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Stuck in first

L.A. again leads the nation in traffic congestion, but there's hope. Consider the Portland Effect.

September 20, 2007

In its continued refusal to settle for second-best, Los Angeles leads the country in yet another national ranking.

The category? Uh . . . traffic congestion.

The Texas Transportation Institute has been studying traffic problems nationwide since 1982, and L.A.'s place at the top of the latest list, released Tuesday, is nothing new. The region isn't just No. 1 in traffic, it's No. 1 with a bullet: Drivers in the L.A. metropolitan area spent an average of 72 extra hours stuck in traffic in 2005, according to the study, while those in second place (a tie among San Francisco-Oakland, Atlanta and Washington-Virginia-Maryland) spent only 60. Some experts claim that the numbers underestimate local traffic, but no one denies that Southern California is the nation's congestion capital.

That doesn't exactly come as a surprise to Angelenos. More interesting are some of the study's other findings.

First, the bad news: Traffic probably isn't going to get better. In fact, about the best we can hope for is to slow the rate at which it gets worse. That's because the region's population is growing much faster than its transportation infrastructure -- both roads and public-transit lines. This is true throughout the country, and without huge (and very unlikely) infusions of public cash, it's not going to change.

The good news is that even when traffic gets worse, we can make it less aggravating and expensive. Portland, Ore., serves as an instructive example. The study shows that since 1982, rush-hour traffic delays have grown worse in Portland than in most other large cities, yet the average amount of time individuals spend stuck in traffic has increased slightly less than in other cities. How is this possible? Portland has for decades been practicing a "smart growth" planning strategy, which involves encouraging denser, infill development so that growth happens in the urban core rather than at the suburban fringes. The result is that although traffic is worse, people spend less time in it than they would have otherwise because their homes are closer to their workplaces and they don't have to drive as far.

Smart growth is now very much in vogue in Los Angeles, where construction of high-rise housing complexes near transit lines is booming. Many have criticized these projects because they don't appear to lessen traffic and may make it worse. But a seldom-mentioned benefit is the Portland Effect: If people are driving shorter distances, traffic affects them less. Think about that the next time you pass one of those "If you lived here, you'd be home already" signs while you're stuck in bumper-to-bumper hell.

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