ALLENTOWN, Pa. - By 7 a.m. on a Wednesday, traffic's backed up through four stoplights along this city's main drag. Cars are circling for spots in a "park and ride," where carpoolers meet and buses head off for Philadelphia or New York - 50 and 100 miles away. The highways are jammed, red brake lights flashing for miles.
"Having grown up in the area, I'm absolutely shocked," says Nancy Shadlow, who moved back two years ago to the eastern Pennsylvania valley where she was raised. "I'm shocked how much traffic there is, all day long. Not during just rush-hour times."
Shadlow's complaint echoes across scores of American cities, home to tens of millions of beleaguered commuters. Every day, they're dealing with more cars on the road than ever, longer tie-ups and an epidemic of traffic congestion that's spread far beyond big cities. Clogged roads have become a headache in once-quiet places such as Charleston, S.C.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Omaha, Neb.
Disagreement over what to do about the problem - and a lack of money and political will to either dramatically expand roads or radically change the way the nation gets around - means Americans are stuck with traffic just as much as they're stuck in it.
Estimates of the waste caused by the situation are boggling.
-According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the field's leading research group, time lost to traffic delays in 2003 hit 3.7 billion hours. Add that up, and it equals more than 400,000 years. That's a time-span that would stretch back pre-car and pre-civilization to the days when scientists believe Homo sapiens were just starting to appear.
-Fuel lost to traffic jams in 2003 could fill every car in the country for six days of driving. That becomes even more costly now with gas at more than $2 a gallon.
-That old idea of rush hour? Now it's closer to a rush day. Roads are congested 7.1 hours every day, on average, in cities across the country. In Allentown alone, the number of cars on the main route on a busy day practically equal the city's population of 106,000, says Mike Kaiser, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.
Still, numbers are awfully abstract to a driver who just lost 10 minutes of her day crawling through a traffic jam. To her, the costs are very personal.
It means leaving home earlier to make sure you're not late for work, missing family events, putting off errands until the weekend. Add rushing, worry and frustration and you get stress, and all the detrimental health effects it - and sitting longer in your car - can bring.
"It's definitely getting worse. It shocks me some days when I have to leave work, go to one location and then go home, and realize I just drove 60 miles and didn't really go anywhere," says Mike Reymann, a 38-year-old bank vice president in Minneapolis. "Suddenly, you're like, 'My God, I was just in the car for an hour-and-a-half!'"
Over the years, it's become harder to move someplace where the traffic isn't grim.
Five metro areas were gridlocked so badly in the 1980s that the average driver experienced at least 20 hours of delay a year, according to the Texas institute.
By 2003, that number had exploded tenfold, to 51 metro areas.
Now, cars outnumber drivers: 204 million to 191 million. Road-building hasn't kept up with miles traveled, and neither has the traditional source of funding for roads.
The federal gas tax brings in less per mile traveled, because improving gas mileage over the past 30 years - though slowed with the rise of SUVs - means each tax dollar has to cover more wear, tear and repair.
"It's kind of like getting up and eating breakfast - I'm going to get up and sit in traffic. You plan your life around it," says Elizabeth Adams, 28, a marketer for an Atlanta hospital. "It's kind of your fate and accept it."
Solutions are elusive, as each proposal must win support from a seemingly impossible-to-please group of competing interests. Road builders and motorist groups want more asphalt, environmentalists want more mass transit. Highway and transit projects would eat up scarce and expensive land and taxpayers don't want to pay.
"There are some things you can do to slow down the getting worse, but I don't think there's anything you can do to get rid of it," says Anthony Downs, a traffic expert at the Brookings Institution. "It's part of being alive in a modern metropolitan area."
Like water, traffic just fills up the space available, swallowing new road capacity very soon after it's built, as Downs describes in a frustrating dynamic he calls "triple convergence."
Open new lanes on a crowded highway, and drivers will swoop in to take advantage - altering their times and routes, and even dumping alternatives like bus or rail they've already chosen, he says.
The history of traffic seems to bear out his view.
The interstate highway system, launched in 1956, was supposed to be about moving goods, commerce and even soldiers long distances. The system did that, but commuters caught on, too, and traffic boomed. Beltways - the highways that circle cities including Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio - are among the worst traffic offenders.
Many other attempts to ease the problem haven't fulfilled proponents' hopes. Car pool lanes? Underused. New rail? Not enough people have proven willing to leave their cars.
"We've always looked for the quick fix - that you can build your way out of congestion. That all we need is more money. Or that simply building new transit systems or monorails will solve all the problems," says Michael Replogle, transportation director with the group Environmental Defense.
"There are no magic solutions. You can't click your heels together three times and be home. The beam-me-up fantasy of 'Star Trek' is always on the horizon but never arrives," he says.
One idea that's beginning to catch on in many metro areas is peak-hour road pricing - a flexible fee for a few lanes on commuter highways, with tolls higher when traffic is heavier. Drivers can get a fast ride, but they must pay for it, and prices in some versions can be as high as $8.
Other steps that various advocates say have slowed congestion's growth include quicker accident-clearing; better mass transit networks with higher-density housing around transit stops to discourage sprawl; more roads to match population growth; and businesses that don't subsidize employee parking costs, so alternatives to driving look better financially.
Road builders and motorist associations say roads haven't kept up with our driving habits. Since 1980, the nation's population grew 28 percent, while registered vehicles grew by 48.5 percent, and the best gauge of road use - vehicle-miles traveled - soared 89.3 percent. But road capacity? It grew 5 percent, according to the American Road and Transportation Builder's Association.
"We are vastly underinvesting in our highway network," says Pat Jones, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which supports greater use of tolls. "If we continue down the path we're on now, the congestion will get worse and worse and worse at a faster rate."
Critics say builders distort the reality of gridlock by including less-traveled rural roads in their statistics on construction. Urban lane-miles alone grew by 49.6 percent from 1980 to 2003, a much bigger number, they note, though still not keeping up with need.
Some see danger in the relationship between traffic, roads and the rapid growth in housing: More land, cheaper homes and dissatisfaction with city or suburban life all draw people away from core metropolitan areas. They pay for the change with more time on the road. Population grows, the same cycle repeats itself and another round of development adds to the sprawl, and the traffic, and so on.
There's "just building everywhere" in the San Diego area, says Debra Gutzmer, a sometime carpooler who lives in the suburbs. "That just puts more people on the roadway. These people have to find jobs, they have to commute. It's a never-ending loop, it seems."
Advocates of mass transit like the Surface Transportation Policy Project argue that alternatives offer great promise and do a great deal to keep congestion from getting worse, but aren't pursued hard enough.
They found that transit ridership grew faster, at 21 percent, than the growth in miles driven, at 12 percent, from 1997 to 2001. Another study concluded that road-building doesn't decrease congestion. The STPP examined the 23 metropolitan areas that added the most road capacity during the 1990s and 23 metropolitan areas that added the least. Both saw nearly identical worsening of rush-hour congestion.
The STPP conclusion: "The best route to providing commuters with congestion relief is to provide more choices, not more roads. The burden that traffic congestion places on commuters is considerably less when those commuters can choose to ride a bus or train, or walk or bicycle."
It's time, some argue, to recognize that the nation embarked on a destructively mistaken path by choosing cars and endless highways, and heavily subsidizing that choice.
"All of that new concrete fills me with horror," says Charles Komanoff, an economist in New York City who seeks greater bicyclist and pedestrian rights. "All that additional petroleum, all that time being spent in motor vehicles, all those distances being simultaneously covered and created... it fills me with horror."
Shadlow, in Allentown, hears the same arguments on a smaller scale. Some want to expand Route 22, the community's 1950s-era main thoroughfare, but others say it will only add traffic. She takes side roads to avoid jams, only to get stuck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on her commute to Philadelphia.
A good day takes her about an hour and 15 minutes. Bad days, which are common, can stretch the trip to three hours. Then there's the high-speed jockeying when the traffic does move, and worries of bad weather. Shadlow is painfully aware of the costs, in dollars, time and health.
"We calculated my commute... This really makes you think, how many hours I'm in the car a day. It turns out to be working 58 1/2 extra days a year in the car," she says with an exasperated sigh. "It was 12 weeks extra of work in a car!" She has scaled back since, and works from home now at least two days a week.
Pressure on Allentown roads just keeps building, says Kaiser, the Pennsylvania planner. New homes pop up so fast that the equivalent of a new city is carved out of open space every four years. Jams get so bad on Route 22 that it becomes "a parking lot."
"The lifestyle around here is a pretty typical suburban lifestyle - quarter-acre plot, mow the lawn on weekends. It brings longer trips," Kaiser says. "You moved here to get away, so this means you're part of the problem."