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Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

Going nowhere on the Westside

January 07, 2007|Steve Lopez

There's been no meeting, no memo, no poll. But everyone who lives on the Westside of Los Angeles or does business there has independently arrived at the same conclusion:

Traffic has gotten so predictably, maddeningly, curse-the-gods miserable that only a fool would attempt to head east after 3 p.m. on a weekday.

Some war-weary traffic veterans say even that's too late.

"Three o'clock is not a sweet spot anymore," insists Kevin Sheehy, an attorney who lives in Santa Monica and has found that all the alternate routes he used to take as he zigzagged east are now bottled up. "It's closer to 2 o'clock."

L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has told his secretary to schedule nothing for him west of the 405 unless he can wrap things up by 2:30 p.m. He'll schedule later events, but only if they end after 8 p.m., when traffic has lifted. And, of course, he avoids heading from east to west in the morning if he can help it because that can be just as bad, with thousands of people commuting to jobs in Santa Monica and thereabouts.

"There is no part of Los Angeles County where it takes such a long time to go such a short distance," says Yaroslavsky, who's on the road more than most people. "I've several times been stuck in a traffic jam that is just total, absolute gridlock, where it doesn't move. You're in the same place for 10 minutes at a time."

The trip that sent Yaroslavsky over the edge was in October. After attending an event on Cloverfield Boulevard near Michigan Avenue in Santa Monica, he headed east at 6:30 p.m., expecting to be on time for a 7:30 Beverly Hills appointment. But by 7:20, he was just getting to the 405.

"I never even made it to the Beverly Hills event, so I went home to Fairfax. It took one hour and 41 minutes from Cloverfield to Beverly and La Brea."

It was only about 11 miles, Yaroslavsky said. He could have jogged the distance in less time.

Now Yaroslavsky has asked a traffic engineer to investigate the possibility of turning Olympic and Pico boulevards into one-way thoroughfares.

In the meantime, Westside traffic has become the city's all-purpose excuse.

Late for work? Westside traffic.

Marriage on the rocks? Westside traffic.

Lost 10 years of your life? Westside traffic.

Yaroslavsky said it's a big topic at downtown cultural institutions, where they're wondering if traffic combat fatigue is keeping Westsiders from filling up seats at music, dance and theater events.

Yaroslavsky recalled that in the late 1990s, Los Angeles philanthropist Richard Colburn declined a request for a donation to Disney Hall, arguing that a concert hall ought to be on the Westside. That's where the subscriber base would be, he reasoned, and why would beach dwellers want to fight the traffic to get downtown, of all places?

"We do now and again see some empty seats, but there isn't anything in terms of research that could tell you why," said Catherine Babcock of the Music Center, whose companies include the Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles Master Chorale, L.A. Opera and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

She said attendance held steady at about 1.2 million each of the last two seasons and figures aren't available yet for the current season. When seats are empty, she said, the reason could be illness, scheduling conflicts and many other things besides traffic.

No doubt. But Sheehy, the attorney with the never-after-2 p.m. rule on eastern commutes, told me he and his wife subscribed to the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood several years ago, in part because the trips to downtown arts and entertainment events had become such a nightmare.

And patrons at Wednesday night's chamber music performance at Disney Hall -- which had 160 no-shows (people who bought tickets but didn't attend) -- told me Westside bottlenecks are making it harder to justify the trek. David Nimmer, who lives in Beverly Hills, said he recently picked up his mother in Westwood at 6 p.m. and they missed a 7:30 curtain for the L.A. Opera.

"It's definitely something I think about all the time," said his friend Robert Smith, who lives at Pico and Robertson boulevards and is reconsidering his commitment as a volunteer at a kosher food bank near downtown. "You have to be there at 6 o'clock, and you just can't go east after 4 in the afternoon."

Carol Schatz of the Central City Assn., which has helped lead the downtown renaissance, would like to see public officials get to work on the traffic problem. Especially since the Grand Avenue and L.A. Live projects will rely on lots more people making their way downtown.

Schatz left her home in Benedict Canyon at 5 p.m. on a Wednesday for a Rolling Stones concert at Dodger Stadium. She and her husband, Fred, took Beverly to Silver Lake Boulevard to Sunset and got to their seats at 7 p.m.

"If I have a show to do at KCET at 6 p.m.," Brentwood resident and former Mayor Richard Riordan said of the public TV station in Los Feliz, "to get there from my house is probably an hour and a half. It should be a 30-minute drive."

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