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'Calmed' Roads Led to a Storm

Engineers tried to ease Cheviot Hills traffic by slowing it to push drivers elsewhere. But only residents' anger is flowing more freely.

July 20, 2005|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

For the most part, Glen Friedman loves living in Cheviot Hills, a choice Westside neighborhood with undulating streets and gracious multimillion-dollar houses.

If only he could get in and out of it.

The same goes for Chuck Shephard, a lawyer in Century City who in spring 2004 had to allow 40 minutes to get from his desk to his son's 5 p.m. Pony League games at nearby Cheviot Hills Recreation Center. That's for a 1.4-mile trip that Mapquest, the online service, says should take three minutes.

"People have become prisoners of Cheviot Hills," said Shephard's wife, Robin. "You can't leave in the morning or get back at night."

If it sounds like it's time for a traffic fix, consider this: The city has already instituted its most extensive neighborhood traffic measures ever to slow down and redirect the crush of commuters who pour daily through Cheviot Hills.

Many residents say it's the so-called traffic calming fixes themselves -- four-way stop signs, metered signals, road narrowing curb extensions known as bump-outs, re-striped lanes and right- and left-turn restrictions -- that are the problem.

The people of Cheviot Hills and traffic engineers are learning a sobering lesson about life in the vehicle-laden big city: In the absence of mass transit that gets people out of their cars, or more roads to accommodate the rising number of motorists, it's not enough to just push the traffic around. One street's sweet relief can quickly mean another's misery.

"Nothing is working on the Westside anymore," said Sandy Brown, a longtime activist. "All these wonderful mitigations, and traffic is backed up for blocks. If you really talk seriously to a traffic engineer, they'll tell you they're out of tricks."

For years, residents of Cheviot Hills have complained loudly to City Hall about traffic -- with good reason.

Their affluent enclave of doctors, producers and lawyers, in the heart of the Westside, has long been the cut-through of choice for thousands of commuters trying to get from the Santa Monica Freeway to Century City, and vice versa.

Under pressure from high-powered residents, the city years ago embarked on its most ambitious effort ever to control residential traffic. Engineers began installing just about every traffic calming measure they knew.

Along Motor Avenue, the community's main drag, residents say they can now at least back out of their driveways or cross the street on foot without risking life or limb.

On side streets, however, neighbors like the Shephards and Friedman are in an uproar. The traffic plan, they say, has prompted commuters to detour onto quieter lanes like their Monte Mar Drive. The metered signals and curb bump-outs, meanwhile, have added minutes to locals' trips into and out of the area.

Meetings of the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Assn. have gotten nasty. In June, a group called Neighbors for Change succeeded in ousting four longtime board members, including the woman who had most doggedly pursued the Motor Avenue measures.

The ill will was stirred largely by resentment over traffic. Robin Shephard, for one, says short shopping hops to Century City have become time-consuming forays. To avoid Motor's backups, she drives the opposite direction, skirting the Rancho Park Golf Course: Monte Mar to Lorenzo Drive to Lorenzo Place to Patricia Avenue to Pico Boulevard, which she jogs across to continue on Patricia, finally mushing on to Olympic Boulevard, where she turns right to backtrack into Century City.

At the urging of disgruntled residents, Councilman Jack Weiss recently revealed that he planned to adjust some of the measures. Motor Avenue residents erupted, saying his actions threatened to undo years of hard work.

Now talk of litigation is floating on the jasmine-scented air.

*

It's no secret that the Los Angeles area has some of the nation's worst traffic and that the prosperous Westside is the region's most congested pocket. Seeking to ease the dust and din, residents have clamored for landscaped medians, traffic circles and speed humps. Traffic engineers have obliged.

A New Age-sounding name for an old-fashioned idea, "traffic calming" does not refer to a campaign to get caffeine-hyped commuters to trade their rush-hour lattes for Valium or to practice yoga behind the wheel. Rather, these techniques are aimed at getting drivers to slow down and steer toward streets built to handle the load.

The efforts take their cue from the ancient Romans, who erected stone barriers to cut down (no joke) on nighttime chariot racing.

"It's not a new behavior problem or strategy," said Elizabeth Deakin, director of the UC Transportation Research Center in Berkeley. "We're all looking for ways to try to balance wanting to be mobile with having quiet little neighborhoods."

In recent years the use of traffic calming measures has soared in the U.S. They have had "a positive effect," said Glenn Ogura, principal transportation engineer with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

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