A Driven Woman : Adriana Gianturco fought a lonely battle for car-pool lanes in 1976. Now, they’re a part of the L.A. map.
The whole city, it seemed, hated her.
Drivers cursed her every day as they sat without moving on the Santa Monica Freeway, while she told them on the radio that they were zipping along just swell.
Some politicians still sputter at the mention of her name. “A woman so arrogant that she tried to tell us it was midnight when we could see with our eyes it was high noon,” Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky says now, still irritated in retrospect. “In my 18 years of public office, she got my juices going in a way nobody else has been able to do.”
Maybe so. But Adriana Gianturco’s big problem, it appears now, was simply that she was two decades ahead of her time.
The year was 1976. A new governor, Jerry Brown, had appointed a new director of the California Department of Transportation. Gianturco seemed a good bet for the job: She was educated at Smith College, UC Berkeley and Harvard graduate school, with jobs in urban planning and transportation under her belt.
Within days of taking office, however, Gianturco, then 36, was, in her own words, “besieged, vilified, crucified.”
Her operatic name was transposed to epithet: Giant Turkey, the Madwoman of Caltrans, Our Lady of the Diamond Lane. “The insults didn’t stop,” she recalls.
Neither did the hate mail, obscene phone calls or death threats. “We had to check all packages for bombs,” she remembers, “because the insanity got so out of hand.” And for good reason, many citizens believed.
Popular opinion had it that Gianturco single-handedly, on a sunny mid-March day, rode into town from Sacramento and closed the fast lanes of the Santa Monica Freeway to all cars but those containing multiple occupants.
It was she, legend went, who christened the diamond lane, who decided that it would be for car-poolers only, who refused to acknowledge that the plan didn’t work--and who watched while the remaining three lanes of the Santa Monica became so clogged that citizens imagined that they could walk to work faster than they could get there on the freeway.
It was the first time in L.A.'s memory that basic freeway freedoms had been tampered with. Many drivers refused to comply with the car-pool rule, weaving in and out of the forbidden lane just long enough to make progress, but fast enough to avoid police, who had been ordered to give hefty tickets.
Anyone who didn’t obey the edict could answer in court, Gianturco said over and over again in her clipped Back Bay accent, during what seemed a nonstop barrage of public appearances that assumed the character of scoldings.
After five months, when the entire city seemed enraged at Gianturco’s brazenness, Yaroslavsky became the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that put an end to the diamond lane--and to the controversy. Drivers had won their four lanes back. Gianturco had lost her idealism.
“By the way,” Yaroslavsky asked last week, his voice softening in what seemed to be genuine concern: “Whatever happened to Adriana? Did she settle into a good job somewhere?”
It’s worth asking, because the idea against which so many citizens fought--and for which Gianturco was willing to risk her career--has since been accepted. Even Yaroslavsky says he never was opposed to the concept of diamond lanes--just the way they were imposed autocratically on drivers.
Within the past six months, Los Angeles County has created 130 miles of car-pool-only freeway lanes (not including those installed since the earthquake on, ironically, the Santa Monica Freeway). Orange County has 110 miles; Riverside County has 35.
Caltrans projects that by 1998, Southern California will have more than 600 freeway miles reserved for high-occupancy vehicles (HOVs). The diamond-lane name is no longer used, a Caltrans official says, “because Gianturco’s impact was so negative and so great that we do not want to use the diamond-lane designation that’s still associated with her.”
In fact, says another official, who also asked not to be named, diamond lanes had grown so unpopular that Southern California stood still in that respect for nearly 18 years, while the rest of the country (including Northern California) has forged way ahead.
“I can laugh now, but at the time it was horrendous,” Gianturco says from her spacious home in the Old Land Park district near downtown Sacramento, where she lives with husband John Saltonstall, a lawyer, and her unclipped poodle, Dusty.
She has been out of public life since the 1980s, when both her parents became ill and she took time out to care for them. Then, after a few years as a free-lance writer, she launched her current business of buying and rehabilitating historic homes. Her job as transportation director took a toll, she admits. But she hasn’t lost her zeal or her sense of humor. And, since we asked, she’d be delighted to set the record straight:
“Almost every perception the public has about that diamond-lane project is incorrect,” she begins, adding that it wasn’t her idea--or Brown’s. “Although the project was activated on March 15, 1976-- and this is important-- it was conceived of and planned for years before, during the term of Ronald Reagan as governor.
“Jerry Brown came into office on Jan. 2, 1975,” she goes on, reeling off dusty dates as if she uses them daily. “By that time, all planning for the project was done; it was ready to go. Brown inherited that whole thing from Reagan; it was not something (Brown) dreamed up, or anything that was even high on his or my agenda.”
“In fact,” she says, chuckling, “I assumed office on the very same day the Santa Monica Freeway diamond lane went into effect.”
So why did she fight for it so hard that it became synonymous with her name?
“I believed in it,” she says simply. “And I was naive. I thought a public servant should judge things on their merit, should take full responsibility. The thought never occurred to me, though it certainly occurred to me later, that if it didn’t go well, I could blame it on my predecessors. I was totally apolitical.”
It was only meant to be an experiment, she says. It was essential to go ahead with the project, because it had been submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to comply with the Clean Air Act of 1974. Had it not been carried out, federal highway funds to Southern California would have been cut off.
The Reagan Administration’s plan for Los Angeles had three major parts: Use an existing lane of a heavily traveled freeway (the Interstate 10) for car pools and buses only; build a separate car-pool and bus road (the Interstate 10’s El Monte busway), and widen an existing freeway (the Interstate 405) by adding a lane for car pools and buses. “The idea was that we would do all three projects for a short time, compare the results, and decide which was the most cost-effective and efficient way to go. It made good sense,” Gianturco says.
But then, “all hell broke loose immediately,” she recalls, her voice rising in remembered agitation. “There was a glitch at the junction of the Harbor and the Santa Monica freeways, where the new signage wasn’t right. Traffic backed up, and I got phone calls from the highest levels of government.
“We had that fixed within a day, but the drumbeat had begun. I couldn’t believe it; I still can’t believe what happened, looking back. It was bizarre. The project became the center of attention of the entire city. You would have thought an 8-point earthquake had occurred. It was that magnitude of response.”
Why didn’t she retreat when they started calling her “un-American,” “un-Californian,” “an arrogant, power-crazed madwoman”?
“I was so shocked and horrified at the untruths being told that I couldn’t retreat. I began to feel like a kind of Joan of Arc. This was a Caltrans project; I was director of Caltrans. I had no thought of passing the buck. Of course, I have learned since then that it is not the style of most department directors, federal or state, to get out front when there’s controversy. That’s when their aides and deputies start appearing in public and taking the flak.”
Idealist that she was, she says, she saw it as “my mission to carry out the law. I went on a public speaking binge, on radio, TV, met with newspaper editorial boards, made public appearances in an attempt to generate understanding and overcome completely erroneous things being said.”
Few listened, and even fewer believed. “They called me an outsider, but I’m a third-generation Californian; they said I had no experience, but I did; they said car-pool traffic on the 10 was nonexistent, but our figures showed it was increasing every day.”
Some even thought she had named the lane after precious jewelry, she recalls, chuckling. “But the diamond is actually the international symbol used for buses and car pools,” she says.
By the time she left office in December, 1982, she was so well-known that the media referred to her by her first name only. In mischievous acknowledgment, Gianturco’s billboards welcoming drivers to the new lane of the 405 featured a happy face and the single name “Adriana.”
Did she leave public life because she couldn’t take the insults anymore?
“Not at all,” she says with a laugh. “It’s true I was alone and devastated much of the time; my new husband was working in Boston. Every weekend I’d go home in Sacramento and collapse. Then I’d pull myself together for Monday and start all over again.
“But the freeway fiasco lasted only five months; I stayed in that job for (nearly) seven years. Then I wanted to try new things.”
The episode benefited her in certain ways, she says. It made her “more resolute” to do what’s right, because she knew she could “survive the worst criticism without falling apart.”
She also gets satisfaction, she says, knowing that “all the stuff we talked about years ago is the stuff that’s finally happening now. Car-pool lanes, the Metrolink, the idea of using existing rail lines are all programs that we started way back then.”
It’s so gratifying, she says, with a mysterious lilt in her voice, that she “just might consider going back into public life again.”