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Gridlock City

Will we still be Angelenos if we're stuck in traffic everywhere we go?

November 20, 2005|Lynell George | Lynell George is a Times staff writer.

Lurching out of a Westwood Village parking structure on a recent weekday evening along with, it seemed, the entirety of Los Angeles, I finally experienced what could only be described as an urban motorist's meltdown.

Until that moment I had thought I was impervious to such things, given my secret stash of alternative routes, my bottomless inventory of navigational Plan Bs. I'm a native; I've been negotiating this for years.

This particular evening, I'd just emerged from a tedious late-afternoon meeting on Wilshire Boulevard and was heading to an early business dinner in Santa Monica. Though I was cutting it close, my destination wasn't more than six miles away. In magic MapQuest time, a mere eight minutes.

But upon exiting the parking structure, I confronted a scene that had the effect of plowing into a brick wall: row upon row of crawling red taillights fanning westward along Wilshire, mounting gridlock aggravated by synchronized-for-another-era traffic lights. I felt a sensation I suspect was much like drowning or suffocating. I didn't know whether I should laugh or cry. Why not both?

In my case, there was no ranting or swearing. No flogging of the steering wheel, though plenty of that was going on in the drivers' seats around me. Instead, I found myself strangely quiet. Removed. Something just took over: As soon as I could snake out of the inching flow, I maneuvered into a paint-faded right-turn pocket, headed way, way north on a hidden bougainvillea-edged residential street abutting the 405 and then west to the city's edge--the ocean. I turned south on the Pacific Coast Highway to the California Incline and then drove east into the crush of Santa Monica. On paper it was absurd, if not insane: To make a dinner meeting near the Third Street Promenade, I drove more than twice the necessary miles.

But it was easily worth it: I got there in half the time it would have taken if I had toughed it out on Wilshire. The biggest plus: For once I did not arrive in a catatonic or murderous state.

Roundabout is the new shortcut--well, that or scratch another destination off my ever-shortening list.

It doesn't matter what hour of day, what day of the week, whether school is in session or a big Laker game is on TV. It can be a SigAlert or a mattress on the road or no discernible cause, as is the case more and more. Moving through Los Angeles has become increasingly nasty.

At some point during the last five years, traffic for Angelenos became like weather in places that have seasons--occasionally pleasant but often so miserable that you wished you lived elsewhere.

Gridlock has become not just the stuff of small talk, but a topic likely to dominate an entire evening's conversation. Radio updates now tell us not just where the jackknifed big rig has lost its load, but just how long to the minute (or hour) your commute will extend because of it. You can have traffic alerts sent to your cellphone or PDA and preview the traffic flow on your computer screen.

And we'll need all this assistance because it's only going to get worse: The Public Policy Institute of California projects that overcrowding will cause travel time in the state to increase by as much as 48% by 2025.

We already spend an immeasurable amount of time stuck on transition roads and interchanges and suspended overpasses, caught between places we raced from and maddeningly close to places we are desperately trying to reach. Driving in L.A. is more than a chore; it's torture. Disoriented and hemmed in, we barely have energy for the essentials. "It's gotten so bad in the last three or four years," says one Pasadena resident, "that I only go to Hollywood for a night of clubbing twice a year. And when I do, I get a hotel room. It's an hour and a half to get there and not even 20 miles away."

The problem isn't the mileage, the sprawl of this place. It's the time, the psychological wear and tear. The problem is deeper than road rage and crumbling infrastructure and implausible commutes to the exurbs. The very texture of our lives has been altered.

One of my more geographically compatible friends (I work near where she lives in Angelino Heights) admitted over drinks that she'd recently come to a disconcerting realization: She visits a friend who lives in Seattle more frequently than she visits another who lives in the South Bay. "It's been three years since I've seen her because she's in Manhattan Beach!" Quite simply, she says, "there's no easy way to get there."

A friend who also lives in the Silver Lake area told me that he never goes to the Westside. His definition? "Nothing west of Hancock Park, pretty much. It used to be La Cienega, but that was 10 years and another mall ago." Whatever he needs, he'll pick up nearby. "Or I just don't need it that bad." It's not worth it to him to sit in a ball of rage, sweating and swearing in front of his sons.

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