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Road Wars : Remember When New Yorkers Marveled at L.A. Drivers' Courtesy?

January 29, 1989|JACK SMITH

COSMOLOGISTS TELL us that life on our planet will someday be snuffed out either by fire or ice, with fire being the most likely.

Neither prospect is more frightening than the end foreseen by Shirley Schieber of Corona del Mar: "The world will not end by fire or ice," she writes, "but by a giant traffic jam that stretches across the United States from California to New York and from Chicago to New Orleans and which will create a gridlock that backs up to the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, Canada and the Gulf of Mexico."

One day, she foresees, the mass of vehicles will exceed the available thoroughfares, and all transportation will come to an end. This geometric profusion will escalate worldwide, the country with the most cars succumbing first, and so on down the line.

It is true that our streets and freeways are becoming more crowded every day. The congestion seems much worse than it was a year ago. Working at home, I am not obliged to go forth on the freeways at rush hours. In past years, I sometimes felt as if I had the freeways all to myself. Now every hour is a rush hour.

There is little gain in taking surface streets. They also seem to be getting more and more congested, and the drivers are becoming more reckless and arrogant. Today, when I get a green light, I routinely wait to make sure no one is going to squeeze through, at high speed, on the red.

But when you fly across the country, looking down at Earth from 30,000 feet, you are reassured that the West, at least, is still a wilderness. Few cars can be seen even on the long highways. So the nation still has plenty of room; the trick is to get people to live in the desert.

Before we subside into terminal gridlock, I suspect, we will begin to desert such metropolises as Los Angeles for the backwater towns that are still underpopulated. When we settled the West, we built cities on bare land. John Wayne or Henry Fonda would stand beside his girl on a rise and say, "Someday, Clementine, there's gonna be a city out there."

Why does every immigrant to America have to gravitate to the big city? Probably because he seeks the warmth and support of his own kind, those who have already established a foothold here. Perhaps, if they were to go to smaller towns outside the metropolitan area, they would find more prejudice and less opportunity. But at least they wouldn't be contributing to the fatal gridlock, finally becoming enmeshed in it themselves.

Meanwhile, Fred A. Glienna of South Pasadena offers several ideas for ameliorating our traffic mess. He thinks we should have smaller and more maneuverable buses that would run more frequently. We should restore and use the hundreds of miles of railroad track that still crisscrosses our city. We should stagger our work hours. We should insist that drivers improve their skills and use courtesy and common sense.

All of which, of course, is easier said than done.

Perhaps the one proposal that I would most like to see achieved is an improvement in our driving skills, courtesy and common sense.

In a society that confers the right to drive on every citizen over the age of 15, there is no way to guarantee that every driver has skill, courtesy and common sense.

But I remember when people from other parts of the country, especially New York, used to wonder at the courtesy of Los Angeles drivers. We did not run red lights. We did not block intersections after a light change. We did not run through crosswalks when pedestrians were in them. We didn't lean on our horns.

That state of grace has vanished. The streets are an obstacle course. We are impatient, up-tight, selfish, arrogant. Gunfire is the ultimate symptom of our stress. Perhaps overpopulation is the cause. Perhaps the intensity of our computerized lives.

Meanwhile, let us pray that some genius comes along to invent us out of our quagmire.

Before all of us find ourselves stalled from coast to coast in the ultimate traffic jam, I predict that we will discover a whole new means of transportation, as revolutionary as the automobile was in its day.

It will come before the year 2001.

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