Familiar Freeway Congestion : The Monday Morning Gridlock: Welcome to L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Not meaning any irreverence, but you'll notice that the book of Genesis doesn't make a reference to any eighth day.

That would have brought things back to Monday again, and anybody who has ever been on a freeway in Southern California knows what that means.

No, it isn't just your imagination. Driving conditions are morE congested on a MoNday morning. Plus, of course, on Friday afternoons. But, somehow, that doesn't seem to be as nettlesome.

Are We There Yet?

Blue Monday, it used to be called, at one time referring to the fact that it was the traditional washday. Out here, it is when every commuter wishes everybody else would go dry up.

In the land where the cloverleaf is the unofficial city flower, nowhere else are the words of E. B. White more appropriate: "Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car."

And Monday morning in Los Angeles is when the inbound freeways are the least user friendly. It is when everybody should allow extra driving time, but not enough do. Besides, as someone once put it, "if you're there before it's over, you're on time."

"The parking lots downtown are always filled to capacity on Monday mornings," said Stanley E. Long, president of the Parking Assn. of California.

Particularly on that first working day of the week, parking is such street sorrow.

"Every car trip begins and ends with parking," Long sagely pointed out.

What happens in between, however, is more responsible for what makes so many of us Type A.

"I have no survey to prove it, but after 10 years of doing these daily drive-time traffic reports, I can say without hesitation that Monday mornings and Friday afternoons are the worst out there," said Bill Keene of KNX Radio (1070), the dean of the local breed.

And things are getting even worse. Lend an ear to Keene's $1.20 theory: " . . . When the price of gasoline hits $1.20 a gallon, there is a big drop-off in freeway traffic, on all days," the veteran broadcaster said, adding, "But the way the price has been falling lately, everything that can burn gas is back on the road.

"A lot of people who might otherwise car-pool are starting to say the hell with it."

Keene also believes, Monday morning and Friday afternoon notwithstanding, the hoary tradition known as the rush hour has for all intents and purposes disappeared in these parts.

"I think traffic is sometimes as heavy in the middle of the day as it is during what used to be our rush hour," he said. "Frequently it is heavier and the accidents are worse."

Which doesn't mean that the beep and creep of a Monday morning or Friday afternoon is a mirage.

"We don't have specific records to indicate how much greater the freeway traffic volume is during those hours, but it definitely is greater," said Gary Bork, chief of the traffic operations branch for Caltrans in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties.

The reason there are no such records, Bork explained, is that Caltrans does its traffic studies for 24-hour periods. Thus it has no statistics that would reflect or isolate peak periods on a given day.

For whatever it is worth, average traffic volume for the 24 hours comprising a Monday is 3.66% lower than that for a midweek day such as a Tuesday, Bork said. Which obviously means that, considering the morning crunch at the start of the workweek, Monday afternoon traffic is unusually light.

Friday Is the Pits

For the 24 hours comprising a typical Friday as compared with a Tuesday, however, the figure is 6.24% higher, Bork added. Which may mean that Friday is the pits all day--although some observers contend those mornings are light.

Another road scholar who echoes the general feeling of regular commuters is Paul Fowler, traffic engineer with the Automobile Club of Southern California: "Monday morning is undoubtedly the heaviest commute time."

Thus, with just about a consensus among the experts who are in a position to know, we come to the obvious question: Why? Why are so many people in a car pointed downtown on a Monday morning?

"For many workers, especially white-collar, it is a matter of getting the week lined up, coming in to sort out the assignments," Fowler said.

"Salesmen in particular may not drive to the office every work day, but they often will on a Monday."

Another factor, the auto club engineer pointed out, is that Southlanders seem to be adopting a practice common in parts of the East--getting the last drop of enjoyment from a weekend at a recreation area by staying Sunday night and driving directly from there to work Monday morning.

At the Jersey shore in the summer, for instance, this is done routinely. "It's a way to stretch the weekend," Fowler observed, "and entirely possible if you went to a relatively nearby place such as Palm Springs."

Cheap Gas Fuels Congestion

Bork of Caltrans mentioned that in the Dark Ages of expensive gasoline, motorists thought twice about taking a fun spin even to Santa Barbara or San Diego. "The planners were telling us we didn't have a thing to worry about because gas was heading up to $5 a gallon," he recalled.

Instead, it is below a dollar, probably heading lower, and the Monday morning stampede in slow motion seems to become worse every week.

"You find the coffee shops and cafeterias more crowded because more and more people are leaving home earlier to avoid the heavy traffic," Bork said. "Rather than have breakfast at home, they are eating in or near their workplace."

And saddest of all for the inbound commuter is the Monday that also happens to be rainy, as was the case last week. "One reason is that some people who would otherwise use a bus, instead take their car," Bork disclosed. "They don't want to wait in the rain for a bus, especially if the trip involves transfers."

Dona Dower flies high over the congestion (sometimes as the pilot) to report from her Cessna on traffic conditions for Metro Traffic Control and its 14 radio station subscribers, including KNX. After three years of it, she has opinions about Monday mornings and Friday afternoons, both of which she feels compete for the weekly glut glory.

"It seems as if there are more accidents on Monday mornings than at any other time," Dower said. "People are getting back after two or three days off, and their guards are down. They don't drive as well as they do later in the week.

"It is especially bad on the Monday just after we go to Daylight Savings Time in April, and after we go back to Standard Time in October."

'Intimidated by Freeways'

Furthermore, she continued, there is the factor of being back on a freeway. "My theory is that some motorists are intimidated by freeways," she said. "If they do get on, they immediately slow down, forcing everybody behind them to hit the brakes. Some can't make up their minds and become fearful of getting into the flow. You see them all the time, waiting on the right shoulder.

"Sometimes the problem is with small economy cars, which can't accelerate quickly enough to get into the freeway flow."

And to make the whole stew more ulcerous, it is Fowler's opinion that the peak periods are getting longer. "What you might call the rush hour used to be about two hours, but now it is closer to three."

Rhonda Kramer reports on traffic for the L. A. Network company owned by her and her husband, Kenny, and which has 10 subscribers, including KFWB (98). After six years of doing these broadcasts, she describes Monday morning freeway traffic as "hellacious."

"The problem is that the drivers have slept in for two days and they aren't paying attention," she said. "Everybody's mind is in slow motion."

Adding to the woes, of course, is the increase in population and downtown office buildings and vehicles, to go along with changing traffic patterns. "Orange County used to be a bedroom community," Bork pointed out. "A person lived there and worked in Los Angeles County. Now there are just as many people traveling to work in the opposite direction, so both sides of those freeways are jammed."

Compounding the strain of coping with any of the freeways is simply the unhappy fact that it is Monday. It is, as columnist Russell Baker wrote, "a day for putting the nose to the grindstone, for going back to that miserable problem that was left on the floor when the quitting bell rang Friday."

While idling in the fast lane 24 hours from now, here is something to consider about that evil day: Two recent university studies have shown that men who die unexpectedly as a result of cardiac disease, and men and women who take their own lives, are more likely to do so on Monday than on any other day of the week.

The cardiac disease study was by the University of Manitoba and observed nearly 4,000 men over a period of 29 years. The other study was by the Harvard School of Public Health and dealt with the nearly 186,000 deaths attributed to suicide in the United States over a six-year period.

Don't Drive--Ride

Best to relax. Or, better yet, consider taking a bus.

"On Monday mornings downtown, the surface streets aren't too bad for our buses," said Steve Parry, manager of bus planning with the Southern California Rapid Transit District. "The reason is that all the traffic is bumper to bumper up on the freeways.

"Our peaking factor begins at 4 p.m., because everybody is coming out of the parking lots and garages and trying to get back onto the freeways."

As far as buses are concerned, the most troublesome day for them downtown is Sunday, especially in the afternoon and especially in the vicinity of Broadway, Parry said.

If you plan to give your regards to Broadway, pick another day. "It's a happening on Sunday afternoons--the movies, the shops," the RTD planner went on.

The periods during which city surface streets may or may not be the most crowded cannot be identified statistically, according to a spokeswoman for the city Department of Transportation, because traffic volume isn't monitored on a 24-hour basis, and therefore cannot be broken down by days.

The unheralded surface street--don't rule it out, especially on the first working day of the week.

"Listen to the SigAlerts on the radio and learn alternate routes," said Nick Jones, associate transportation engineer at Caltrans. "I like the idea that I can make the decision: Do I want to bail out?

"Some people feel better just to be moving, even if it means being on a surface street where he or she knows there will be stops for signals. It's all a perception of time and motion. If you are on a freeway and you are reduced to doing 30 instead of 55, you feel you are standing still. Whereas if you can do that on Venice Boulevard you feel you're in Seventh Heaven. Some drivers dont feel as trapped on a surface street."

As for freeway congestion during certain times of the year, beware of the rides of March. Also November, December, January and February. Traffic during peak hours is worse during those months than during the summer, said Bork of Caltrans.

No Thanks for the Traffic

As for holidays, Thanksgiving gets the honors. "Traffic is generally heavy no matter what hour you choose," Jones said. "Christmas is a day for the nuclear family, but Thanksgiving is for the extended family--seeing the grandparents, the in-laws."

And what about Friday afternoons?

"I dread coming in for it," Keene said. "I know it's going to be gridlock just about everywhere, and I know I'm going to leave some drivers ticked off, because the problem reports are coming in so hot and heavy that I can't mention every incident.

"Of course, seems like that's getting to be the case every day. Dona and I speak as fast as we can for the minute we're allowed. There isn't much time for happy talk anymore."

Long, of the parking association, said Angelenos must all get away from the bad habit of relying on freeways for short trips, just because they are there. "Too many of us will go up one ramp and get off at the next. In the business district, I would like to see one surface street set aside as an expressway, to get from one end to the other fairly rapidly, without resorting to a freeway."

Bork said a lot of people take their car to work because they claim they might need it during the day, or might have to stop somewhere on the way home. "But this need rarely crops up," he said. "The name of the game becomes: 'I could stop somewhere if I wanted to.' "

The Lightest Morning

Although this isn't necessarily the case on Friday mornings. "That," Dower observed, "is invariably the lightest time of all. People come to work later, or don't come in at all.

"And I am noticing that the afternoon crunch is over sooner than on other days. Usually it lasts until 7 p.m. the other days, but on Friday it usually is finished by around 6 p.m."

Jones, who also feels that Friday mornings and early afternoons are sometimes the most merciful to motorists, guessed that employees are sneaking off from work sooner, sometimes to coincide with their kids getting out of school, so that the family can get an early start on the weekend, particularly if the weather is nice.

Also, he pointed out, more than a few companies have switched to the four-day, 40-hour week, which may have something to do with uncrowded freeways on Friday mornings.

But beware of that afternoon and the dreaded work morning which begins the next week. As they say, wherever you go, there you are. The road to work is paved with good intentions.

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