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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ JODI WILGOREN

A City's Attempt to Drive Motorists Mad

March 31, 1998|JODI WILGOREN

If Los Angeles is car heaven, this is the seventh circle.

They hate cars here in the nation's capital.

Since I moved here before Labor Day, the adorable red Volkswagen Cabriolet I bought when I decided to stay in California--only to truck it cross-country when I abandoned that plan two years later--has received no fewer than five parking tickets. Not one was for anything so simple as parking where it's not allowed.

I'd been in town less than a week when the first one got me.

I pulled up to my brother-in-law's Georgetown law office and was less than three feet away, ringing his doorbell, when I noticed a meter maid scratching on her little pad. I rushed back--"Wait! I'm right here! Here's my quarter!"--but she was shaking her head, pointing to the "Emergency No Parking" sign taped below eye-level to the meter, and mumbling something about how she'd already started writing. Boom, $20.

Then they hit me for not having an inspection sticker--a little item the folks at the vehicle registration office neglected to mention during any of my three trips downtown to get the paperwork in order ($50). Next, they accused me of not having a neighborhood parking permit--even though mine was displayed right there in the window ($40).

The double whammy came this winter: On Jan. 21, the inscrutable offense "less than 12 inches of curb" was scribbled next to the 'other' category; two weeks later, it was "obstructed rear tag," which I took as a slam on my license plate frame from Circle Imports in Long Beach.

*

In a city where the Police Department doesn't solve its homicides and the schools don't open on time--a city that has been all but taken over by the federal government--the parking police seem to be about the only thing that works. Even Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) got busted once for having expired tags.

No wonder people are ditching the District in droves: 638,00 lived here in 1980, 528,964 last year.

Yeah, you spend a lot of time in your car when you live in Los Angeles. But at least the place is built to handle it.

Here, all the streets seem to be one way--the wrong way. Lots of them change direction from morning to night, and some close on the weekends for--get this--bicyclists. There are few special turn lanes, so when somebody decides to make a left, everybody sits.

The city was planned on a grid with easy-to-follow numbered and lettered streets--only they plopped a bunch of big diagonal boulevards across it to help you lose your sense of direction. And every mile or so they plunked down a confusing circle to ensure accidents.

The road signs stink. That is, there are no road signs. When you make a wrong turn, you might end up in another state.

Next door, in Virginia, they even have an annual 0.0457% property tax on cars. (They've promised to end it by 2002.)

In Los Angeles, I lived near 3rd Street and La Brea Avenue, a place notorious for lack of parking. But even with twice-weekly street sweeping, all you had to do was circle the block a few--OK, a dozen--times to find something. Plus, there was that little laundry on the corner whose lot you could camp in if you got really stuck.

One recent Saturday night I spent an hour and a half searching for a spot in my new neighborhood, Adams Morgan, a mix of happening bars and restaurants and residential streets not unlike my old L.A. neighborhood. Finally I gave up, parked in someone else's driveway and went outside in my pajamas at the crack of dawn to move my car.

*

It's all about power, of course.

The folks who matter in this town don't have these problems; they have chauffeurs. At worst, they've got diplomatic plates or congressional tags and thus can ignore all rules. (Even former lawmakers get this free ride, as we learned last fall when someone noticed ousted Republican Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove parked outside the Capitol Hill Club.)

You think Supreme Court justices are hassled about less than 12 inches of curb?

The politicians, in fact, only make it worse. Every time President Clinton goes anywhere, the sirens wail and we sit in gridlock as the motorcade zooms by. Ditto for visiting dignitaries. An entire block in front of the White House is permanently closed off, making scores of cabbies and commuters zigzag around on their cross-town trips.

The good news is that vandals have knocked the heads off of half the District's 15,000 meters, leaving free parking throughout the city. But all good things end too soon: Last month, authorities announced a $25-million contract to replace the busted meters, a sign of the city's dysfunction, with state-of-the-art, digital, can't-break meters.

My response to this car hostility has been, largely, inertia. I rarely use my vehicle for fear of losing my parking spot. This from a woman who used to use her commute via convertible as a substitute for a hair dryer.

What I long for about Los Angeles is not the sunshine or the beaches. It's the left-turn lanes.

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