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Traffic rises as gas prices fall

Evidence shows that commuters are leaving transit for the roads.

November 20, 2008|Steve Hymon and Ruben Vives | Hymon and Vives are Times staff writers.

On Thursday, Dan Hawes got into his car in Pasadena and braced himself for the drive to his job in Santa Monica.

Hoping to avoid the dreaded Santa Monica Freeway, he instead headed west on the 134, which was bad, to the 101, which was worse.

The 405, too, was hideous, leading to an unplanned and, in hindsight, unfortunate decision to span the mountains on Sepulveda Boulevard.

"This summer was fine, but then these last two months for some reason have just been horrific," said Hawes, 36, a copy writer, after finally arriving at work after a two-hour drive. "My friend at work is theorizing that everyone is worried about their jobs, so they're actually going in to work every day."

For many Southern California commuters, the traffic relief associated with $4.75 gas is beginning to feel like a distant memory. Gas prices have been halved at many local outlets since their highs in June, and a gallon is now as low as $2.30.

Mass transit ridership among some -- but not all -- local transit agencies has slipped since the summer. Although it's not known how many commuters have returned to driving, there is some anecdotal evidence that not everyone who tried mass transit stuck with it.

"Now that gas prices are down, it's better to drive -- I hate to say it," said Pauline Buchanan, who started taking mass transit from Hollywood to work in Koreatown last spring as gas prices climbed higher.

Buchanan wasn't too fond of the change. She said the buses were always crowded, the drivers were rude, and the trip took longer. Last month, when gas prices began to drop, she started driving again.

Traffic almost always worsens each autumn as students return to school and people come back from summer vacations. In that respect, 2008 is following the familiar pattern, and officials with the California Department of Transportation say they simply don't yet know the full effect of gas prices on freeway driving.

"On any day in our system we can have 2, 3 or 5% variation in traffic volumes for reasons we can't really explain," said Marco Ruano, the chief of freeway operations for Caltrans District 7, which covers Los Angeles and Ventura counties. "It's very complex, and that's why we tend not to look at the short term."

Ruano said there was evidence that people drove less when gas prices were spiking earlier in the year. But there wasn't enough data yet to say whether falling gas prices resulted in people driving more.

Freeway speed figures aren't terribly revealing. Some key sections of the freeway showed slower conditions in October compared with the summer but not enough to draw any firm conclusions. The data come from the Freeway Performance Measurement System, a UC Berkeley database that relies on road sensors to collect traffic information.

Even in outlying areas, traffic can still be pretty harsh. "It's awful, and the 101 is still capable of coming to a standstill," said Fred Rosenmund, an Oxnard attorney who also thinks that non-rush-hour traffic is lighter.

Transit ridership on buses and trains operated by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority peaked in July and was about 1.5% lower in October, with an average of about 1.5 million riders each weekday.

"I'm going to go out on a limb and say I think that gas prices have something to do with it, but I wouldn't say it has everything to do with it," said Ed Muncy, director of service planning for the MTA. "It's hard to get a read on what's going on with the economy and its effect."

Still, the MTA's ridership is up over a year ago. Metrolink, the commuter rail operator, saw much the same phenomenon: peaking in July with 50,142 riders on weekdays, falling to 48,629 in October. In October 2007, Metrolink carried an average of 44,448 riders on weekdays.

Art Leahy, chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority, believes it is only a matter of time until gas prices rise again. And he says his agency, which set a ridership record in October, will be ready.

Instead of selling 150 old buses as planned, the agency decided to keep them in storage for the next big ridership surge.

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steve.hymon@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Fuel prices

The average price of a gallon of regular gas in California:

* May 19: $3.95

* June 16: $4.59

* July 21: $4.46

* Aug. 18: $4.04

* Sept. 15: $3.80

* Oct. 20: $3.35

* Nov. 17: $2.37

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

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