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Correction to This Article
The Washington Post Magazine story last Sunday on traffic may have created the impression that WTOP radio does not have airborne traffic reporting. The station has morning and evening reports by airborne reporters.
Get Outta the *%? Way!

By Tom McNichol
Sunday, September 27, 1992

Walt Starling has solved the riddle that has baffled countless Washingtonians for years: "How do I get out of this {word you never hear in church} traffic jam?" His elegantly simple answer: Just fly over it.

"The great thing about this job is that there's no boss looking over my shoulder," Starling says.

Well, I guess not. Starling's boss would have to be hovering 1,405 feet above the ground to get a good look over his shoulder. We're flying in Starling's brown and white Cessna Skyhawk II prop plane on a hazy afternoon, gently banking over the I-95/495 split north of College Park, the evil majesty of another Beltway traffic snarl unfolding below us. For most rush hours during the past 18 years, Walt Starling has had the best seat in the house to observe the hopeless mess Washington traffic has become, working as an airborne traffic reporter for several radio stations, most recently WLTT-FM. Down below us are all of the poor souls sitting in the cheap seats, eyes locked on the brake lights in front of them, hands gripping steering wheels in murderous choke holds. It's not a pretty sight.

Starling feels sorry for the drivers trapped in traffic below him, but it's an aloof sympathy, like the distant pity Americans feel for Russians waiting in long lines to buy meat. Starling, you see, hardly ever gets stuck in traffic jams himself. During the morning and evening rush hour, he's always gliding high above the melee. And when he finally does land, Starling simply walks down the runway of the College Park Airport, past a clump of trees, and steps into the back yard of his home. Rush-hour snarl? Not unless there's a bike blocking his path. In this respect, Starling is the quintessential Washington expert: a person whose deep knowledge of a subject remains unsullied by personal experience.

"I took a day off from work last Thursday, and had to drive around the Beltway during rush hour," Starling, 40, a Washington native, tells me. "It was a real eye-opener. I have to say, I didn't care for it much."

We gently bank westward toward Silver Spring, hugging the Beltway. It's only 4 p.m., and already, below us, the mad procession has begun.

"It's really neat to watch a lot of little backups form into one big long backup," Starling says, an observation, I'm guessing, few on the ground are currently making.

And yet, there is something fascinating, even beautiful about a Beltway traffic jam viewed from above. The Beltway snaking like a great, silvery umbilical cord 64 miles around the city. Legions of tiny Matchbox-size cars assembling and reassembling in rhythmic patterns, like colored squares in a Mondrian painting. And the aching beauty of not being part of it.

No doubt about it, Starling's life is truly blessed. But for most of the rest of us on the ground, driving in Washington is life in the slow lane, a horror movie perpetually stuck on half speed. Oh sure, New York and Chicago have many more cars on the road, Atlanta has its famous "Spaghetti Junction" northeast of town, Philadelphia has its murderous Schuylkill Expressway, fondly known around town as the "Sure-Kill Expressway," and Los Angeles has the added thrill of sniper fire. But Washington, it could be argued -- and we'll get to the arguing in a minute -- is a uniquely rotten place to drive.

Where to start? The failure of L'Enfant to foresee that hundreds of thousands of motorized carriages would one day fill the streets he designed for horses and pedestrians, and that maybe diagonal streets and traffic circles aren't such a good idea? The explosive and largely unplanned expansion of the Washington suburbs into teeming "edge cities" with woefully inadequate road systems? The area's many river crossings, resulting in continually bottlenecked bridges? The more than 50,000 federal employees who receive free or discounted parking at their workplace, removing any incentive they might have for taking public transportation? More traffic-snarling VIP motorcades per capita than any other city on the planet? An unusually high percentage of cab drivers hailing from countries that don't regard traffic laws with the same reverence we do here in America? An unusually high percentage of natives who don't regard traffic laws with the same reverence as do Americans "Outside the Beltway"? And what about that Beltway anyway? Is it someone's idea of a bad joke? Could that someone be . . . Satan?

"Look, it's only 4 o'clock and this part of the Beltway already has three major backups," Starling says, pointing down at the road. "Here's one at the I-95 split, another one at Colesville Road, and a third one by the Mormon Temple. Now, you watch when the rush hour really gets started. Sometimes you'll see three separate jams like this just get longer and longer until they all link up. Then you've got trouble."

Trouble. Some people fool themselves into thinking of it as simply Driving Home From Work, but Trouble is its real name, etched into a million frayed nerve endings. And it's only gotten worse since Starling began working as an air traffic reporter in 1973. In that time, the Washington region has added more than 1.4 million motor vehicles; the roads, needless to say, have not kept the same breakneck pace. Once-sleepy suburbs such as Springfield, Bethesda, Falls Church and Tysons Corner have awakened to find themselves mired in major-league traffic, and the Shirley Highway has become the world's second-largest parking lot. (To get to the world's largest parking lot, take the Shirley to Exit 8 and follow the signs to the Pentagon.) Traffic engineers nowadays talk about the emergence of a "third rush hour" at weekday lunch time, and of a "weekend rush hour" made up of drivers running errands at the local malls. Are we approaching the day when all of those rush hours join together into one continuous traffic jam? If that happens, will anyone notice a difference?

"Up until a few months ago, you could really see the effects of the recession from the air," Starling says. "For about two years, there was a noticeable drop-off in traffic. More people were out of work, or working at home, so there were fewer cars on the road. Well, now, it's really begun to pick up again in the last few months. We're beginning to see the Beltway back up from Cabin John all the way to the P.G. County line some days. As far as traffic is concerned, the recession is over."

This will come as good news to President Bush, who might want to consider making a feisty campaign speech against the backdrop of a car-choked American Legion Bridge (also known as the Cabin John), a stirring symbol of an economy on the mend. But for most commuters in Washington, traffic is nothing but bad news. Starling noses his plane over the American Legion Bridge, and sure enough, the backup there has already begun, and it's not even 4:30. From the air, the cars look like an army of angry worker ants converging on a narrow water crossing, antennae impatiently twitching.

THE SIMPLE REASON FOR WASHINGTON'S TRAFFIC woes is too many cars -- particularly single-occupant cars -- driving on too few roads. In the midst of pitched arguments over traffic, that overpowering fact tends to get lost sometimes.

"We simply don't have enough capacity on the roads to keep pace with the growth we expect," says Ron Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "We've had a bit of a breather over the past few years with the recession and some additional lanes on the Beltway, but that traffic will be back."

Of course, drivers in every city believe theirs is the most miserable commute: The worst traffic jam is always the one in which you're stuck. But long-suffering Washington area drivers will be gratified to hear that there's empirical evidence to support what they've been muttering for years: You'd have to drive pretty far to find a worse place to drive than Washington. All the way to Los Angeles, in fact. A six-year national study conducted by a transportation research group at Texas A&M University ranks the Washington area second only to L.A. in traffic congestion. (San Francisco/Oakland is in a virtual dead heat with Washington for second place; rounding out the Terrible Traffic Ten are Miami, Chicago, Seattle, San Diego, San Bernardino/Riverside, Atlanta and Houston.)

The study by the Texas Transportation Institute looked at everyday traffic congestion in 50 American cities, discounting any unusual distractions that might disrupt normal traffic flow. (Distractions include, but are not limited to, accidents that block a lane, accidents that don't block a lane but are interesting enough to slow down and take a look at, tractor-trailer jackknifes, disabled vehicles, animals running wild in the road, malfunctioning traffic signals, confused tourists holding huge foldout maps in front of their faces while driving, interminable road construction of dubious merit, chemical spills and the realization that the guy in front of you is currently the worst driver on the road.) Washington's traffic congestion, besides ranking No. 2 in the nation, is also increasing at a rate greater than most major cities', primarily because the strong growth in jobs and personal income here during the 1980s allowed more people to buy more cars.

"These days, if a city is able to maintain the same traffic congestion from the previous year, they're doing a pretty good job," notes Tim Lomax, author of the study. "Most major cities are experiencing a 2- to 3-percent increase in congestion per year. That may not sound like much, but over 10 years, that's pretty significant."

In a way, the Texas A&M traffic survey is a bit like one of those pork-barrel studies that spends thousands proving a link between weevil infestation and poor crop yields: an awfully complicated way of stating the obvious. You can't keep adding more cars to the same road and not have the traffic speed, and then the volume, decrease.

One part of the traffic equation no one's been able to sufficiently affect is the number of cars on the road -- the Washington region adds nearly 90,000 vehicles each year. The Beltway alone carries more than 600,000 vehicles each day, although, it should be noted, often only grudgingly. By the end of the decade, about 40,000 more vehicles will be added to Beltway traffic, and speeds of 15 to 25 mph or less are expected on half the roadway during peak hours. Parts of the Beltway will travel at speeds between 30 and 40 mph, which for some of today's drivers would be an improvement. Such speeds would cost users an estimated $180 million annually in time, gas consumption and accident losses, according to transportation experts. (A 1991 study found that the average speed on the Beltway during rush hour is 48 mph, down from 54 mph in 1981, but up from 46 mph in 1987. It's unclear whether the lower traffic volume caused by the recession is responsible for the slight speed increase.)

When it comes to Washington traffic, all roads eventually lead to the Beltway, once quaintly known as "The Circumferential Highway." (I'm convinced that the name changed because people found it too hard to say "Damn Circumferential.") It's difficult to imagine, in retrospect, the naive optimism that accompanied the opening of the Beltway along its full length in 1964. A New York Times reporter sent out to the provinces pronounced the new road "an undoubted boon." "BABY BELTWAY HAS US GA-GA," cooed a headline in the Washington Star a month after the Beltway opened. One resident gushed in a letter to the editor that the Beltway "is the best thing since the invention of the wheel."

Today, of course, the invention of the wheel looks a lot better by comparison. In less than three decades, the Beltway has been transformed from a fabulous technological marvel into the hateful ring of fire we know today. The main reason is that the number of Beltway lanes hasn't kept pace with the increased number of cars on the road. On one weekday morning in 1964, soon after the mostly four-lane Beltway was opened, 47,882 cars were counted on the new roadway. If the width of the Beltway had kept pace with increased traffic volume over the years, today it would be a proud 50-lane thoroughfare, speedily whisking Washingtonians to their destinations, or at least to their exit ramps, where 25 lanes of traffic would merge into one. Such an ambitious program of Beltway widening might have avoided the "Not in My Back Yard" whining that has hampered road construction, by simply paving over people's back yards entirely. As it is, we're stuck with a miserly eight lanes in most sections of the Beltway, little available land or political will to pour more concrete, and a sad realization that it probably wouldn't help anyway.

"The best thing we can deliver to drivers is not necessarily more concrete, it's consistency," notes Bob Marbourg, traffic reporter for WTOP radio. "If on any given day you know that it takes you an hour and 15 minutes to get from Frederick to 16th and Pennsylvania, you can deal with that, you can plan your life accordingly."

Another factor that has doomed the Beltway and many of its feeder roads to stop-and-go rush hour traffic is a fundamental change in the pattern of the Washington commute since the Beltway was built. The Beltway was designed to provide interstate traffic with a way around Washington, while local traffic traveled mostly into and out of Washington. But the Beltway itself spurred development along its length, turning the roadway into a vast employment center. Today, more than half of all Beltway travel consists of local traffic, much of it between suburbs. What was originally intended to be an interstate bypass has turned into what is sometimes called "Washington's Main Street." Of course, you wouldn't want to stroll along the Beltway on a warm summer night licking an ice cream cone, as you might on an old Norman Rockwell-style Main Street, but that's the price of progress.

Similarly, the Metrorail system was designed to accommodate the old suburb-to-city traffic flow. This means that Washington's two great people-movers are, from a design perspective, outmoded. Plenty of ideas have been offered to fix the problem. A second Beltway. Cross-county expressways. A light rail system. Shuttle vans and buses. Cheaper Metro fares and more suburban stations. More HOV car pool lanes. Fewer HOV lanes.

The whole approach to reducing traffic congestion is about to change. New federal clean air and transportation laws will attempt to force lone drivers out of their cars and into car pools and mass transit. While the policy for years has been to build new roads across ever-expanding metropolitan areas, the emphasis now will be on making existing roads more efficient by carrying more people in fewer cars -- a particularly tough task in Washington, where nearly 70 percent of the region's commuters drive alone.

But even if work started tomorrow on various new schemes, it would be decades before the area began seeing benefits on the road. As it is, the only thing that's sure to start tomorrow morning is rush hour.

"AT I-66, WE'VE GOT TWO SLOWDOWNS ALREADY, ONE at Route 120, another just as you approach the exit at Route 7, a disabled vehicle just being cleared from the area. Tysons looking pretty good so far, but we'll keep a close watch on that as the rush hour gets underway . . ."

Walt Starling finishes his first report of the afternoon -- one of 21 dispatches per day -- angles his plane to the left and heads toward Springfield. A steady procession of cars, their roofs glistening in the late afternoon sun, is streaming from downtown Washington onto Northern Virginia's main feeder roads, I-66 and the Shirley Highway. The worker ants just knocked off work.

"A pretty normal rush hour so far," Starling says.

By that, Starling means that I-66 already has a few backups, and traffic on the Shirley Highway is dutifully crawling along to meet its daily destiny -- a big tie-up at the Springfield interchange, where the highway meets the Beltway. The joke among air traffic reporters is that even if you're stuck on the ground and have no idea what the road conditions are, you can always get away with saying, "Traffic very heavy on the Shirley Highway approaching the Springfield interchange; expect delays there . . ." Springfield is a gigantic mixing bowl of ingredients that were never meant to be tossed together: local commuter traffic mixed with heavy interstate commerce, garnished with caravans of beleaguered tourists looking for their motels and bargain hunters heading for Springfield Mall and Potomac Mills. A new bridge carrying the Fairfax County Parkway over the Shirley Highway just south of the I-395/I-95 junction opened in June, and is expected to improve traffic flow somewhat. But mile-long backups at nearby Franconia Road and on the Springfield section of the Beltway are still the rule, not the exception.

"It's always a mess down there," Starling says, shaking his head sadly at the angry assembly below.

With Washington traffic safely screwed up, and 10 minutes until his next report, Starling has some free time to recount how he became an air traffic reporter.

"I grew up listening to Captain Dan on WMAL radio, and I always loved his reports," Starling says, referring to Dan Rosenson, the granddaddy of Washington air traffic reporters. "My father was a pilot, and I loved radio, and this was a way to do both. In 1973, I took a radio class at the University of Maryland and wrote a term paper showing how air traffic reports could be done cheaper in a plane, rather than in a helicopter. The professor thought the idea was ridiculous, and I ended up getting a bad mark on the paper. But the idea turned out to be right. Almost everyone does traffic reporting by plane now. There's no way you could cover the distance we have to cover now in a helicopter. Some days, I go as far east as Annapolis."

Starling quit school in his senior year when he landed his first air traffic reporting job at WAVA radio. That was followed by stints at WASH, WPGC and, most recently, WLTT. Starling stops his autobiography in mid-sentence, takes a pocket calculator out of the plane's glove compartment, and makes a series of calculations.

"Let's see, 18 years on the job. That adds up to 86,400 on-air reports, 18,000 hours of flying time, 2.16 million miles in the air," Starling says proudly. Starling says this through the radio headset, lending his calculations the authority of a Shuttle astronaut reporting back to Mission Control. And 18 years after Starling's first report, traffic is still very heavy as you approach the Springfield interchange. Over that time, Starling has learned a few tricks about deciphering Washington traffic from the air. At the relatively low altitude he flies, he can see if a car's hood is raised, a sure sign of a disabled vehicle. Shiny reflections on the roadway? Probably broken glass from an accident. A fluid stain leading from the front of a car? Probably antifreeze leaking from a disabled car. Fluid from the rear? Gasoline.

These days, the skies over Washington have become thick with traffic planes, as most radio and television stations have added traffic reports to their daily broadcasts. Far from being deadly rivals, Washington's traffic flyboys are a congenial lot. Since they can't be everywhere at once, they routinely share traffic information with one another over the radio. Starling has even started a little breakfast club near the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, where a group of traffic reporters convenes every few months to swap information and stories. Several of the reporters, including Andy Parks, Tom Fanning and Bill McQuage, work for an outfit called Metro Traffic Control, a Houston-based company that now offers air traffic reports in more than 40 cities nationwide. Not all traffic reporters take to the air. WTOP's Bob Marbourg does his reports from a cramped studio at the station, grandly referred to on the air as "The WTOP Traffic Center." In the studio, Marbourg is surrounded by more than half a dozen loudly squawking police and traffic scanners that bark out the latest accidents and trouble spots. Whatever their methods, all traffic reporters seem to hear the same complaint from the riding public.

"Everyone always says, 'You're never where I am, you're always talking about some other road when I'm in a traffic jam,' " Starling says ruefully. Indeed, the widespread popularity of traffic reports these days seems to have as much to do with maintaining the fragile psychological balance of commuters as it does actually reporting useful information. Certainly, whenever there's a multi-vehicle accident or a truck spill that's likely to tie up a road for a while, a timely report from a traffic reporter can divert drivers to alternate routes. But most accidents unfold quickly; by the time a traffic reporter finds out about it, and then gets on the air with the information, it's old news. Lucky drivers end up listening to a description of a traffic jam they're already stuck in. While of little practical value, such reports have enormous psychic benefit. They serve as a soothing reminder to commuters that someone up there notices, even appreciates, the misery they go through just to drive home.

"I NEVER BOTHER LISTENING TO TRAFFIC reports on the radio," the Commuter says, cranking up the volume on his car tape player. "What's the point? They usually don't tell you anything you don't already know."

What the Commuter already knows is that there are a few thousand cars between him and his final destination, and that's all he needs to know at this point. At the beginning of the afternoon rush, he and I are poised at the bottom of the P Street ramp, waiting to spring onto Rock Creek Parkway. It's a bit like trying to join a Grand Prix race already in progress, and Grand Prix drivers are not known for their courtesy. The Commuter is driving from his office in downtown Washington to New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring to pick up his 3-year-old son at day care, and the schedule is tight.

"Okay, it's 5:03 now," he says, glancing at the digital clock on the dashboard. "So far, we're right on schedule. As long as I can get on the parkway by, say, 10 after, I can still get to Silver Spring by 5:30. If I'm much later than that, then the rush hour really gets going, and there's no way I can make it in time."

If he picks up his son much after 5:30, the day-care center starts charging extra, and that's not a good habit for the Commuter to start. Besides, most of the other moms and dads pick up their kids around 5:30. If you show up at 6, your child may be the only kid still there, forlornly playing by himself, the day-care people looking at you as if you're some kind of deadbeat. No, 5:30 is definitely the right time to show up, which doesn't leave much wiggle room in the schedule.

"Go, go," the Commuter says to the car in front of him, as a small opening forms in the parkway traffic. Of course, the person in the car in front can't hear him, but the daily commute imposes its own strange illogic, as millions of drivers can attest. We sit in our cars and shout at people who can't hear us, and wouldn't listen to us if they could. We honk our horns at stalled vehicles and shake our fists at people looking the other way. We revive a schoolyard hand gesture for people who cut us off. You don't have to be a shrink to understand how the daily commute can drive you nuts. But it helps.

"You'd be surprised how many people come to me with stress disorders resulting from driving," says Sy Cohn, a licensed therapist in Los Angeles who bills himself as "The Driving Therapist." "When you're alone in your car with your own thoughts and feelings in a small, enclosed space, a lot can happen. Some people have panic attacks and have trouble going out on the road again. Some get very aggressive and do some pretty irrational things."

Cohn actually accompanies his clients while they are driving, one of the few psychologists in America to dispense therapy while riding shotgun. Gradually, through a series of relaxation and stress reduction techniques, Cohn's patients learn to bring their tension level down to the nearly boiling point that seems to serve the rest of us so well. Cohn admits Los Angeles may be a bit ahead of the curve when it comes to traffic mania, but he darkly warns that driving disorders "happen everywhere" and are only getting worse.

The Commuter seems to have his head screwed on tighter than most people I know, but even he can't resist the occasional irrational act if it means shaving a few minutes off his commute. We finally merge onto Rock Creek Parkway and approach the spot where, the previous week, he was pulled over and ticketed by the U.S. Park Police for a brief burst of foolhardiness. It's here that the parkway splits, the left lanes leading to Calvert Street and Connecticut Avenue, and the far right lane continuing north on Beach Drive, the way the Commuter wants to go. It's a classic traffic bottleneck -- several lanes funneling down to one, and every afternoon the Beach Drive lane backs up with about 50 cars crawling through the intersection.

The polite way to exit onto Beach Drive is to get into the right lane half a mile before the split, take your position at the tail end of the backup, and patiently wait your turn in the slow procession. Or, if you're feeling a little frisky, you can whiz along in the left lane for a while and then deftly cut into the line, saving yourself a few dozen car lengths and earning the disdain of everyone you cut off. Last week, the Commuter was feeling particularly adventurous. He buzzed along in the left lane until he was almost at the split, then crossed a double white line to join the Beach Drive traffic.

Everything was fine until he glanced in his rear-view mirror and saw the driver behind him gesturing madly, and it wasn't the schoolyard gesture usually reserved for such situations. The driver was signaling to a Park Police officer parked on the median, making it clear that the Commuter had just performed an uncivilized, and more to the point, illegal act. (Since Rock Creek Parkway is on federal land, traffic enforcement falls to the U.S. Park Police.)

This trip across the double white line wound up costing him 50 bucks and, almost as bad, ruined any chance of getting a jump on the traffic home. Of course, it's a rare person who doesn't cheat at the traffic game every now and then. One of the more ingenious current scams involves drivers on the Dulles Toll Road. Faced with the ugly prospect of being stuck in traffic and then having to pay a toll for the privilege, some drivers quietly exit the toll road and slip onto the adjacent Dulles Access Road, a free road meant only for airport traffic. These pioneering renegades take the access road all the way to the airport, pass through the airport grounds, and then backtrack to their intended exits. It doesn't always save time, but at least you're always moving. Lately, Virginia police have begun cracking down on these so-called "backtrackers," writing about 500 tickets a month ($35 fine and three traffic points), up from about 200 a month last year. But that still represents less than 1 percent of the estimated number of drivers who backtrack.

Today, the Commuter plays the game cautiously. He passes about 10 cars before merging into the right lane, well before the double white line appears (but after a single white line does). As it turns out, traffic through the intersection moves quickly. We make it to Beach Drive in about five minutes, pick up speed around the zoo, jog eastward at Piney Branch Parkway, and don't hit our first red light until 13th Street. Pleased by our progress, he takes it easy the rest of the way, actually allowing the number of cars that cut him off to be greater than the number of cars he cuts off. We turn onto New Hampshire Avenue and arrive at the front door of the day-care center just as a nearby church bell is pealing: 5:30 exactly.

"Made pretty good time," he says.

His son, whose name is Reeve, is waiting, looking as happy as the day is long, and seemingly oblivious to the nastiness Daddy goes through to pick him up on time. Or so I thought. When we get back to the Commuter's house, Reeve pulls out his toy cars and begins varooming them around on the floor. At one point, he lines up two cars face-to-face, and then smacks them together again and again, the bumpers clacking noisily against each other.

"Beep! Beep!" Reeve says, laughing. "Beep!"

HIGH ABOVE THE BEEPING, WALT STARLING is heading for home, another rush hour having released its steely grip on Washington. All told, today's traffic wasn't too bad. There was a big tie-up on New York Avenue, with construction blocking one lane and a car fire blocking another. There were a few fender-benders on the Beltway, but nothing serious. Springfield was a mess, but what else is new?

"Every day it's something different," Starling says. "You never know what's going to happen until you get up in the air."

Like the weather, everyone talks about traffic, but no one seems to do anything about it. Not that people aren't trying. With undeveloped land scarce and highway construction budgets tight, local jurisdictions have turned to squeezing the most out of the roads they have. Virginia now has 48 closed-circuit cameras perched above I-395, 495, and 66 to monitor road conditions, part of an ambitious high-tech traffic management system, and Maryland is installing a similar advanced system on the Beltway, I-95 and other major routes in the Washington area. With such setups, highway officials can see when and where a traffic-snarling incident occurs, summon appropriate help, and notify drivers on 100 variable message signs. Amid some grumbling, Virginia is extending the HOV lanes on I-95 and I-66, and is adding them to the Dulles Toll Road and eventually even to the Beltway, where a fifth lane would be added for high-occupancy vehicles. Police aircraft in Fairfax and Montgomery counties have been equipped with video cameras that help manage traffic, beaming pictures back to traffic control centers that in turn alert drivers through variable message signs. The new project is part of an experimental program launched by the Federal Highway Administration, and continues a recent trend in searching for technical solutions to traffic problems. In their more utopian moments, traffic experts imagine the day when millions of "smart cars" whiz along our nation's highways, equipped with on-board computers that automatically detect and avoid traffic jams. In the meantime, the world awaits the invention of "smart drivers."

Then there's the debate over a second Beltway, or a Beltway bypass, that has raged for decades. Plans for a Beltway bypass have stalled over whether the road should loop east of Washington, through eastern Maryland along Route 301, or west of the city through Northern Virginia -- or both. The argument is only partly about traffic; the choice of routes will also decide which jurisdictions receive the billions in development that's likely to spring up around such a road. Virginia officials worry that an eastern bypass would give BWI Airport a big advantage over Dulles; Marylanders fear the opposite effect with a western bypass. Personally, I hope a second Beltway is built, if for no other reason than it will create a new class of people with a "Between the Beltways Mentality," a race of clear-thinking individuals untainted by either Inside the Beltway parochialism or Outside the Beltway naivete.

Whatever happens to Washington traffic, Walt Starling will be flying far above it, an enviable position. Starling gently noses his plane down at the College Park Airport, more than three hours after he took off. Starling actually does his final traffic report of the afternoon on the ground, as he's taxiing toward the hangar.

"The rush hour is over! Traffic around the city has cleared up now. No late delays on the Capital Beltway, the interstates, or the Potomac or Anacostia River bridges. What a nice way to end a beautiful day! See you tomorrow morning with Dave. On W-Lite, I'm Walt Starling . . ."

And with that, Starling climbs out of his plane and begins walking down the runway toward his house, his afternoon commute nearly at an end.

Tom McNichol, whose last car was totaled on Florida Avenue, is a frequent contributor to the Magazine.

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