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Drive Time

On the Surface, Los Angeles Is a Different Sort of City


You overhear them occasionally at parties, these people who come from a distant planet not unlike our own. "Oh, I never take the freeways," they say, "I haven't for years." The tone is one of airy insouciance, occasionally accompanied by a dismissive wave of the hand, or that quelle horreur closed-eyes shrug. Freeways, my dear, how ghastly.

Sometimes one is tempted to call them on it, to widen one's eyes and say something like: "Really? And how do you get from downtown to Pasadena/Palos Verdes/Long Beach?" Of course, in many cases the answer would be simply "Downtown? Well, why on Earth would I be downtown?" Or anywhere that's not spitting distance from San Vicente.

But often such a proclamation comes from a place of civic pride, from a person who believes that "freeway" is a misnomer and that a real Angeleno takes surface streets. (These are often the same people who cannot pass the Beverly Center without mentioning the long-ago pony rides of their youth.)

For these folks, there is a bit of braggadocio about being freeway-free--like those who claim to watch only public television and "The Sopranos," they are merely carving out for themselves yet another elite niche.

But in a way, it is just an extreme example of the time-honored L.A. shortcut wars. You know, those tediously fascinating conversations that sprout like fungus whenever two or more Angelenos meet. Like many local customs, it begins with a previously agreed upon salutation--"How was the traffic?"--and devolves from there, usually into what sounds like a number-spitting contest between physicists. "You took the 10 to the Harbor and went through downtown? What, are you crazy? You take the 405 to the 101 to the 134. Save you 15 minutes."

It should be noted that every shortcut in Los Angeles saves you at least 15 minutes. Which is pretty interesting in light of the city's time-honored 20-minute rule, which states that any trip in L.A., no matter the starting point or the destination, takes 20 minutes. Taking shortcuts into account, why, we're only spending about five minutes on the road per commute. Heaven knows what we're all complaining about.

For those who eschew the freeway shortcut wars are even more finely honed. "You took the freeway? What, are you crazy? All you had to do is take Overland to Palms to Inglewood to Centinela to Sepulveda to 76th, turn onto Airport, then off at 96th and you're there. Save you 15 minutes." Undoubtedly, if you can turn the directions into a mnemonic chant or are blessed with really, really good peripheral vision.

After driving all over this city for more than a dozen years, I have learned several things: The worst left-hand turn you'll ever have to make is onto Fairfax from 3rd, never take the 405 no matter how tempting it looks, and there are no shortcuts. There is time and there is distance and there are varying ways of experiencing them.

Several years ago, when a book called "Freeway Alternatives" came out, I sampled a few of its suggestions in hopes of finding an easier, softer way to favored destinations. And though all the alternatives were legit, at rush hour they took just about as long as their freeway counterparts. And in non-rush hour, they took longer.

Surface routes may save some time on the short hauls when they are substitutes for known traffic problems, but in the long haul, freeways are favored with the law of averages. You may be able to hit 35 or 40 on that boulevard for a few minutes, but you're going to have to stop and start and stop and start, and that brings your average speed down to your basic freeway creep-along. And on a freeway there is inevitably some break when for a mile or two you can hit 50 or 60, which you really shouldn't do on surface streets, even if you could, even if it's Sepulveda.

Still, some stick to the streets because they offer at least the perception of movement--I know a man who will add 20 miles and as many minutes to a trip just to avoid sitting for a few minutes on the freeway. He looks like he's about 15 years younger than he is, so it must be working.

And, certainly, the streets are a more vital part of the city than those spans of concrete that rise above it.

When the Northridge earthquake split the 10 right around National, it seemed for a few moments that the Westside would simply disconnect from the rest of the city and drift away. But it didn't take long for folks to find the boulevards--Venice and Washington, Santa Monica and Wilshire--that would take them to the exact same places the 10 did. According to Caltrans, some folks stuck to the surface streets even after the freeway was fixed and permanently shifted the traffic pattern of the 10.

But I'll bet when they're heading for the fairgrounds in Pomona, the aquarium in Long Beach or even the Civic Center, they take the freeway.

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