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Commuting: 'Way of Life' in Major US Cities - 2001-11-21

Californians complain about long commutes on crowded highways, but the U.S. Census Bureau says Tuesday New Yorkers spend more time getting to work and back. Long commuting times are the rule in large U.S. cities, but for different reasons in different parts of the country.

It takes the average New Yorker 39 minutes to travel to work. People in Chicago spend nearly as long. Their morning and evening commute is 33 minutes. In other major cities from Washington to Los Angeles, commuting times are just under half an hour.

Los Angeles has worse traffic congestion than any of these cities. Only 10 percent of the city's commuters use public transit. In San Francisco, by contrast, one third of commuters use buses or the light-rail system.

The higher use of public transit in New York, Chicago and San Francisco accounts for their longer commute times. However, the use of public transit also reduces highway congestion.

In Los Angeles, drivers rely on radio traffic reports to steer clear of the frequent bottlenecks on the freeways.

Traffic experts say there are a number of ways to reduce congestion and limit travelling time, or at least to make the daily commute more enjoyable.

One way is to walk to work. In Boston, one out of eight workers walks to the office.

Another way is to car-pool. Most cars in Los Angeles have only one occupant, although drivers with passengers often have access to special car-pool lanes, which have lighter traffic.

To the surprise of many, one California city is the car-pooling leader of the United States. One in four residents in Anaheim, south of Los Angeles, shares a ride each day.

But urban planners say that in many U.S. cities, residential neighborhoods are far from working centers, so long commutes are inevitable. That is the problem for one Los Angeles resident who spends four hours each day on the freeways. One California commuter said, "You have to go where the money is. Wherever the job is, you have to go."

For those who travel to work by car, technology may reduce their driving time in the future. Traffic experts say that some day, computerized systems will change speed limits to regulate traffic flow. Variable speed limits are already in use on a road near London, England.

Many highway bottlenecks are caused by disabled cars that take too long to clear from the roadways. To deal with that problem, officials in Illinois have a fleet of trucks called "Minutemen" that quickly respond to drivers who need assistance.

And some communities in the suburbs are promoting "mixed-use" development in neighborhoods with stores and restaurants within walking distance of houses. These village-like settings encourage people to travel by foot or to use alternative means of transport, such as bicycles.