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'Shortcut Sharks' Take Bite Out of Traffic Jams

February 05, 1989|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | Colvin is a Redondo Beach free-lance writer

If you're content to be a member of The Pack--that huge mass of drivers willing to be led by their license plates down the jammed highways of life--then driving for the next four months on the Ventura Freeway will call for patience.

As of Feb. 21, the state Department of Transportation will jam the freeway's legendary 267,000 cars a day onto the south side of the center divider during the widening and reconstruction of 3,200 feet of pavement between Warner Center and Calabasas; when the westbound lanes are completed, all six lanes of traffic will be diverted to the north side.

To add to the confusion, the construction project will shut down five off- and on-ramps for the duration. And if an accident occurs, there's no way to clear it to the side of the road because all available space will be taken up with live-action, use-it-or-lose-it traffic lanes.

So be prepared to listen to your books on tape, do your taxes with one eye on the road or whatever else it is that keeps your mind off the time you are wasting. If, however, you drive to a different downshift and your transmission transcends such slug-like non-activities as patiently enduring traffic, there are alternatives.

Brian Roberts and Richard Schwadel, Southern California natives and self-described "shortcut sharks," highway hackers of the first order whose motto is To move is to live , to stop is to suffocate and die, are ready to point you the way.

Authors of a book called "L.A. Shortcuts" that they will publish this summer, Roberts and Schwadel say breaking free from highway hell is as easy as heading for an off-ramp. There are more than 21,000 miles of surface streets in Los Angeles and, especially in the San Fernando Valley, many of them are more wide open than the highways.

"The shortest distance between two points is never a straight line," said Schwadel, 32, who uses his penchant for pavement pathfinding to get to free-lance film editing jobs from his home in Marina del Rey. "That's what separates shortcut sharks from the rest of the pack."

Roberts, 30, a film editor and director who lives in Hollywood, said some of the 90 shortcuts compiled by the partners, including 13 for the valley, don't save a lot of time. But they will keep you moving while others are riding the brake. "The point is to get away from where everybody else is," he said.

Roberts and Schwadel anticipate that disclosing their street secrets will anger some of their friends. "People who are shortcutters will think of us as traitors," Schwadel said.

But, they say, everybody has some tricks for getting around and all they are doing is compiling them. "It's like modern folklore," Roberts said. "Everybody knows it, but nobody's ever written it down."

Caltrans officials have acknowledged the potential for tie-ups in this phase of the three-year project to widen and improve the Ventura Freeway between Calabasas and Universal City.

They have come up with what they think is the most ambitious traffic diversion and public education effort in highway construction history. It involves observation cameras to monitor traffic, an automated traffic signal system that can be altered to deal with the traffic flow on Ventura Boulevard, construction of a new frontage road, new signals, more traffic cops, a fleet of tow trucks to clear disabled vehicles and financial incentives for drivers to take up ride-sharing and van-pooling.

Dave Kilmurray, the Caltrans engineer who designed the plan for managing the traffic snarl, said no acceptable alternate routes skirt the area that will be torn up starting this month. So a new local access route was needed.

Much of the eastbound traffic is headed for the Warner Center area, Kilmurray said, and if a few hundred motorists each hour use the alternate exit at Parkway Calabas as and the new frontage road on the north side of the freeway, traffic should keep moving.

Westbound traffic headed for the Calabasas area will be encouraged to exit at Shoup or Woodlake avenues, cross the freeway at Valley Circle Boulevard and recross to the north on Parkway Calabasas.

"The real test is going to be this next segment of work," said Kilmurray, who is now chief of design for the Century Freeway and Harbor transitway projects. A similar traffic diversion plan will be used there.

But Roberts and Schwadel take the idea that there are no alternative routes as a challenge to find some, and they offer two basic east and west routes that actually could be traveled in either direction.

Clear Sailing on Burbank

Their plan for westbound drivers is to duck off the Ventura Freeway at the first sign of brake lights, head north to Burbank Boulevard in the east valley, or Oxnard or Topham streets if drivers are west of Reseda Boulevard. Burbank often offers clear sailing while The Pack is barely moving.

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