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Let's get small

Traffic solutions such as making Pico and Olympic one-way streets are the kind of cheap thinking we need.

March 31, 2007

WITH APOLOGIES to the Staples office-supply chain for stealing its slogan, Los Angeles transit planners could stand to push the "Easy" button more often. While dreamers debate multibillion-dollar solutions to the Westside's maddening traffic crunch, including wider freeways and a subway to the sea, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has his finger on the Easy button: Why not just turn Olympic and Pico boulevards into one-way streets going opposite directions?

Yaroslavsky's bi-directional brainstorm certainly won't cure what ails L.A.'s most congested district, but it should give it a shot of antihistamine. One-way streets tend to move faster because they don't require left-turn lanes and traffic signals are easier to synchronize. Yaroslavsky is also calling for two lanes on each street to be dedicated to bus traffic, creating a simple, cheap and speedy transit route from the Westside to downtown.

The feasibility of all this is being studied by a traffic consultant, and we'll withhold judgment on the plan until the study is finished. But it does point up that sometimes the best solutions to our traffic problems are the simplest, and cheapest. The streets could probably be converted for a few million dollars -- pocket change compared to the cost of rail lines, tunnels or widened freeways.

There are other such humble improvements waiting to be found. L.A. has done a creditable job of synchronizing traffic lights and adding left-turn signals in recent years. But planners may also consider "queue jumpers" (super-short toll lanes that allow drivers to bypass jammed intersections for a fee) or just clearing freeway accidents faster.

Dedicated busways also deserve more attention. Los Angeles is crisscrossed with old rail rights-of-way that might be converted to busways patterned on the San Fernando Valley's Orange Line -- another Easy-button solution spearheaded by Yaroslavsky. The Orange Line gets roughly 7,000 people each weekday across the Valley at speeds comparable to a light-rail line but at a fraction of the cost.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa won office in part by promising to think big on transportation. That's fine, but sometimes it's important to remember the words of philosopher/comedian Steve Martin: Let's get small.

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