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.

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