range, most of the city’s work force lives in the seven small towns served by the Roaring Fork Valley’s one-way-in-one-way out Highway 82. Even though the Colorado Department of Transportation has widened some of the road to four lanes — and introduced high occupancy vehicle lanes — tight curves, two-lane stretches, and stunningly heavy commuter traffic can still make the 40-mile trip from Glenwood Springs to Aspen a two-hour ordeal each way. Alice Hubbard commuted for two years from Basalt to Aspen, a 17-mile trip that often took 90 minutes. “The highway is so full that traffic just can't move,” she said. “A good day was half an hour.”

In 1996, Aspen and its neighboring towns formed the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority to buy 33 miles of existing railroad right of way. The Authority is now completing a study on whether to build a $194 million transportation system that would include re-establishing passenger train service that was halted in the early 1980s, modernizing seven stations, and improving bus service to the station stops. Ms. Hubbard is the Authority's Public Involvement Director. “We want to recreate what was here 100 years ago,” she said. “People will use the train. I think of all the parents who spend so much time commuting. They get home angry, tired, stressed out. When I commuted, I rode the bus. It was the only way I could tolerate it.”

Urban sprawl may have been invented in Los Angeles, but Atlanta seems determined to perfect it. Commuting is so difficult that Democrat Roy Barnes in 1998 campaigned for governor and won on a message of addressing sprawl and solving traffic congestion.

The 10-county metropolitan region has added 602,000 new residents since 1990, and four suburban counties grew by more than 40 percent. In 1990, the region, measured north to south, was 65 miles long. Today it measures 110 miles. Atlantans drive an average of 34.9 miles to and from work, more than commuters in any other American city. The average is around 20 miles. Air pollution is so serious that the Federal government told state officials they can't have more money to build new highways until they solve it. And last year the city’s once vaunted reputation as a place to do business was damaged when Hewlett Packard announced that it was reconsidering plans to expand in suburban Atlanta because its employees were complaining constantly about their declining quality of life.

All of these urgent issues helped Gov. Barnes push a bill through the legislature in March that established the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, a regional super agency that can direct local governments to take measures to curb sprawl, improve public transit and decide other steps to ease congestion.

Angel Torres, a city planner and adjunct professor at Clark Atlanta University, has commuted by bicycle, bus, and car in Atlanta and found all of them to be terrible. “Ever since the Olympics in 1996, you could see the traffic get worse and worse,” he said. “We thought all these people would go home. They never did. It’s bad everywhere. It doesn’t matter where you go and it almost doesn’t matter what time you go.”

Northern Virginia
Rush hour used to refer to the rush into and then out of a city center. But suburb to suburb commutes create their own kind of bottlenecks. The Washington area boasts a superb regional subway system and other public transit, yet congestion is getting worse as suburbs grow, and suburb to suburb commutes increase. Earlier this year, the Virginia Department of Transportation launched a $350 million, eight-year construction project to speed traffic on Interstate 95 and the Capital Beltway by expanding the interchange where the two highways meet in northern Virginia. The interchange, popularly known as the Mixing Bowl, is the region's busiest and most dangerous, regularly handling 375,000 vehicles a day. Earlier this year, when a gunpowder truck overturned and authorities closed the Mixing Bowl for the morning and evening rush hours, Washingtonians gained a clear understanding of the interchange’s importance. Traffic stopped cold for hours on every highway in the area, and in the side streets that served as exits and entrances. Tens of thousands of employees never made it to work.

Stacy Luks, a consultant for management and organizational development at the American Red Cross, negotiates the Mixing Bowl during her regular 18-mile commute from Woodbridge to Falls Church, Va. On good days, she makes the drive in 45 minutes to an hour. On bad days, it can take twice as long. “It gets really bad with heavy and slow traffic,” she said. Ms. Luks installed a cellular telephone in her car to get work done while she waits. And she misses the Monica Lewinsky scandal, especially the impeachment hearings broadcast on public radio. “That was a lifesaver,” she said. “There was a constant interesting fodder to keep your mind alert while you were driving. When all that died down and disappeared it was like going through withdrawal.”

More than most cities, Motown's culture and economy have been distilled by its experience with roads and cars, and now it is paying an unexpected bill. Detroit is the largest metropolitan region in the nation without light rail, subway, or commuter rail service. And for those who ride buses, the service is unreliable.

The absence of convenient alternatives also has accelerated deterioration in a highways system that is being pounded harder in Detroit than in many other industrial states. As a result the Detroit region is entering a generational transition not of new highway construction but of ongoing, disruptive and expensive repairs and rebuilding. Highway reconstruction that began in 1998 is producing a nightmare of tie-ups in the metropolitan area, will persist for years, and will be repeated every 25 years or so. Commutes, for instance, from Lake Orion in suburban Oakland County which once took 40 minutes now regularly take twice as long.

The repair costs, 80 percent financed by the Federal government, are astonishing. For example, the state transportation department is considering reconstructing 11 miles of Interstate 94 in Detroit, including four miles of interchanges with two other freeways. The estimated cost — $1.3 billion — places it among the most expensive highway reconstruction projects in the country, according to highway engineers. As much as 20 percent of the project’s budget, or $260 million, would be spent just to manage traffic during construction. The traffic management portion alone is twice the cost of building a commuter rail network in Detroit with 100 miles of track and 30 stations, according to a recent state transportation department study. Such a system, the study said, could serve nearly 20,000 passengers a day.

“At one time it was considered a sign of progress to develop an extraordinary highway system to improve accessibility,” said June Manning Thomas, the director of Urban and Regional Planning at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “There was no recognition at the time that the more highways you build the more congestion you'll produce.”

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