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'New Economy' Puts Commuting Paths in Reverse

Traffic: Suburban jobs mean there are often more people driving away from downtown than toward it.


With "new economy" job centers popping up in pricey suburbs--and young families pushing into the desert and mountains in the search for affordable housing--commuting patterns that once defined Los Angeles are being turned upside down.

Downtown Los Angeles, which historically has been the hub of car, bus and rail traffic in the five-county metropolitan region, still gets its share of heavy traffic, as any commuter to the Civic Center well knows.

But these days, as traffic volume picks up with expansion of the economy and growth in jobs, it is not unusual for traffic to be even heavier elsewhere.

The shift is particularly noticeable on the Santa Monica Freeway going away from downtown.

For generations, the heaviest morning traffic on the overcrowded Santa Monica Freeway went east, toward downtown Los Angeles. Now, in a turnabout that has caught some by surprise, traffic runs most heavily to the west, feeding into Santa Monica and the Westside.

"Normally, you would expect everyone going downtown in the morning and out of town at night," said Caltrans traffic engineer Nick Jones. "It's not that way."

Changes in commuting trends are in evidence over a broad area. Consider:

* Traffic volumes on the Riverside Freeway into Orange County are rivaling those on the heavily traveled San Diego Freeway between Los Angeles and Orange counties.

* Although traffic on the Ventura Freeway still flows relatively freely in the west San Fernando Valley, Caltrans is noticing a build-up going into Ventura County in the morning, in contrast to the traditional heavier flow toward Los Angeles.

* A Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus line from downtown to the west Valley's Warner Center carries 1,700 riders outbound, about 350 inbound. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation reports a similar split on buses it runs to the Valley. "Every bus is full," said James Okazaki of the department. "We have been having to add buses over the last year."

* Billed as the first ever suburb-to-suburb commuter rail service, Metrolink began running trains from San Bernardino to San Juan Capistrano in Orange County in 1996. Since then, the line has grown from four trains a day to 11, and in the first 20 days of March it showed a 16% increase in riders, compared with a 13% jump systemwide during a comparable period.

Two chief reasons are cited for the shake-up in traditional traffic flows. One is middle-class workers' constant pursuit of affordable housing. The other is the burgeoning economy, including the growth of so-called "new economy" jobs in computer software, Internet start-ups and biotechnology.

With the explosion of "new economy" positions, communities such as Santa Monica and Irvine are turning into commuter destinations, in some cases their populations swelling dramatically during the day, then collapsing at night.

The problem is that the communities that are sometimes the strongest job centers often have housing prices beyond the reach of middle-class workers. The combination of pricey housing, driven in part by zoning that restricts the height or density of residential buildings, and an open-door policy to "new economy" employers, creates a separation of home and workplace that makes long commutes inevitable.

Flexibility Helps Avoid Rush Hour

Consider Frankie Gutierrez, whose long commute from his apartment in the Inland Empire to Santa Monica was an easy decision. Four years ago, he landed a job managing construction projects with Symantec Corp., the fast-growing firm that makes Norton anti-virus programs for computers.

Symantec, in Santa Monica's MGM Plaza complex at Colorado Avenue and Cloverfield Boulevard, helped by giving him flexible hours.

Gutierrez starts for work after the morning rush hour and leaves for home at night. By working around the rush hour, he figures he saves as much as an hour and a half a day. Getting onto the Santa Monica Freeway from the Cloverfield entrance takes only a couple of minutes at night, compared with 15 minutes to go the same three blocks during rush hour, he said.

With Santa Monica experiencing one of the region's more robust economies, traffic at Colorado and Cloverfield will only get worse because of two commercial developments under construction at the intersection.

"With no traffic, it takes an hour," Gutierrez said of the 55-mile, one-way commute on the Santa Monica and San Bernardino freeways. When it rains or there is an accident, even leaving late doesn't help. "There are days when it takes me three hours to get home."

Still, he said, the commute is worth it. One reason is that by living in Upland, Gutierrez gets a much bigger apartment for far less than would be possible in Santa Monica. Another is that he can help raise his 2-year-old son.

"The only reason it works is that the company I am with is very flexible," Gutierrez said. "Otherwise, it would be very stressful."

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