Skip to content
L.A.'s commuters can't even go nowhere fast
In this neighborhood, nobody knows your name.
There you are in the photograph above, crawling anonymously along a cheerless stretch of real estate known as the 110 Freeway at rush hour. The roads are slick with rain and cluttered with wrecks, and you've become a citizen of Stalled Nation, a community of the trapped. You're having a quintessential Los Angeles moment, partaking of a civic ritual more widespread than voting or church, one of the few universal experiences in this segmented, far-flung metropolis.
If you're seeking the city's ever-elusive center, it looks exactly like this. It's anywhere the tires are stopped dead, a thousand deep. As a motorist in Southern California, your average rush-hour speed has plunged from 26 miles per hour in 1980 to about half that today. High gas prices have thinned traffic in some places recently, but the improvement is unlikely to last. In L.A. and Orange counties, by one conservative estimate, you're now delayed by rush hours 72 hours a year, about double the time you were 25 years ago.
That's no small part of your waking life, yet you never get to know your neighbors, all the sufferers stacked up left and right, ahead and behind. You never learn why they're taking up space on your freeway at this particular hour, when you urgently have to be someplace. Seriously, where are all these people going?
Like you, we were curious. So we found a spot near the city's busiest freeway interchange -- the 110 at the 10, clogged by more than half a million cars each day -- to photograph the gridlock at exactly 7:30 a.m., dead-center of a Friday morning crush. We then tracked down as many drivers as we could -- running their plates through the Department of Motor Vehicles -- to find out what their stories might say about how we live, in a way that statistics alone cannot.
John Kannofsky inches south along the inside lane in his Chrysler PT Cruiser, deep into the 23-mile commute from his Highland Park apartment to his job at a charter school near Los Angeles International Airport.
An art teacher, Kannofsky, 49, wears a soul patch and combed-back, shoulder-length dark hair, and few situations shake his composure like the one he finds himself in right now. Scanning the tableau of stalled steel, he thinks: "What idiot made a wrong turn somewhere and got clipped?"
He left home early, as always, but by the time he crawls into the camera's view, he's been on the road for 45 minutes and he's nowhere near school. He's supposed to get his first-period students started on making cultural masks. If he doesn't make the 8:30 a.m. bell, they will be stuck in the rain.
He's already given up on the possibility of his usual nonfat latte at the Century Boulevard Starbucks. It's the way he celebrates having made it most of the way to work, and he knows skipping it will leave him groggy and a little depressed.
He'd like to use his time on the clogged 110 to get a head-start on his work. But for that he needs his notebook, and his notebook's in his shoulder bag, and his shoulder bag's in the back seat, and despite heroic contortions -- one hand still on the wheel -- he can't quite reach it.
Most mornings, the drive is just barely endurable. Except for rare drizzly days like today, he keeps his 2006 Cruiser's sun roof open, easier here than in his native Virginia. The car also has satellite radio, which helps, and at the moment it's purring with the cadences of the BBC World News.
He loves Los Angeles, mostly. In the last few weeks alone, he's seen a Latin American art exhibit at the L.A. County Museum of Art, a Murakami show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, an avant-garde dance performance at UCLA, and flamenco dancing at El Cid restaurant on Sunset Boulevard.
Tonight, he'll meet friends at Papa Cristo's Greek restaurant in L.A. to dine on fried octopus and feta. He realizes how spoiled he is when he visits Virginia, where all he sees are miles and miles of chain restaurants, and where his best option is the buffet at his parents' assisted-living home.
The price for living here? He's paying it now. He tries not to dwell on how much time traffic steals from his life. He tries to think of it as a chance to reflect, to meditate, because it's about the only free time he gets. Right now, he's trying to observe all the buildings along the 110 that he's never noticed before.
But he can't help himself -- he picks up his cellphone to call his wife, Ursula, a florist, to remind her how lucky she is to have a five-minute commute. He tried taking the train to work, but it took three transfers and an hour and a half, and how would he run his evening errands?
His wife sometimes asks why he doesn't get a job closer to home. The answer is there aren't many union jobs for art teachers, and he's not about to give up their $600-a-month rent-controlled apartment, which allows him to be a culture maven on a teacher's salary.
Still, it's gotten so that he gets home and just wants to sleep. There are streaks of gray in his hair. He can't imagine how he'd manage if they had kids. "The only way to stay awake is to go out with people," he tells his wife.
He has an agenda in advertising his suffering in traffic. He's hoping to ward off any domestic chores his wife may require of him later. She's on to him, of course, and hardly needs reminding of his plight. She replies, "I hope you have a good day, sweetie."
An aqua-colored Toyota RAV 4 carries technician Carlos Paredes. He's heading north after an overnight shift at his Torrance office, where he repairs laser printers.
The challenge now is to get home to Silver Lake -- a 20-mile drive -- to pick up his two sons and deposit them at nearby Marshall High in time for the first bell.
Like the teacher passing by on his left, Paredes, 43, feels the urge to call his wife. "Hang in there, I'll make it," he says into his cellphone.
On a day like today, Paredes is reminded of why he had to change his life. For 11 years, he roamed the city by day servicing copying equipment, gobbling junk food, racing from job to job. Now and then, the stress of battling gridlock induced headaches and the shakes. Then, on the 101 Freeway seven years ago, a pain in his chest was so frightening that he had to pull over. A stroke, the cardiologist said. He took a pay cut and went to the overnight shift, figuring a faster commute would be good for his health.
A sensible move. One stark study, published in 2004 in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that nearly one in 12 heart attacks was linked to traffic. Left unresolved was whether the culprit was stop-and-go car exhaust, which can starve the heart of oxygen, or stress, which spikes blood pressure, leading to strokes and heart attacks.
Now Paredes sees more of his kids. He coaches baseball after school, and he notices the harried looks on other parents' faces. "They're always fighting traffic. They're always in a bad mood. Parents are constantly trying to beat the clock."
He's spent most of his life in L.A., watching the roads he cruised along almost 30 years ago grow steadily impassable. He's watched the Staples Center, Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Nokia Theatre rise over downtown, jamming the roads during games and concerts.
Still, he's ambivalent. To him, construction cranes mean progress. They mean a city is doing well and providing jobs for people. "I know that we need all these businesses," he says. "I can put up with it, as long as it doesn't get any worse than it already is."
His commute takes him past the $2.5-billion L.A. Live project, the centerpiece of a development that, when completed, will add more than 40,000 car trips a day to downtown's crowded streets and freeways. When asked about it, he sounds resigned. "It's gonna get worse," he says. "You really don't have much choice."
His in-laws are here, and he's raising kids here, so it's not easy to leave. Plus, he bought his home 17 years ago at a good price, and he's not able to pay $600,000 for a new one in the South Bay just to be closer to work. Ditch his car? He tried. It took three hours to reach work by bus and train.
His radio is tuned to KFI-AM (640), where host Bill Handel has been denouncing Berkeley's homeless squatters. Handel, the most listened-to local talk show host in the country, rants regularly about traffic. But he is one of the beneficiaries of all this misery. A vast army of captive commuters has made Los Angeles the nation's most lucrative radio market, an $890-million-a-year juggernaut.
As Handel's voice rails from the radio, Paredes inches closer to home and his kids. They will be driving soon, and he'll advise them to leave early and stay calm on the road. What more can a father say? "You just have to live with it," he says. "You can't change anything."
For Markus Schmid, a native of Switzerland now motoring north in his 2001 Volvo wagon, the promise of the United States once shimmered in chrome and sang in speed.
He envisioned the wonderland of the car commercials, a nation of "open land and wide roads and freedom," the perfect place to live out his fantasy of buying "a real American V8 car," preferably a Ford Mustang.
When he moved to Southern California two years ago, he became rudely acquainted with gridlock culture, potholes and endless idling. He worried about contributing to global warming. He scuttled the muscle-car dream.
"Once I was here, I realized how stupid it is. It's really just a waste of money and fuel," says Schmid, 35. "You cannot even enjoy it. In the U.S., there's really no point."
Which is why he's making his 38-mile morning commute in a practical wagon with 105,000 miles on the odometer. He listens to the Mark and Brian show on KLOS-FM (95.5), because it helps him with his English. During ads, he finds rock 'n' roll on JACK-FM (93.1).
In Zurich, he had a three-minute walk to work. On a good day here, it takes 45 minutes by car to get from his home in Venice to Monrovia, where he works for a company that makes special-effects fog machines. Today, getting there will take him two hours. "It's hard for me to understand that there's not a high pressure on the government to create public transportation," he says.
He and his wife rent a house a block from the Pacific, which for a native of Switzerland feels like "vacation every day." On weekends, they stroll to the beach and the farmers market.
He's not giving that up, even though his office will soon move even farther from home. "It's getting closer to the edge where I'd consider other options," he says. "I would not do much more."
Saleswoman Alexis Bilitch is nosing south through the drizzle in a 2003 BMW. She's heading to Santa Monica, a 23-mile drive from her home in the San Gabriel Valley, for a seminar on "Effective Negotiating." After an hour and a half, she's not close to her destination.
During commutes, she has tried audio books and Spanish lessons but had trouble absorbing them. So she listens to talk-radio. All morning, she's been listening to KABC's Doug McIntyre, who is outraged that Sudan ordered a schoolteacher lashed for naming a teddy bear Muhammad.
Weather guy Capt. Jorge has explained that today there's a wreck ahead, near Washington Boulevard, which accounts for the logjam. She pounds the steering wheel, thinking, "I can't believe it. This is the worst."
A couple of months back, when she had to attend a meeting in Orange County, she doubled the time MapQuest had estimated for the trip.
She was still 10 minutes late, which brought a swift rebuke from management. "I thought, 'That means I have to plan for three hours if I'm going to go anywhere,' " she says. "You can't plan in this traffic. It's everywhere."
A MapQuest spokesperson acknowledged that their algorithms don't "currently have the ability to take traffic into account." But the company is working on it.
To kill time this morning, Bilitch puts on her cellphone headset and calls her sister in New York City. She tells her how long she's been crawling along. "And I'm not even near where I need to be," she says. It's a short conversation. Her sister, who has an appointment too, wishes her luck.
In his 1995 Toyota Camry, process server John Evans is struggling to get from his downtown office to a stakeout in West L.A. He's hoping to thrust a no-travel order into the hands of a man about to leave town with his 6-year-old daughter. His caseload today will then take him to Encino, Burbank, Santa Ana, La Mirada, Long Beach, San Pedro and back across L.A. -- a circuit of more than 100 miles before he heads home to the Westside.
Evans, 34, hits the road early because he must find people who don't want to be found, and he logs four to five hours a day in traffic he describes as "unbearable on any given day."
All morning, Evans has been watching motorists cut each other off, stop abruptly and generally behave like lunatics.
To calm his nerves, he listens to HOT 92.3 FM, the oldies and R&B station, which as he passes through downtown L.A. is playing the Dazz Band's 1982 funk classic "Let it Whip."
He calls his wife on his Bluetooth. They chat about their kids and about maybe grabbing dinner out tonight. But he has a lot of road to cover first, none of it clear.
Janet London, advancing haltingly in a Toyota RAV 4, has a 22-mile haul from her home in South Los Angeles to the Judicial Council of California in Burbank, where she works as an executive assistant.
It usually takes her about 45 minutes to get to work, and today, so far, she's making average time. She's absorbed in the conclusion of the thriller she's listening to, "Obsession" by Karen Robards. Every week, she checks out a couple books on tape from the library. "That's the only thing that keeps me from losing my mind," London, 57, says. "Sometimes I don't even know how I got where I'm going because I'm listening to the book."
Californians yearn to fill the dead time in their cars, and so they are voracious consumers of audio books. One industry leader, Simply Audiobooks, says one in four of its subscribers lives here.
Whatever her distractions, London describes traffic in L.A. as something that "completely controls your life," and adds, "That's probably the most stressful thing in my life, just getting to and from work." Some days, getting home takes two hours. "The 110 is always jammed for no reason. No accidents, nothing going on, just too many cars on the freeway. I can practically count on one hand the number of times the 110 has been clear."
She'd take mass transit if she could, but she doesn't know how she'd get to Burbank from her home. "I don't know what the solution is. Things are definitely getting worse." She'd like to live closer to work, but she owns her own home and can't afford the Burbank area.
What keeps her in L.A. are her grown daughters. She hopes they'll follow her to North Carolina, where she'd like to retire in a few years. "I don't want to be 75, 80 years old and living in this crowded city."
Behind the wheel of a silver 2001 Lexus RX 300, accountant Diane Duncan is enduring a 40-mile slog from her home in Marina del Rey to a client in Monrovia. With its all-wheel drive and front-and-side air bags, the SUV makes her feel safe.
When the windows are up, Duncan feels a world removed from the freeway's industrial bleats and roars, and she can catch every word of " Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," playing now. "If you listen to rock 'n' roll, it amps you," she explains. "You want to drive fast, and you can't."
She will make slow, steady time till just past the Interstate 5 turnoff, where the cars stop dead. This puzzles her because she never sees the wreck that causes it -- thereby illustrating, as it happens, the kinetic forces that make traffic like today's so hideous: For every minute an accident blocks the road, four minutes of delay result, as cars stack up far behind it. Even if a car is towed off the highway 30 minutes after it crashes, the snarl can last for two hours.
She's been driving in L.A. for 20 years, and her current job -- visiting clients all over town -- keeps her on the freeway at least 12 hours a week. "Before, it seems like there were times there wasn't traffic," she says. "Now, it doesn't matter if it's the middle of the night or the middle of the day."
When she travels to other states, she's reminded of why L.A. is home. In Indianapolis once, she asked the locals what there was to do, and "all they could do is list the names of the bars." Here, she hears classical music at the Hollywood Bowl and Disney Hall, and she lives a mile from the ocean. Worrying about traffic "doesn't get me there any faster," she says. "It's part of being here, and I guess I just accept that."
She bought the Lexus knowing that she'd be stuck in it for large chunks of the week, a motive that carmakers are keen to capitalize on, rolling out new fleets with ever-slicker creature comforts. The manufacturer has equipped current models with "things that make the commute more palatable," in the words of one dealer -- voice-dialed phones, auxiliary plugs for MP3 players, 30-gigabyte hard drives, even live traffic-navigation maps.
And, of course, there's that all-important place to put a drink. Duncan is pleased with the capacious cup holder now cradling her coffee mug. She has already logged hard time as she passes through downtown, however, and the mug is empty. She could use a refill.
This is a snapshot of the humanity moving through one swath of overused asphalt in the City of Angels at exactly 7:30 on a drizzly Friday morning. It's a transient village of chrome and steel, anxiety and resignation and grudging choices. It's about to dissolve, this configuration of souls that will never reproduce itself in just this way again. When the minute ends, everyone remains strangers. It's now 7:31 a.m., and in the drizzle, in the shadow of downtown's skyscrapers, another neighborhood is forming.