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Confessions of a Former Freeway Fibber

December 14, 1986|GERALD F. UELMEN | Gerald F. Uelmen is dean of Santa Clara University School of Law.

For 16 years I drove the Harbor Freeway from San Pedro to the Ninth Street exit downtown. Every day. Both ways. And for 16 years I lied. "You live in San Pedro? That must be an awful commute." "Oh, it's not that bad. Usually half an hour. Of course, I don't have to travel during the peak rush hour." In the entire 16 years I made it in half an hour once. That was when I had to go in at 4 o'clock on a Sunday morning. Once, captivated by talk about the "window" between peak rush hours, I tried going in at 2 p.m. and coming home at 10 p.m., only to discover that my informants lied a lot, too.

I don't know why I never owned up to the truth. It's not as if I was trying to entice people to move to San Pedro. I didn't even realize how much lying I was doing until my redemption came in the form of a move 400 miles north to Santa Clara, where part of the inducement was a distance to work so short that it could hardly be called commuting.

When I realized the extent of my prevarication, I undertook a scientific survey of other L.A. commuters. I discovered that all L.A. commuters lie about the length of their commute, and that the extent of their lies can be ascertained by a simple formula: Multiply time they tell you they spend on the freeway by 125%, and add 1 1/2 minutes for each year they've been commuting.

Psychology offers cogent explanations for why 7 million people would all lie to each other. Denial, we are told, is a natural part of the grieving process. By denying that a loss has occurred, we give our psyche time to build up enough resources to cope with reality. That's how we cope with losses such as baldness, forgetfulness, an expanding waistline and wrinkled skin. Since those are losses that keep accumulating, we have to keep denying. Our line of denial is always 10 yards behind reality.

Somehow, an expanding girth or a receding hairline is easier to accept than an increase in commuting time. I have grown ready to acknowledge that I am losing some hair, and that I've put on a few pounds. But I could never bring myself to admit that each year another minute-and-a-half was added to my commuting time. When I started in 1970, I lied that it took 30 minutes when it really took 37. When I finished in 1986, I was telling the same lie, "usually 30 minutes," when it really took 61.

I've occasionally met Angelenos who use the length of their commute to rationalize all sorts of extravagances. They need a more luxurious automobile than they can really afford because they "spend so much time in the car." That's why they also need a telephone in the car, and a $2,000 stereo system. When they're backed into a corner, though, and confronted with the ultimate question--how long does it take you?--they still lie.

The realization that lying about your commuting time is part of the L.A. life style may explain why rapid transit will never become a reality in L.A. If commuters began traveling by train, their lies could be exposed by the simple expedient of checking the train schedule.

I am not making this public confession to purge the guilt of a troubled conscience. I'm satisfied that my 16 years of lying was harmless enough. Nobody believed me anyway. Nor am I seeking to suppress a coping mechanism that may be essential to survival in L.A. All I hope to accomplish is to reestablish my own credibility. Now that I have left L.A., I've joined the ranks of supercilious expatriates who come back to visit and boast about how little time they now spend commuting. What sheer joy to see the jealous looks on the faces of my old L.A. friends when I tell them about my new commute. Invariably, though, their jealousy turns to suspicion. I see them mentally computing to compensate for the L.A. fudge factor. They immediately assume that my new commute is double what I claim.

Am I stuck forever with the L.A. commuter credibility rap?

I swear, door-to-door now, it's only 10 minutes.

Of course, I don't have to travel during the peak rush hour.

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