Every morning, the mist-enshrouded silence in Malibu gives way to rumbling engines and beeping horns as 2,200 cars converge on Pacific Coast Highway and begin the rush-hour crawl southward.
By the time the slow-moving mass reaches Topanga Canyon Boulevard, 1,100 more cars--mostly San Fernando Valley commuters bound for Los Angeles--join in. Before the morning rush ends, 5,000 cars have snaked slowly through the intersection at Sunset Boulevard.
Because there is nowhere else for the traffic to go, fender-benders at rush-hour or minor landslides from the cliffs above the highway can take on disastrous proportions. Even the switch to daylight saving time each spring disrupts the highway's fragile balance as the sun, suddenly higher in the sky, glares into the eyes of drivers.
Squinting motorists hang back a few extra feet, creating "a huge slowdown" on the narrow highway, said Paul Prater, a traffic engineer with the California Department of Transportation. Like clockwork, frustrated commuters call Caltrans, convinced that the traffic signals are broken or that thousands more cars have mysteriously appeared on PCH.
The PCH bottleneck is nothing new. What is new is the dramatic increase in Malibu commuter traffic from the western San Fernando Valley and Ventura County. Coupled with modest but steady local growth, outside development has sent traffic levels skyrocketing on Kanan Dume Road, Malibu Canyon Road, Topanga Canyon Boulevard and PCH in just the last few years.
Stop and Go in Malibu
"We've got stop-and-go here in Malibu, where a few years back there was none," said Craig Klein, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol's Malibu station. "On PCH north of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, the morning backup has more than doubled since I got here in 1984."
Weekday congestion, once limited to the tourist season, is so severe that the California Coastal Commission approved a sweeping land-use plan late last year, a blueprint for controlled growth in Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains. Among other things, the plan limits the number of new homes allowed in Malibu to 2,110 until PCH is expanded.
In 1982, Caltrans predicted that by the year 2000, more than 50,000 cars a day would use some parts of PCH between Civic Center Way and Sunset Boulevard. Traffic has already overtaken the forecast, reaching 53,000 cars a day just south of Topanga Canyon Boulevard in 1985.
"Everyone was wrong about how far people would drive in order to afford a home and still work in Los Angeles," county planner Ray Ristic said.
"And now all those people from Ventura County and the West Valley are looking for a way to trim their driving time, and an awful lot of them are picking PCH instead of the Ventura Freeway."
County planner Bob Hoie said that after hearing "a lot of stories" about the new congestion, he decided to take a look.
"I must have a death wish or something, but I went out there about 7 a.m. and headed into town on Topanga Canyon Boulevard," Hoie said.
"I found that if you're backed up two miles on Topanga, it takes you 18 minutes to get through the light and onto PCH. What I'm trying to figure out is, how in the world can people put up with this, do it every day?"
For years, Caltrans has sought a way to widen the road, which is hemmed in by houses and the beach on one side and unstable hillsides on the other side. The hills can send tons of rock and dirt tumbling across the asphalt if disturbed.
During the 1970s, when some planners still envisioned Malibu as a bustling resort town filled with condominiums, chain restaurants and big hotels, planners talked of building a second highway along the coast.
Those proposals, now viewed by most planners as nearly impossible financially and environmentally, included building an elevated freeway over the Pacific Ocean. Another plan would have cut the tops off the mountains and filled up adjoining canyons, flattening the foothills for an inland freeway.
The final plan will probably not be nearly so fantastic, nor will it end congestion in Malibu.
Caltrans engineers are studying ways to add a reversible rush-hour lane to the center of the highway, requiring that they widen the road by at least 12 feet.
A reversible lane is still many years away, however, and in the meantime planners agree that congestion in Malibu is going to get worse--far worse.
One problem is the land-use plan, hammered out over several years by the county and the Coastal Commission. Many planners doubt that the 2,110-house cap imposed by the Coastal Commission will limit the congestion.
County planners say that if housing construction proceeds at the expected rate in Malibu, the housing cap will probably not be reached until after the year 2000. By that time, however, growth in Ventura County and the Valley and major commercial developments proposed in the Malibu Civic Center are expected to add tens of thousands of cars to PCH.
Officials have not released traffic projections for the Civic Center development, but Larry E. Greer, a traffic consultant on the project, said he is devising a plan he hopes will minimize new traffic on PCH by encouraging residents to work and shop locally.
Whatever the case, county planners say there is little question that tens of thousands of extra cars will be drawn to the Civic Center if it is fully developed. In addition, they say, as many as 16,000 more cars a day will spill onto local roads after Pepperdine University's expansion is completed in about 15 years.
The hamlet of Topanga also faces potentially dramatic development and increasing congestion under the land-use plan, which allows construction of multiple-unit dwellings and commercial complexes in the canyon.
Some county officials say Malibu and Topanga residents will simply have to adjust to the pressures of living in a metropolis.
"They're convinced they've got it bad, very bad," said Peter Ireland, a deputy to county Supervisor Deane Dana. "But I think it's because, after experiencing a really crowded Sunday afternoon in Malibu, some residents feel as if they're trapped in their homes.
State and local officials say little can be done to slow the onslaught of outside commuters, who are using PCH to escape the exasperating delays on the even more heavily traveled Ventura Freeway, where 10,000 cars an hour are recorded near the San Diego Freeway interchange each morning.
Each morning, a ribbon of cars can be seen peeling off the freeway in Agoura and Woodland Hills, heading toward Malibu.
The CHP and Caltrans call it "Z traffic" because it zigzags: Drivers head east on the Ventura Freeway, exit south onto Kanan Dume Road, Malibu Canyon Road or Topanga Canyon Boulevard, then turn east on PCH to the Santa Monica Freeway. In the evening, many return by the same route.
One of the daily commuters through Malibu is Capt. Bill Brown of the CHP's Central Division downtown, who saves 30 minutes driving from Agoura to Los Angeles via PCH. He has to leave his house at 6:15 a.m. to avoid the worsening backup on PCH.
Even he wonders how long it will be before PCH becomes as bad as the Ventura Freeway.
"With all this growth, I'm wondering if I won't have to leave at 4 a.m. to get to work at the same time," Brown said.
Patricia Perovich, a Caltrans traffic engineer, has studied a proposal for converting the southbound shoulder of PCH into a traffic lane for use only during the morning rush hour. She said the morning snarl on the highway sometimes stretches from Topanga Canyon Boulevard back to Las Flores Canyon Road, a distance of 3.3 miles.
In the last few years, Perovich said, morning traffic has started backing up on Topanga Canyon Boulevard too--sometimes as far as 3 1/2 miles--even though county officials say the community of Topanga has grown only slightly.
Just inside Los Angeles city limits, traffic has also grown worse.
From 1982 to 1985, the average daily traffic count on PCH between Sunset Boulevard and Chautauqua Boulevard mushroomed from 38,000 cars to 66,000, Caltrans says.
Making matters worse, Caltrans plans to close some exit and entrance ramps and traffic lanes on the Ventura Freeway next winter to construct one new lane in each direction.
Paul Johnson, operations director at Metro Traffic, which monitors freeway traffic for the news media and other groups, said that during the construction period, many more Ventura Freeway drivers will wind up on PCH "as they try to find the path of least resistance."
Rich Keri of the CHP West Valley Division said Ventura Freeway motorists will be informed of freeway backups and advised of alternative routes by electronic signs.
"Hopefully that will give people a chance to say, 'Oh, if freeway traffic is backed up that much by now, maybe I'll go down Malibu Road or Kanan Road to PCH,' " Keri said.
Many people, including representatives of the Malibu Township Council and county planners, believe that the Z traffic will drop off dramatically after the new Ventura Freeway lanes are completed in 1991.