Congestion isn't just a Westside problem anymore

Traffic apps, low gas prices, high-density living add to traffic in areas of L.A. where it once flowed freely

I have a confession to make to the entire Westside of Los Angeles.

For years, I've been telling people in private that I could never live there, even though I love being near the water if not in it. And it's not the residents I have a problem with, so don't take this personally, 90064, or 90024 or 90404.

It's the traffic.

But now I can't be as smug as I used to be because Westside traffic has moved east. No matter which way I turn in and around Silver Lake, there are routine tie-ups where there used to be relatively clear sailing.

It's still nothing like trying to motor east on Olympic or Wilshire near the 405 during the evening rush, when ants make better time. But I drive a lot for work, and I can tell you by my estimation that traffic has gotten worse in much of Southern California in the last year, not just the Hollywood-downtown-Pasadena triangle where I spend most of my time.

So what's going on out there?

When the school year began, a fellow carpool parent told me about Waze, the crowd-sourced mobile app that helps drivers find the quickest route from here to there. Sometimes that route is along residential streets rather than highways or thoroughfares, as my colleague Laura J. Nelson reported Tuesday, so there's traffic where it never used to be.

I heard last year from an Encino woman who told me her physician husband was thinking of retiring early, thanks to Waze. She claimed his commute time to the L.A. Basin had doubled thanks to new patterns of gridlock.

But it's not just mobile apps that are making things worse.

The price of gas has plummeted. The economy has picked up. Bike lanes have replaced vehicle lanes. High-density living is all the rage. And the kind of gentrification that swept through Silver Lake and Echo Park, making them all the more like Westside communities, has spread to many other neighborhoods.

There is, by the way, an upside to the misery of sitting through three traffic signals.

"All of the most exciting places in the world that we want to go to on vacation, like Paris and London, are highly congested," said Martin Wachs, a Rand Corp. traffic expert. "Do you want to go to Duluth for vacation? There's very little traffic there."

A hundred years ago, Wachs said, people in Los Angeles and other cities complained about streets overrun with pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages. The solution was to reduce density by building the suburbs. Today, one popular solution to transportation problems is the exact opposite — to increase density with mixed-use inner-city developments near mass transit.

And how's that going?

It depends on where you live and how you look at it. According to Wachs, there's increased walking, cycling and use of public transit in those developments. But more people are driving to such places because they've become cultural and commercial destinations, so traffic congestion is getting worse.

Brian Taylor, of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, is in the midst of studying that very thing. People with higher incomes make more trips in a day than those with lower incomes, Taylor said, whether it's to go to the store, a movie, school or work. And they're drawn, "in spite of the congestion," to developments in West Hollywood, Santa Monica, the San Fernando Valley and Newport Beach, among other destinations.

With more than 6 million vehicles, we can't help ourselves. Build a pedestrian-friendly environment, and we drive to it.

Regionally, traffic could be eased a bit by launching a significantly larger investment in public transit while making it more expensive to use a single-occupant vehicle, but neither is likely to happen. And in fact, traffic is more likely to get worse than better.

"If the economy starts booming, you're going to see severe congestion problems in Los Angeles," Taylor said.

Going to see?

It's already beyond severe for my dentist, Dr. David Kitada, and his wife, Jocelyn, who runs his West L.A. office. When all the cavities are filled, they drive home to South Pasadena, and the commute time has grown by about 45 minutes in the last couple of years.

"Sometimes it takes two hours," said Jocelyn, who told me their back-street escape route is now clogged with suspected Waze users.

If you want the advice of a professional driver, Bryson Strauss, of the delivery service Schlep & Fetch, says the journey isn't so bad if you're lucky enough to travel in that ever-shrinking window of off-peak hours.

"At this minute," he said early Tuesday afternoon, "if you want to go from midtown to Santa Monica, you can get there in 20 minutes. But when the gridlock happens, it's way worse now than it used to be."

Koreatown is "almost impossible now," Strauss said, and he moved to the West Adams district two years ago because it's still got character and affordability but isn't yet overrun. Traffic follows money, he said, so "whenever we try to get up to Echo Park or Silver Lake, it's horrible."

Strauss said he advises clients not to order any deliveries around peak commute times, especially on the Westside. If they insist, he charges a premium because his drivers will be idling for hours.

"In the Sepulveda area around the 405, it's a lost cause," Strauss said. "And if you're trapped on Santa Monica Boulevard at 3 o'clock, you can't get to the east side anymore."

Sad but true, and I happen to like Minnesota. So I thought I'd look into Duluth, as Marty Wachs suggested.

At 3 p.m. L.A. time Tuesday, the temperature in Duluth was 3 degrees.

The forecast high for Wednesday was minus 1 degree.

Yes, the HIGH. Not the low.

Did I say the traffic was a problem here?

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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