Hypothetical Couple Take Drive Into Future

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

March 23, 2009--At 3:30 a.m., the light automatically flicks on in Sean and Jessica Green’s bedroom, courtesy of the central household computer in their Laguna Hills condo. It’s time to get up, because Sean is due at his office in the Irvine Spectrum center at 5, and Jessica must be at her office near Anaheim Stadium by 5:30.

Out in the garage, Sean’s electric-powered car has been plugged in since he arrived home the night before, and the computer’s synthesized voice reassures Sean via a bedside speaker that the vehicle is fully charged.

Jessica’s car, which runs on gasohol, sits in the dark driveway.

Welcome to Orange County, 20 years from now, as predicted by two major plans released earlier this month. No, our hypothetical family isn’t specifically mentioned by either the Orange County Transportation Commission’s 20-year master plan or the South Coast Air Basin clean air plan approved last week by the Southern California Assn. of Governments and the South Coast Air Quality Management District board.


Both documents are precisely what they were meant to be: written in dry governmentese, generously annotated, carefully put together after years of discussion in committee after committee.

Well, no offense intended, but sometimes governmentese isn’t the clearest or most vivid way to communicate. So Life on Wheels took the liberty of conjuring up the Greens as a way of illustrating what might happen if the plans are implemented.

The Greens get up in the wee hours to take advantage of alternate work scheduling, one of the transportation demand management, or TDM, strategies suggested in the OCTC report.

Sean and Jessica, in their early 30s, have a vague memory of seeing the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics on television. But it’s not the Games that most Southern Californians remember; it’s the free-flowing traffic. The Greens and most other workers have seen video images of those days--and the clogged freeways that followed--in commuter awareness seminars at work. The highways they use every day aren’t nearly as empty as those pictures from 1984, but at least they’re not as crowded as they were in 1989.


The couple down the street takes advantage of other TDM options: he rides his bike 5 miles to work, and she stays home and telecommutes via her computer.

The Greens illustrate another projected trend: They live in the south county and drive north to work. The OCTC predicts that while the county’s population will grow 23% overall to more than 2.8 million, 57% of that growth will be in the south county.

Employment, meanwhile, will increase by 45%, with 54% of that increase in the north county.

So much for the suggestion in both reports that we arrange to work closer to where we live.


Both Sean and Jessica commute by car--that’s something that isn’t likely to change for most of us, even though mass transit will be more available. There will be a rail link to Riverside County, with terminals in Fullerton and Irvine, high-speed transitways for buses and car pools, and expansion of the Amtrak line between Los Angeles and San Diego.

But at least the cars they drive will be cleaner, assuming the recommendations in the clean air plan are implemented.

The Greens will both head north on the San Diego (Interstate 405) and Santa Ana (Interstate 5) freeways. From San Clemente to El Toro, I-5 now has a car-pool lane in each direction. That cost the taxpayers $57 million, plus $45 million for upgrading the “El Toro Y,” where the Santa Ana and San Diego Freeways converge. From there north, the Santa Ana Freeway is 12 lanes wide, double what it was in 1989. That construction cost somewhere between $1.1 and $1.5 billion.

(Those improvements, as well as most of the others mentioned here, can only be completed by 2009 if Orange County voters approve a half-cent sales tax to pay for transportation. That money would be used in conjunction with federal, state and private funds.)


Jessica spends much of her working day on the road--she’s in sales. She’s grateful that all the county’s freeways have been widened or extended in the past 20 years. Today, for example, she will be leaving her office in Anaheim and taking the Orange Freeway south to the San Diego Freeway. That extension cost $1.3 billion, plus $200 million for 4 additional lanes on the Orange Freeway between the Santa Ana Freeway and the Orange-Los Angeles county line.

Jessica has an afternoon appointment in Huntington Beach, so she will head south off the freeway on the Beach Boulevard “super street,” upgraded from its sluggish, stop-and-go traffic conditions in the late 1980s with coordinated traffic signals, widened intersections and other improvements. The super-street network, now encompassing 220 miles of the county’s major roads, was a $250-million project.

Her next appointment is in Newport Beach, so Jessica drives south on Pacific Coast Highway, widened from four to six lanes between the Los Angeles-Orange county line and MacArthur Boulevard ($90 million). From there, she will head toward home on the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor toll road ($550 million), which parallels the San Diego Freeway between Newport Beach and Mission Viejo.

On the way home, Jessica wonders if she and her husband would be happier living somewhere less crowded--Oregon, maybe.


As a transportation planner, Sean is working to develop a commuter rail system that might someday keep him and thousands of other Orange County residents off the freeways. When he was a boy, the county had the foresight to preserve the right of way that once was used by the old Pacific Electric Red Cars, just in case it could be used again “for the future development of a clean, modern rail transit system,” according to an old report Sean keeps in his office.

But he knows that such a system is, at best, many years in the future. Maybe by 2050. . . .