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Take a Tip From the Freeway Phobic: There's Real Life on City Streets


I have a friend who can't drive on freeways. Actually, I have several friends who can't drive on freeways, who suffer from driving phobias of varying types and intensities. But this particular friend, a local journalist whom I will call Johnny, suffers from a freeway phobia so severe it has caused him to black out, and so he hasn't driven on a freeway in almost 11 years.

And it doesn't bother him one bit.

Unlike my other friends who would like to overcome their fears and get back on that ribbon of highway, Johnny doesn't care if he ever drives on a freeway again.

"I tried biofeedback, I tried therapy, I tried relaxation tapes, I tried everything," he says. "And then I decided there were more important things in my life to work on."

You'd be surprised," he adds, "how many people in L.A. don't drive on the freeways."

Especially on those days when it seems every single person in the world is not only driving on a freeway, but on the very freeway you have chosen. But he's right. There are thousands of Southern Californians out there poring over Thomas Guides, bumming rides, calling cabs or using (gasp) mass transit because the freeways make them black out, or hyperventilate, or just break out in a cold sweat. The problem keeps plenty of therapist-types in business, including Sy Cohn, "the driving therapist" who has made a career of rehabilitating phobic drivers. (His Web site,, is full of desperate seekers and exultant testimonials.)

For Johnny, however, a life without lane changing is just dandy.

Because he's "centrally located," as he puts it, in the Mid-Wilshire district, there are only a few places out of surface-street reach. "I once had to take a bus to Laguna. You should have seen the driver's face when I told him I was going to the Ritz. He was so shocked someone would take a bus to the Ritz that he drove me a mile out of his route.

"But really," he insists, "I can't say that I have been prevented from doing anything because I don't drive on the freeways. I mean, even if I could drive on freeways, I probably wouldn't most of the time because, frankly, they don't get you there any faster."

Some of his friends, he says, seem to forget that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Or Beverly Boulevard.

And it's true; just as there are the freeway phobic, there are also the freeway addicted--those who will drive miles out of their way to get on a congested freeway that loops past their destination under the mistaken assumption that freeways are always faster.

Not that L.A. surface streets are forgotten country lanes. But even if they add five or 10 minutes to your drive time, surface street routes have a lot of advantages. For instance, if you have to sit in traffic--and you do--wouldn't you rather be looking at people and trees and bulldozers and really great old motel signs than cars and cars and cars and cars?

When you're driving through a city, wouldn't you sometimes rather drive through a city? Since the point of freeways is speed, not scenery, they skirt past or over anything remotely resembling a destination.

On a freeway you see the big landmarks, the flashing signs; on the surface streets you find reality, the endless array of language and music, the borders where one way of life ends and another begins. There, for a block or two here, a mile or so there, you can find the grand blurring of this and that, of them and us--the first glints of the city's past and its future.

On a freeway, you miss all that. On a freeway, L.A. and its environs are a series of exits and interchanges, its people a flock of grim shapes rushing by.

On the freeway, you could be anywhere, or nowhere.

And that's pretty scary.


Mary McNamara can be reached at

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