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Strike Clogs Traffic Even More

Studies find more cars on the roads and an increase in rush-hour delays on major L.A. freeways.

October 23, 2003|Caitlin Liu and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

Traffic on Los Angeles streets and freeways has increased since the transit strike began 10 days ago, according to transportation records, significantly worsening congestion and delays throughout the city.

A report by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, which sampled 11 major intersections and freeway ramps for three days last week, found a 4.4% jump in traffic volume overall, clogging roads from Westwood to Hollywood to Woodland Hills.

Experts said even such a modest jump in traffic volume can cause major problems on already congested streets.

"Just a 5% increase during our peak hours can send us into a tizzy," said Wayne Tanda, general manager for the Transportation Department. "A few more cars getting into a freeway can send it into total gridlock."

Motorists said the commute is getting worse by the day.

"It's absolutely terrible," said Brent Phillips, whose 45-minute morning drive from Encino to downtown Los Angeles has doubled since MTA workers went on strike. "From the moment I get onto the freeway until I get to work, it's like a parking lot."

The 101 Freeway, which Phillips drives every day, appears to be especially hard hit. The Hollywood Freeway portion of the 101 runs above the Red Line subway, and the Ventura Freeway segment runs parallel to the Metro Rapid bus line. Before the strike, the Red Line and Ventura Boulevard Metro Rapid buses accounted for 70,000 daily trips.

Since the transit shutdown, the Hollywood Freeway's Highland Avenue exit in the Cahuenga Pass registered a 4.5% increase in traffic volume, according to the city report.

"Traffic is very easily disturbed. If you're near capacity ... a very small disturbance is all you need to create a very serious traffic jam," said Asha Weinstein, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at San Jose State University. "If you add a small percentage of vehicles ... it can be just enough to push you over the edge."

There are also signs that traffic is worsening as more transit users turn to alternatives. Last Wednesday, the day after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's mechanics went on strike, citywide traffic grew by 3.7% compared with the previous Wednesday. By Friday, traffic volumes were up by 5.9%, according to the report.

A separate analysis of traffic data by the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation found that commuters on major Los Angeles freeway corridors saw a 37.5% increase in rush-hour delays since the start of the strike.

The analysis, performed for The Times, compared several weeks of Tuesday-to-Thursday traffic patterns from freeways feeding into downtown, including Interstates 5, 10 and 110 as well as California 60 and U.S. 101. It measured increases in commuter delays. A delay was defined as the extra time congestion added to a normal drive when traffic is clear, said researcher Chao Chen, who examined data from the institute's Freeway Performance Measurement System, a project sponsored by the California Department of Transportation.

The study found that motorists on these routes suffered a total of 12,600 hours of delays on an average day before the strike. But after the transit shutdown, the cumulative delays grew to 17,300 hours a day.

The southbound 101 recorded the biggest increase in delays -- 70%, according to the Berkeley analysis.

Before the strike, transit trips accounted for at least 5% of all travel within Los Angeles County, according to MTA's latest estimates. On an average weekday, Angelenos took 580,000 trips by bus and 100,000 trips by rail.

By removing those riders from freeways and roads, the region's bus and train network was saving the average resident 9.8 hours a year by reducing delays, according to a 2003 study by the Texas Transportation Institute.

Now, many riders are either driving again or paying someone to ferry them around.

Since the strike began, ridership in franchised taxicabs has jumped 30%, according to the Transportation Department report. Bandit taxis -- or illegal car or van service -- also have been proliferating. Even when people carpool, drivers typically travel extra miles to pick up and drop off passengers.

"The last strike [in 2000], it didn't appear this bad," said Jimmy Price, chief of LADOT's parking enforcement and traffic control unit, after it took him 30 minutes to drive two blocks through the downtown's fashion district.

Holding up her white-gloved hands at the intersection of Figueroa and 6th streets Wednesday afternoon, Traffic Officer April McCarthy said she senses growing frustration among motorists. "Just two seconds ago, a guy drove by and flipped me off!" she said. "But that's just part of the job."

"It's TMC -- too many cars," added Rod Bernsen, a reporter for Fox 11 News .

Bernsen, who has surveyed the region's freeways from a helicopter in the sky before and after the strike began, said the stop-and-go conditions and miles of backups reminded him of traffic snarls on rainy days.

"There's a lot more congestion. It's noticeable," Bernsen said.

Motorists aren't the only ones unnerved by the increased traffic.

"It's gone pretty crazy, man," said Carlos Garcia, a bike messenger from East Los Angeles. "When the strike started I was happy because the buses would be gone, but then [the streets] were just packed with cars. It gets worse and worse every day."

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