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We're in a Jam

Easing the nation's growing traffic congestion has experts all backed up

Consider how traffic bedevils modern America: we collectively waste more than 4.6 billion hours stuck in traffic and burn enough gas to fill 134 supertankers each year. One study suggests that parents spend twice as much time behind the wheel during the week as they do with their children. Viewed merely as a physical flow, a traffic jam seems as simple as water moving more slowly through a constriction—a problem that appears easy to fix. But even adding a lane to a highway, for reasons no one quite understands, sometimes creates new tie-ups. For decades, the behavior of heavy traffic has stymied a think tank's worth of highway engineers, city planners, fluid dynamicists and social scientists. Traffic, like weather and the stock market, turns out to be surprisingly complex and devilishly unpredictable.

 To learn about the cutting edge weapons in the battle against traffic congestion, writer Doug Stewart travels with a police aggressive-driving patrol, installs the latest traffic jam avoidance software in his car, flies over Atlanta's infamous Spaghetti Junction and visits the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where scientists have developed a simulation program that will be available to city planners in the near future. High-tech improvements may indeed help reduce traffic congestion somewhat, he learns, but it appears that congestion is an unavoidable part of modern life.

Perhaps, suggests the author, we don't even mind traffic tie-ups that much. "The car is less a form of transportation now and more an extension of the living room," says Sam Schwartz, a former New York City traffic commissioner.

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