Drivers Seeking Shortcuts Raise Hackles in Suburbia : Traffic: Homeowners are being pitted against commuters spilling over into residential neighborhoods. : Regional Report Traffic
When Gene Brull moved to Robinson Street, it was a quiet lane on a Redondo Beach hill. Then one day, commuters discovered it made a fine shortcut to the San Diego Freeway and local office parks.
Suddenly, Brull couldn’t back out of his driveway for fear of being broadsided by rush-hour road hogs. Children stopped riding bikes on the street. People started keeping pets indoors.
So the aerospace engineer and father of three persuaded the city to make Robinson one-way. Now he wishes his life could be half as peaceful as his street. Brull’s neighbors a block over are up in arms because the roaring short-cutters now cut past their homes. And for a while, he was even getting hate mail, computer-typed messages exhorting him to leave the neighborhood “or risk your health.”
Brull’s is a tale from the front of what traffic engineers and city planners say is an escalating battle in car-clogged Southern California. As freeways and major surface streets reach capacity, more and more traffic is spilling into suburban neighborhoods--pitting commuter against homeowner and block against block.
From the rural byways of Malibu to Santa Ana’s city core, from the broad boulevards of the San Gabriel Valley to the teeming Fairfax District of Los Angeles, freeway gridlock is leading more and more commuters on a quest for new and faster detours, traffic officials say. There are half again as many cars crammed onto the state’s freeways today as there were 10 years ago, and the average 10-mile workday commute now takes 30 to 40 minutes--10 to 15 minutes longer than it took just two years ago.
But the situation also has led residents and local governments to rise up with a host of obstacles aimed at forcing short-cutters to shortcut someplace else.
In Pasadena, for example, the demand last year for speed humps to slow down short-cutters on residential streets ran so high that the city ended up paying triple what it had budgeted for such impediments and had to suspend its speed-hump program. In Orange County, spillover from the perpetually congested “Orange Crush"--the junction of the Santa Ana, Orange and Garden Grove freeways--has prompted a neighborhood in Orange to blockade its streets with concrete barricades.
In the San Fernando Valley, the quandary over whether to extend Reseda Boulevard to ease shortcut congestion in Encino has been so emotional that a public hearing on the issue last year erupted into a fist-swinging brawl. In Beverly Hills, city staffers have embarked on an endeavor known as the Livable Streets program, aimed at protecting the neighborhoods south of Wilshire from cut-through traffic out of Century City.
The list of shortcuts goes on and on, from the streets of Claremont offering rush-hour relief from the San Bernardino Freeway to the overrun byways around Dodger Stadium. The problem is so pernicious that traffic engineers have assigned it an official name--Commuter Infiltration--and have accumulated volumes of reports on how to rectify it:
Barricades. Stop signs. Speed bumps. Speed humps. Man-made curves built into streets with big lumps of concrete known affectionately in the traffic trade as “elephant droppings.”
But still the problem remains.
“Traffic is like water,” observed Maria Rychlicki, transportation planning manager for Beverly Hills. “It’ll go where it can find a way.” Shortcutting commuters have been a problem for decades in some parts of the country, said Dan Smith Jr., an Oakland-based transportation consultant who has co-authored two books on residential traffic management. In Michigan and New Jersey, for example, some cities have been experimenting since the 1940s with devices intended to divert traffic away from residential neighborhoods, he said.
“But there has been a lot more ferment in California in the last two decades,” Smith said.
Part of the reason, he and others say, is simply that California has more cars. A report released earlier this year by Californians for Better Transportation, a highway lobbying group, found that traffic statewide has grown 55% in the last 10 years to 241 billion vehicle-miles a year. In the same period, the group reported, the miles of new road construction have increased less than 2%. Moreover, two-thirds of existing roads were found to be in fair or poor condition.
In newer suburbs, streets are arranged so it is all but impossible for short-cutters to disrupt neighborhoods. Homes are built on cul-de-sacs that feed into so-called “collector” streets that, in turn, flow into major routes to and from office parks and freeways.
But streets are more vulnerable in older neighborhoods--rural ones, for example, and those built on the standard grid pattern of streets popular in the post-World War II building boom. The crosshatch of streets in Gene Brull’s neighborhood in North Redondo Beach, for example, offered an uninterrupted route to the massive office park dominated by TRW, one of the South Bay’s biggest employers.
The neighborhoods erected during a quieter era in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles now abut the bustling Wilshire Corridor. And Malibu has in recent years complained about “Z-pattern” short-cutters--commuters from Ventura County and northwestern Los Angeles County who avoid taking the Ventura Freeway into the central business districts by taking a Z-shaped route, east to Malibu or Topanga Canyon, south via the Pacific Coast Highway, then east again on the Santa Monica Freeway.
But cars, Smith believes, are not the only reason cities are doing battle against cut-through traffic.
“I think the California population, being new, tries to take more control of their environment,” he said.
Perhaps the best-known assault on “commuter infiltration” occurred in Berkeley in the 1970s, when the city erected $618,000 worth of signs, lights, barriers and other devices in an ambitious effort to keep cars on main arterials and away from neighborhoods.
The endeavor cleared some residential streets, but left the city politically polarized. Critics charged that the plan was anti-automobile paranoia. The barriers had been in less than a year when a physician--whose seven-minute drive to the emergency room soared to 20 minutes because of the changes--launched a ballot initiative for its repeal.
The initiative failed, and, despite the years of litigation that ensued, most of the diverters installed by the city remain in place, said Dan Smith Jr., a traffic consultant who worked on the original plan.
“Berkeley is still a tough drive in some places and not as bad in others,” Smith said. But the Berkeley experience galvanized other California cities as freeway congestion began to spill over into neighborhoods never intended as thoroughfares.
“I think there’s a lot more consciousness about the problem now than, say, 15 or 20 years ago,” Smith said. “So even while traffic has grown a lot, people are also a lot more willing to experiment.”
Which isn’t to say that the solutions to cut-through traffic have become any less divisive.
“The technical issues aren’t the tough ones,” said Dave Barnhart, Pasadena’s city engineer. “It’s the political consensus that’s tough. We all want to live on a nice, quiet cul-de-sac with an on-ramp running into our garage--we want to have privacy, but we also want to have access to the road.”
The little neighborhood in the southwesternmost corner of Orange understands the political problems only too well. Surrounded on two sides by development and freeways and equipped with a street system dating in some spots to the early 1900s, the little community once known as Pumpkinville found itself under virtual assault from the automobile.
To the south was the massive MainPlace mall, one of Orange County’s biggest shopping centers; to the west was the junction of three freeways. The major arteries were so notoriously jammed that the junction earned the nickname “Orange Crush.” It wasn’t long before the little neighborhood was awash in cars.
“Ten million square feet of office space and one of the busiest intersections in Southern California,” marveled Mike Spurgeon, chairman of the area’s traffic committee. “And guess where all those people were driving?”
Eventually, the city erected signs blocking access to the neighborhood’s south end, allowing drivers to get out but not in. The signs were so popular that, this year, the City Council voted to replace them with concrete barricades.
But consensus didn’t come easy.
“Some wanted all the streets open,” Spurgeon said. “Some wanted everything closed. It took 4 1/2 years for us to get anything done because these neighborhood meetings turned into shouting matches.”
Tom Conner, assistant general manager for the Los Angeles Transportation Department, agreed that commuter infiltration “is a very emotional and touchy issue.”
Take, for example, the meeting last August called by Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude to talk about San Fernando Valley short-cutters.
Plagued by cut-through traffic from the San Diego Freeway, Encino residents wanted to extend Reseda Boulevard to Mulholland Drive. The people of Tarzana hated the idea.
The plan was to be debated on a Thursday night at an Encino elementary school. But the meeting hall filled before everyone who wanted to speak got a seat. Soon emotion superseded words. Outside, people began pounding on the windows and doors, and teen-age boys scrambled onto the roof to post anti-extension signs. The president of the Encino Property Owners Assn. got tackled in the melee. A boy from Tarzana hurt his wrist.
“We get fingers pointed at us. We get called names,” Conner said. “People say we don’t care, but we do. Our professional associations are constantly trying to come up with solutions to the problem.”
Pasadena has been particularly aggressive in its attempts to tackle cut-through traffic--or slow it down, at least. By summer’s end, 85 streets will have been equipped with 350 speed humps--gently sloping mounds of asphalt about 3 inches tall--so many that the city had to suspend the program because the demand outstripped the budget for speed humps, Barnhart said.
Other cities have flooded neighborhoods with stop signs and no-left-turn restrictions. Still others have built S-curves into straightaways with lumps of concrete and made it harder to turn into beleaguered neighborhoods by narrowing intersections with so-called traffic chokers.
In Beverly Hills, a citizens committee has been working with City Hall for the last two years on a 20-point program to rid residential streets of the downtown-bound Santa Monicans and the Valley-bound Brentwood commuters, traffic planning manager Rychlicki said. Meanwhile, back on the blacktop, the commuters continue to infiltrate.
Last year, in fact, two Los Angeles writers published a novelty book of shortcuts through 90 of the city’s most congested areas. Co-authors Brian Roberts and Richard Schwadel earned brief notoriety after homeowners around Lake Hollywood blamed the book for an onslaught of cross-town traffic.
But Roberts said the little book has sold more than 7,000 copies so far.
“People are frustrated out there. Everybody’s looking for a better way,” Roberts said. “If I have one more person call me asking for an Orange County book, I’ll scream.”