Congestion Ahead

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It's a long drive to work, but Americans are making good use of the time.

A recent finding indicates there are, in fact, three things certain in life: death, taxes, and now, traffic.

Travel on urban roads increased 32 percent between 1988 and 1998, according to The Road Information Program (TRIP), no doubt the result of the rising number of workers and vehicles per household and the relatively low cost of gasoline. (Even with rising oil prices, drivers today pay half what they did 20 years ago on gas to travel the same distance.) Add to that the fact that 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, which claim only 22 percent of nation's roadways, and you've got some major traffic jams.

Nationwide, approximately two-thirds of all commutes last less than 30 minutes and only 17 percent are 45 minutes or longer. Try telling that to the folks who spend almost two hours a day getting to and from the office. On the accompanying map, created with information provided by Easy Analytic Software, Inc., we searched for commuters with time to spare. The map illustrates where marketers are most likely to find people making the extreme commute. Counties in red have the highest percent of 60-minute commutes, and green identifies counties with the lowest concentration of extreme commuters.

Not surprisingly, virtually all of the counties that comprise the most populated metropolitan areas (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc.) are red. Metros with smaller populations (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Dallas, Kansas City) have a donut-shaped distribution of extreme commuters, with counties at their cores containing a lower rate of hour-long commuters than their surrounding suburbs and exurbs.

On average, those who live outside metropolitan counties - rural-area residents - have the shortest travel time of all. Midwesterners tie commuters in the Northeast for the total miles driven daily to and from work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation. Yet, Midwesterners win the race to work. Residents there claim to spend the least time behind the wheel, while Northeasterners come in last with the longest commuting time of all. Workers in the South and West have the shortest distance to commute, but those numbers are on the rise nationwide and smaller municipalities are catching up with the worst cities' commutes.

The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) reports that since 1988, the amount of time commuters spend in traffic in small cities (population under 500,000) and medium cities (500,000 to 1 million) has more than quadrupled, growing at a far faster rate than larger cities. Salt Lake City and Columbus, Ohio, have seen the greatest increase in the congestion rate (an index of roadway miles available per driver). In fact, congestion decreased in only five cities nationwide: Houston, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Norfolk, Virginia. Moreover, TTI reports that drivers in 30 cities nationwide spend at least the equivalent of one workweek stuck in traffic delays each year.

Drivers are doing more than listening to the radio and scanning billboards as they wait in gridlock. A survey by Pennzoil of 15,000 drivers reveals the activity of choice for a majority of respondents is talking. Whether it's to passengers (54.7 percent), other drivers (54.3 percent), themselves (55.4 percent), or their cars (68 percent), drivers are gabbing away. And reflections in the rear-view mirror are increasingly of the driver than of bumpers behind them: Nearly half of female commuters admit to applying make-up while in traffic (so have 4 percent of men) and one in four drivers have styled their hair. Eleven percent of men shave on the go and 17 percent knot their ties. Among the more interesting grooming practices: flossing teeth (6.7 percent), plucking facial or nose hair (9.5 percent), and changing clothes (26.3 percent).

With all the activity going on in autos these days, people barely have time to watch the road, much less make sense of the dozen billboards within eyesight. In fact, young drivers' attention may be the toughest to attract. Pennzoil found that drivers between the ages of 16 and 35 are the most accomplished at the art of multitasking behind the wheel. When it comes to specific activities, this group leads the pack for all but one: flossing.

As a result, billboards have added flashier attributes such as three-dimensional or digital artwork. "We're pretty much just scratching the surface now on what we can do with technology," says Sheila Hayes, communications director with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

One such innovation is the short-wave radio signal. In this case, a billboard will direct viewers to a specific AM station, where they can hear the advertiser's audio message for several miles. Assuming they can get the driver's attention in the first place, these billboards stretch the time advertisers have with consumers exponentially (on average, outdoor ads have five seconds to make an impact). Billboards are now also wired with modems, which enable advertisers to change their electronic message as often as necessary.

Drivers may soon be able to make purchases from their cars, as well. Ford and DaimlerChrysler have already secured the necessary technology to make sales from the road a genuine possibility. Someday, customers may be able to press a "buy" button on the car radio and purchase music CDs - or anything else being promoted on the station at the time. "We think we can turn drive-time into buy-time," says Ira Bahr, senior vice president of Sirius Satellite Radio Inc., one of the companies on the leading edge of the movement.

Why not? There's certainly enough drive-time to last a lifetime.

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