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Just Consider the Alternatives

March 16, 1994|DAVID SHAW

Maybe I'm strange--various people have suggested that (and worse) over the years--but I've actually enjoyed driving in post-earthquake Los Angeles.

I've lived in Southern California since 1946 and I've driven here since 1959. For most of that time, I've been telling out-of-town visitors--especially those smug, if benighted, souls from New York--that Los Angeles is the most manageable big city in the country, if not the world.

No need for snow tires or topcoats in winter. No need to shower twice a day in summer. No standing on the corner, waving futilely at taxis. No bombardment by constant noise and hordes of people--most of them growling like angry bears--as you try to walk down the street.

But the one feature that made life in Los Angeles most manageable was the very feature that outsiders grumbled about the most: the spread-cum-sprawl of the city. In L.A, until a few years ago anyway, you were rarely caught in a New York-style (or Chicago-, San Francisco-, Paris-, Jerusalem-, Mexico City-style) traffic jam--the vehicular equivalent of Sartre's "No Exit."

In New York, if you're going to Kennedy Airport, say, and you get stuck in traffic on one of the bridges or expressways, you stay stuck in traffic; there's no reasonable alternative. But in Los Angeles, you could always find an alternate route.

Since the earthquake, I've had to find many alternate, non-freeway routes. And--surprise!--I get where I'm going almost as quickly, sometimes more quickly, and with less uncertainty and less stress than I did on the freeways.

I'll be the first to admit that my daily commute is infinitely easier than most. I work Downtown and live 12 minutes away (15 if there's heavy traffic). But my wife and I go out several nights a week--to Santa Monica, Pasadena, Beverly Hills, the Valley, everywhere--and I've been delighted to find that driving has generally been, well, a breeze, even during evening rush-hour.

We used to take the Santa Monica Freeway for most of our trips to the Westside. Now I usually stick to surface streets, at least during the week. Beverly Boulevard (or Third Street) all the way to Doheny, south to Olympic or Pico, then west if I'm going to Beverly Hills or Santa Monica, for example.

I've gone door-to-door in less than 40 minutes a dozen times since the quake--without the uncertainty I've encountered in recent years on the freeway: Would I have clear sailing or inexplicable congestion? In pre-quake days, I routinely refused--except in extraordinary circumstances--to leave home for the Westside before 7:30 on weeknights. Now I leave as early as 5 or 6 o'clock, and if I do hit a traffic jam, I take special pleasure in dodging it by instantly zigzagging through surrounding residential streets. It adds a new dimension to my driving pleasure, without significantly expanding my drive-time.

About a month after the earthquake, I finally decided to try the Santa Monica Freeway again. It was a weekend and my wife Lucy was with me, and the car pool lanes had us jumping off and back on the freeway quicker than you could say "Adriana Gianturco."

Thus emboldened, I tried to take the Santa Monica Freeway from Downtown to West L.A. one weeknight when I had to work late. I left the office a little after 8 o'clock. The freeway detour as a solo driver was noticeably longer, but it still only added about 10 minutes to my ride.

My wife, who commutes to Century City for work, tells me it now takes her 10-15 minutes longer each way. I sympathize with her. I sympathize even more with the people who now spend an hour or two getting to and from work. But a recent story in The Times said that while the earthquake had "adversely affected the daily commutes of about 1 million motorists, it has improved the drive for about 200,000 others."

Why? Car pools. Car pool lanes. Mass transit. Flexible work hours. Fewer drivers using the freeways.

One night last week, I undertook the ultimate challenge: I left Downtown at 5:20 p.m.--the teeth of rush hour--bound for Beverly Hills. I cruised west on Beverly Boulevard until I approached Vermont. Spotting a bottleneck ahead, I hung a quick left and doglegged down to Third Street. Approaching Western, I spotted another bottleneck and hung a quick left to Sixth Street.

But I breezed along Sixth--one of the great "unknown" east-west arteries in town--until I got to San Vicente. There I encountered my first truly horrific traffic jam of my post-quake era: As I approached La Cienega, the left lane was blocked by a stalled truck, the right lane was closed for repairs and the traffic lights were out in every direction. I had no choice but to inch along for what seemed an eternity. But I only had to go one long block; I still managed to make the trip in 39 minutes.


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