Richard Reeves

The Strangling of Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES -- Every night this sprawling city becomes more like Madrid or Buenos Aires. That has nothing to do with the rising Hispanic population. What's different these days is that people are eating dinner later and later at night -- because they can't get home from work.

Traffic is choking Los Angeles. For a sometimes resident, the story is told in the number of vehicle miles traveled on the roads. We left the city in 1980 and returned in 1990. The number of miles traveled by cars and trucks here about doubled in that time.

We left again in 1994 and returned almost 10 years later, and it looks as if vehicle miles have doubled again. And the vehicles are bigger, SUVs and all that.

In all those years, only a dozen or so miles of new highway were built, and surface streets, as non-freeways are called here, became as pocked as the avenues of Northern cities fighting snow, ice, salt and temperature surges.

The place we lived, Pacific Palisades, was considered pretty far out back in the 1970s. Now it is looking clogged, losing its space and light to bigger and bigger houses built on every square inch of tiny lots.

The reason the lots are so small in much of the area I know is because it began as a Chautauqua, a religious retreat outside the city with plots designed for tents not houses, to say nothing of the mini-mansions rising lot-line to lot-line everywhere.

In those days street parking was usually prohibited on the narrow streets. Now, with more cars, blocks on the Westside of Los Angeles look like blocks on the West Side of Manhattan.

Last Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times profiled Cheviot Hills, a leafy neighborhood of expensive homes on the Westside -- actually "expensive" is redundant around there -- south of Century City and Beverly Hills. The story began with the lament of a lawyer named Chuck Shephard, who works in the Century City complex and drives back home to watch his son's Pony League baseball games at the Cheviot Hills Recreation Center. The distance from desk to diamond is 1.4 miles. Shephard has to allow 40 minutes for the trip to 5 p.m. games.

Ironic, because the streets of Cheviot Hills used to be a secret shortcut from the Santa Monica Freeway to Century City. But there are no shortcuts in LA anymore. And there is no predictability. Rush hour can be 24/7.

I travel on off-hours on the Santa Monica Freeway back and forth from the Westside to the University of Southern California. Sometimes it takes less than 20 minutes; more often it takes close to an hour. Thank God for National Public Radio and Books on Tape, the Saint Bernards of Los Angeles.

Other Angelenos have stories of gridlock on Wilshire Boulevard and parallel streets, or about being 2 1/2 hours late for dinner parties five miles from home. That's what people are talking about, not Iraq or Governor Schwarzenegger. The solution of the moment is staying home once you get there to rest up for the morning trip to work.

People are simply giving up. Cheviot Hills was actually the site of the region's biggest "traffic calming" experiment, with speed bumps and four-way stop signs designed to discourage drivers from going up and down residential streets.

It has worked to a certain extent. They figure the traffic on some streets is down almost 20 percent. But with no real public transportation alternatives, those vehicles are just appearing on other streets somewhere.

And it will only get worse. There are 6 million vehicles registered now in Los Angeles' 470 square miles. Some traffic calming may work; HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes may help a bit. They are talking about toll roads or lanes along the freeways. But that does not change the fact that good weather, higher birth rates and more immigration are testing the limits of paradise.

Two million more people have appeared in California since 2001. Eight million more are expected to come to Southern California by 2025. The joke has always been that an earthquake would break the place off and sink it into the sea. We may not have to wait that long. This wonderful real estate scheme may sink of its own weight, or maybe the people will just starve because they can't get home for dinner.

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