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
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 United States, road congestion now causes commuters to spend an average of a full workweek 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 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.
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