Agile Minds in Idle Cars

Times Staff Writer

Southern California has some of the worst roadway troubles in the nation, but traffic is not a problem exclusive to the sunny Southland.

Freeway congestion increased in every major city in the nation last year. Nearly half of all urban freeways in the country are now in an L.A.-like state of infuriating congestion during rush hours. The average time motorists spend idling in traffic in major American cities has nearly quadrupled over the last 20 years.

What is a car-loving nation to do?

Raise gasoline prices to $5 a gallon?


Build “bicycle highways” that can carry thousands of speeding cyclists at a time?

If the paved roads are congested, let police and firefighters drive around traffic in amphibious, high-speed vehicles?

Call these suggestions what you like -- extreme, outlandish, wacky -- but they represent some of the heartfelt sentiments of the American people, regular folks who are fed up with traffic and ready to try something new to get the country moving again.

These are a handful of the more than 1,000 ideas submitted since U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta asked Americans this summer to comment on the nation’s next multibillion-dollar transportation funding program. To accept the public’s ideas, the Department of Transportation opened an Internet site. Old-fashioned letters also are accepted.

The suggestions range from the sensible (a balanced mix of mass transit, bicycle and automobile facilities) to the extreme (tolls for all single-occupant vehicles during rush hour) and the dire (limit the number of cars that can be driven in the U.S.).

Many suggestions are, in essence, just rants against the nation’s current traffic woes.

“Cars are evil,” wrote Scott Wilhelm of San Francisco.

“What a waste carpool lanes are,” offered George Eusterman of Mount Vernon, Wash.


Michael DeBlasi of Missoula, Mont., wrote: “If we could haul every senator, representative and transportation official into jail for the effects of this stupid system we have set up, I would volunteer to be the one holding the door.”

Others, apparently unclear on the concept, raged about problems completely off the topic.

A New Hampshire man wrote to demand that America immediately convert to the metric system. A New Mexico resident complained that UPS still owes him money on a claim from the early 1990s. A woman from Chico fumed about the foul odor emitted by a soiled toilet in a Greyhound bus she took recently from San Diego to Los Angeles.

Regardless of how wild, angry or sensible the ideas might be, federal transportation officials promise to read and consider every one before the nation’s next transportation funding program is completed. The previous funding package, known as the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), allocated $217 billion beginning in 1998. It expired in September.


“All the suggestions go into the process of shaping our thinking,” said Emil Frankel, the Transportation Department’s assistant secretary for transportation policy.

Still, he doesn’t think the new funding bill will deviate dramatically from the previous one. “We are not expecting this bill to be revolutionary,” he said.

But maybe some of the extreme-sounding ideas are not completely out of the question.

Twenty years ago, the idea of an electric car was a pipe dream, said David Schrank, a researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute. Today, electric cars are a reality on America’s freeways.


“These ‘Star Trek’ kind of ideas -- who knows what will happen in 20 years?” he said.

In the past, federal transportation officials accepted the public’s suggestions during town hall meetings held throughout the country and attended mostly by local transportation officials and environmental activists.

In June, the Transportation Department invited comments for the first time on its Web site: Comments will be accepted until Jan. 1.

But will the federal government really read and incorporate the more than 1,000 suggestions into the nation’s transportation blueprint?


Some people who have offered ideas are not optimistic.

“Based on our experience, our voices do get somewhat ignored,” said Marnie Criley, a policy coordinator for the Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads, a Montana-based group that has urged the federal government to stop building roads through forests and woods.

A sampling of hundreds of submitted ideas indicates that many Americans are fed up with mind-numbing traffic and want the federal government to spend more on bicycle lanes, trains and sidewalks.

“Please, slow the building of roads to save God’s earth for our children,” wrote Peter Perrari of Decatur, Ga.


Steve Giroux of Dearborn, Mich., wrote: “We need to expand the number of bicycling pathways. We need more, more, more.”

If Mineta’s staff does read every suggestion, a few will probably be filed away under the “extreme” category.

Consider the idea submitted by Iguana Technology Inc. of Washington state. The folks there suggested that when roads are locked up, emergency personnel drive around the blockades in specially made amphibian, all-terrain, tank-like vehicles.

Chad Steele of Denver offered an idea that would probably get a cold reception in Southern California: “Congested highways should have tolls for single drivers during rush hour. In other words, carpool or pay.”


Where speeding is a problem, Gregory Wright of Sherman Oaks suggested that speed-limit signs be made larger. If that doesn’t work, he suggests adding exclamation points on the signs.

Rachel Donovan of San Francisco offered an idea that perhaps most people could get behind: Outlaw junk mail and reduce the car trips made by postal carriers.

“Do all these things, big and small, seem too difficult?” she wrote. “I say not so for the U.S. government, the one that freed Nazi-occupied Europe, organized our species’ first visit to the moon and developed the most advanced system of weapons our planet has known.”