L.A.: The Gridlock Champion Should Inspire Better Planning

 

According to the “traffic on the fives” radio station, I was avoiding all the bad freeways, just like I was supposed to. Apparently, there were no crashes or unusual conditions on my chosen route.

Still, the needle on my speedometer hovered just below 10 mph. Although I was in the midst of five lanes of brake lights, the alternatives were worse.

I was attempting to drive from Ventura to Riverside, a 125-mile trip that would end up taking me just short of 4 hours. But what the heck makes me so special? This was just another day in L.A., a place where seemingly every chore and every enjoyment requires a trip in the car.

Is there really no other option?

Everybody likes to boast that traffic in their area is the worst. All urban commuters have their anecdotes (“It took me 90 minutes to drive home and I only live 14 miles from the office!”) and it is clear that traffic congestion is awful in many of the country’s metropolitan areas.

In the very slow “race” for the worst traffic congestion, however, there is a clear, uh, winner.

L.A. And by L.A., I mean all of urban SoCal — from Santa Clarita to the Mexico border, from Santa Barbara to the Coachella Valley. No area of the country has traffic congestion to match. Everybody else is braking for second place.

As we all know, SoCal has been built on a complex system of freeways that is unmatched in the world. But the system is failing.

What sets L.A. apart from other places with makes-you-wanna-scream congestion is the scope. L.A. does not have a “rush hour.” In many places, cars start backing up around 6 a.m. and do not start flowing freely until 8 or 9 in the evening. So, unless you’re out before sunrise or late at night, you’re going to get stuck. And there are no guarantees at any time of day or night.

What’s more, congestion is awful everywhere. Yes, there are certain hot spots, and vehicles move more slowly in certain directions at certain times. But I’m not exaggerating when I say that traffic is congested from Santa Barbara to Palm Springs — a distance of about 200 miles — and from the south end of the Grapevine to the border — merely 170 miles.

Back in the late 1990s, experts were predicting that the average speed on L.A. freeways during commute hours would decrease from around 40 mph to less than 20 mph within 20 years. I remember this prediction being made at several conferences, and the audience would always chuckle. Inevitably, someone would shout out, “You mean it’s not 20 already?”

Well, no, it wasn’t. But anybody in SoCal who possesses a drivers license knows that 40 mph is now a fantasy on the San Diego, Harbor, Ventura, Riverside, Irwindale, Long Beach, Golden State, Antelope Valley, Costa Mesa and other freeways at many times of the day. Toss in any adversity — a collision, a lane closure for road construction, a little rain — and you may lose an extra hour.

The question, of course, is what to do about this in the face of ongoing population growth.

The Bush administration recommends that L.A. experiment with congestion pricing. A recent Times story said this: “One of the examples administration officials cite is the success of toll lanes on the 91 Freeway between Orange and Riverside counties.”

It makes me wonder if any of these administration officials have ever driven on the 91, let alone asked someone commuting from Moreno Valley to their $10-an-hour job in Anaheim about this big success.

In a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, former Governors Davis, Deukmejian and Wilson along with Bay Area Council President and CEO Jim Wunderman urged the use of public private partnerships for infrastructure projects. Their best example? The Alameda Corridor. Indeed, the Alameda Corridor should be considered a success. But let’s be clear. The Alameda Corridor is a 10-mile-long freight rail line that cost $2.2 billion and took more than 20 years to plan and build. And the 710 freeway is still jammed with big rigs day and night.

Planners have long argued that you can’t build your way out of traffic congestion. The Foothill Freeway (I-210) is Exhibit A. In the last five years, Caltrans has opened extensions of the freeway from San Dimas through to San Bernardino. The freeway extensions had the undesired effect of transforming an old section of the 210 — specifically from Pasadena to about Glendora — into a parking lot. The pavement crowd might argue with the planners and point to the recently widened I-5 in Orange County. But, really, just how many miles of new freeway lanes, not to mention new freeway interchanges and access ramps, would we have to build to make any sort of real difference? And where would they go, other than on a second level above the existing freeways, which is a very costly proposition.

The next option is public transit. It’s a lovely concept, but retrofitting an existing urban area is colossally expensive and inherently difficult for physical and political reasons. Exhibit B is the long-discussed and still very uncertain subway to the Westside. Express buses and shuttles of various stripes may be more realistic than trains and light rail, but they have drawbacks, starting with the fact that they operate on congested streets.

All of this leave us with, well … land use planning. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the reason traffic is so bad in SoCal is because nothing is close together. Going to work, going to school, picking up groceries, stopping into the bank, grabbing dinner, even taking the dog for a walk — it all requires a trip in the car. Oftentimes, it’s a trip of many miles and multiple freeways.

People in L.A. are always going to drive. But what if they could take care of most of their daily needs within a mile of home? Suddenly, walking, bicycling, skateboarding (it’s transportation, not a crime!) and even old-fashioned technology like streetcars become feasible.

Is better land use planning truly a more realistic solution than congestion pricing or public private partnerships? Maybe and maybe not. But it must be part of the discussion.

- Paul Shigley