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Stuck with a true case of congestion

A team of Texas traffic researchers confirms what many L.A. motorists have long suspected: the northbound stretch of Interstate 110 between I-10 and Stadium Way is the most congested in the nation.

November 25, 2011|Hector Tobar

For much of my adult life, I've been driving a stretch of freeway that has the worst traffic in the United States.

In my commuter heart of hearts, I sort of knew this to be true, even though I didn't want to believe it. "Ah, it's not so bad," I'd tell people. "Sometimes, I just breeze through." Now a team of traffic researchers has made it all very clear to me: I've been in deep denial.

According to a new study by the Texas Transportation Institute, no other corridor in America is as congested as the northbound stretch of the 110 between Interstate 10 and Stadium Way.

Take the two most congested freeways outside of L.A. and add up the traffic on both — the northbound Van Wyck Expressway in New York, and the Bay Bridge eastbound in San Francisco — and you'd still have less congestion than on that 3.1-mile northbound section of the Harbor and Pasadena freeways.

Every year on the northbound 110 downtown, we Angelenos endure 4.4 million hours in that existential state of being called "stuck in traffic." The southbound lanes of that same freeway aren't much better.

"You're feeding the downtown areas, and also all the port traffic coming and going," explained Bill Eisele, one of the traffic engineers who conducted the study. The northbound 110 also has the worst truck congestion in the U.S., he said. And, no surprise, the downtown 110 has the worst weekend traffic in the U.S.

But Eisele, based in College Station, Texas, visits L.A. only occasionally, as a kind of traffic tourist. For us Angelenos, the 110 and its delays become part of the fiber of our being.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of that freeway, and of the interchange it leads to, an engineering colossus known as "the Four Level" where two highways and eight transition roads meet and vault and dip over one another.

It's a stretch of freeway thick with L.A. lore.

In the 1993 move "Falling Down," Michael Douglas plays a commuter stuck in traffic on the 110 on a hot day. The seconds tick by into minutes as he sits and waits. Finally, he snaps.

"Hey, where do you think you're going?" another driver asks as Douglas steps out of his car and begins running.

"Going home," Douglas mumbles back as he disappears on the transition road to the Hollywood Freeway, briefcase in hand.

And in her classic 1970 novel, "Play It As It Lays," Joan Didion sends her protagonist driving back and forth across the L.A. freeway system with a hard-boiled egg on the seat of her Corvette for sustenance. The climax of her trip is a daring diagonal shift across several lanes to enter the Harbor Freeway.

"She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions," Didion writes of the freeway.

Being "attuned" to traffic patterns is still the only way to survive the most congested freeway system in America. (Seven of the 10 most congested freeway corridors in the Texas Transportation Institute study are in Los Angeles County — including, yes, a 13.1-mile stretch of the 405.)

My own drive on the northbound 110 involves a swerving dance across several of its six lanes. I drive on the No. 1 lane past Staples Center, then over to the No. 2 lane after crossing the Four Level, and back to the No. 3 lane after Stadium Way.

This back-and-forth might not save much time — but it leaves me feeling as if I'm not totally at the mercy of the traffic gods.

Entering the northbound 110 off 3rd Street is especially tricky, since it often requires slowing down to squeeze through the line of stationary cars on the No. 3 lane trying to enter the Hollywood Freeway, and then accelerating to avoid being rear-ended by cars doing 50, 60 or 70 mph in the No. 2 lane.

And yet, very often, it doesn't matter how astute a driver I am. I'm stuck on the 110 with skyscrapers and a newspaper deadline looming over me. You might have seen me in your rearview mirror at one of these moments — I'm the lunatic pounding his steering wheel.

The southbound 110 at 8 or 9 in the morning is, for some reason, easier to cope with. I have one or two good surface-street escape routes ready. And everyone seems in a mellower mood.

As they inch forward, a lot of drivers pass the time texting on their phones. It's still against the law, but a lot less dangerous than doing it at 60 mph.

We Angelenos are freeway-adapted, something that also comes across in the Texas Transportation Institute study.

The researchers looked at the traffic "reliability" of each of the 328 different freeway corridors in their study — measuring how often you'd be late even if you planned for typically slow traffic.

No Southern California corridor made the top 30 on the "unreliable" list. Atlanta earned the top two spots.

"They have roads that are relatively uncongested," Eisele said of Atlanta and other cities with "unreliable" traffic corridors. "But if something goes wrong, they're very susceptible to traffic. And drivers have no way to bail out."

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