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One New, One Familiar Traffic Problem

Back to School--and Longer Commutes

September 12, 1997|RICHARD SIMON and RICHARD WINTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

School is back in session, and Los Angeles is back to traffic hell.

"Some days I spend more time with my carpool partner than I do with my husband," sighed Mui Dolim, whose Irvine to South Pasadena commute increased this week from an hour to an hour and a half each way.

Maren Nelson, a lawyer whose Hermosa Beach to downtown Los Angeles drive went from 45 minutes to about an hour, said, "You can always tell when USC starts by the traffic on the 110."

"It's been sheer murder," added Al Cubillas, who drives two hours each way from his Canyon Country home to his job in Santa Monica as technical director for a visual effects company. "I'd be dead without my cellular phone."

You don't need to be a traffic scientist to know that traffic becomes heavier on Los Angeles roads once summer vacation ends, school begins, thousands of yellow school buses hit the street and parents set their commutes to the school bell. College students also hit the road.

SigAlerts are up, freeway speeds have slowed, traffic volume has increased an estimated 10% and the morning and evening crush is starting earlier and lasting later, transportation officials said Thursday.

*

In the city's traffic control centers, lights depicting road conditions on maps are changing from free-flowing green to gridlock red more often.

Los Angeles Unified put 2,000 buses on the streets for the school year, which began Sept. 3 for most of the 668,000 students in the nation's second-largest school district.

Last week, the Southern California Auto Club reported a 10% increase in the number of emergency road service calls, which it attributed to the increase in traffic, spokesman Jeff Springs said.

Adding to the woes have been some doozy SigAlerts--42 this month on Los Angeles County freeways, up from 29 in the same period last month.

But if you think traffic is bad now, wait until it rains.

In the meantime, don't feel too sorry for yourself. Unlike San Francisco, Los Angeles transit workers aren't on strike.

But things are bad enough. "When school starts, the drive that normally takes 50 minutes . . . takes an hour or an hour and a half or more," said Sean Joyce, who commutes 42 miles each way "bumper to bumper" from Orange County to his job as South Pasadena city manager.

Sierra Madre resident Linda Thornton, an attorney with a Sherman Oaks law firm, said, "I have been late for court twice this week."

"Summer was wonderful," said Bea LaPisto-Kirtley, a Bradbury councilwoman who was enjoying a half-hour commute to her job as principal at Glassell Park Elementary School. "As soon as the regular school year begins, it's a traffic nightmare." Now the trip takes 40 minutes--if there are no accidents.

San Marino resident Bernard LeSage, an attorney who commutes to downtown Los Angeles, changes his route this time of year. "When USC is in school, I switch to surface streets. It's like an annual event."

LeSage said he does not mind the delays because he listens to books on tape--the one good thing about Los Angeles traffic.

"At an average speed of under 30 mph, I listen to a book a week on tape. I'm listening to 'Oliver Twist' by Charles Dickens now," he said.

Shindana Mustin faces a different commute. Same story, though.

The security company dispatcher said: "I come to Santa Monica from East Los Angeles, and it seems every day this week I've had to get off the 10 freeway and take surface streets, it's been so bad."

Co-worker Spencer Sampson added: "The 10 must be the worst freeway on the planet."

The return to school also has created traffic jams at campuses, prompting officials to advise parents to arrive early or park a few blocks away and walk the rest of the way.

"I talk to parents who will jog five miles a day on the treadmill but they won't walk two or three blocks to pick up their kids," Los Angeles Police Officer Clark Baker said.

In an effort to ease some of the traffic congestion, Southern California Rideshare has launched a campaign targeting college students. Students are urged to carpool or take public transit and can get information by calling (800) COMMUTE or linking up to the Internet (www.scag.ca.gov/commute).

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Caltrans engineer Nick Jones said the first couple of weeks after school reopens can be the worst. Commuters need some time to adjust their schedules to respond to the congestion.

"If all of a sudden, it gets more difficult if you leave at 7:50 a.m., you're going to try to leave at 7:40 a.m.," he said. "People will make adjustments. It will kind of smooth itself out."

Jones said his own Altadena to downtown Los Angeles commute has increased by five minutes since the schools reopened. He now gets off the freeway to escape the congestion, but preferred not to say where.

He doesn't want any more traffic.

* Times staff writers John M. Glionna and Jose Cardenas, and correspondents Tracy Johnson, Michael Krikorian and Kevin O'Leary contributed to this story.

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