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Drivers Find Quake’s Silver Lining: a Shorter Commute : Traffic: About 200,000 motorists have time to enjoy a second cup of coffee. But they are careful not to rub it in.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Northridge earthquake has spawned a new, surprisingly large breed of commuters: people whose rides have been made faster, not slower, by freeway damage.

Although the quake has adversely affected the daily commutes of about 1 million motorists, it has improved the drive for about 200,000 others, according to a Caltrans estimate made at The Times’ request.

Discussing commutes has long been the hallmark of true Angelenos. But these days some of the luckier motorists slink into their offices, quickly drink their coffee and avoid eye contact; rather than talk about their drives, they sometimes open the morning paper.

“My commute is wonderful. I hate to say that because there are people in my office who take three hours to get home,” said Pattie McCann, 28, an insurance company marketing specialist from Simi Valley.

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The opportunities that people such as McCann are enjoying have been created by several factors. For one thing, since the earthquake about 10% fewer drivers are using the freeways, according to Steve Leung, chief of Caltrans’ traffic management branch. Officials say the reduction has occurred because employers are offering more flexible hours, people are trying car-pools and mass transit, and drivers are avoiding freeways for anything but essential trips.

Quake damage on freeways has created new pockets of clear sailing and different patterns of traffic.

It is the kind of surprise Jerry Munson has come to relish.

Munson, 39, of Sylmar, dreaded his first commute after the earthquake. For three days, as he cleared the fallen cinder blocks and swept up the broken crystal, he would step outside and see cars inching along the crippled Golden State Freeway.

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Finally, it was Munson’s turn to go to work. He figured he would be swallowed up in the steady, unmoving train of cars as he braved the 27-mile trip to his Downtown Los Angeles office.

But Munson’s drive was a mere 38 minutes--almost half the usual. It turned out he was entering the Golden State Freeway just past the choke point he had been seeing, where thousands were--and continue to be--delayed by the downed interchange between the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways.

“My worst nightmare didn’t come to pass,” said Munson, 39, a credit manager with an international credit card company. “It was actually very easy, almost a leisurely drive. I felt so elated.”

Not the sentiments you want to share with a colleague who has been grinding his teeth and quaffing black coffee during an early morning odyssey along back roads.

For some, the commute improved because of car-pool lanes that Caltrans installed to help the crippled freeways accommodate more people.

Even before the earthquake, Sue Himmelrich and her husband used to frequently drive together from Santa Monica on the Santa Monica Freeway to their respective Downtown offices. Because there was no car-pool lane, the only advantage was having time together.

Today, with a temporary car-pool lane set up on the freeway, Himmelrich’s drive is about 10 minutes shorter than before--or 25 minutes door to door. When the couple drive west in the car-pool lane, they are only off the freeway for about one block.

“Ten minutes is a significant savings, percentage-wise,” said Himmelrich, an attorney. “Generally, the freeway gets very backed up. The car-pool people just fly by the others.”

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For Constance Russell, the commute has become not merely faster but more civilized.

Russell, 47, does the driving in a van-pool that she and co-workers created three years ago. They commute from Palmdale to their Wilshire Boulevard office. Until the earthquake struck, navigating the lumbering van into car-pool lanes had been agonizing. Cars would zip by, refusing to slow and allow the van into the faster multi-passenger lane.

Now, Russell said, car-pool-lane drivers, enjoying an “elegance of time” compared to other commuters, seem far more obliging.

“After the earthquake, among the people who normally would kill you before they let you in, there was a new etiquette,” Russell said. “Cars now let us in to the diamond lane--there is a courtesy extended.”

Linda Jalipo’s typical 35-minute commute from east Simi Valley to Warner Center in Woodland Hills has been reduced to 20 minutes. For three years, Jalipo has driven on the Simi Valley Freeway and headed south on Topanga Canyon Boulevard. But when the quake snapped the Simi Valley Freeway at Reseda Boulevard, motorists traveling west were cut off from Topanga Canyon Boulevard, and that crowded surface street became easier to drive.

Suddenly, Jalipo, a 35-year-old medical reviewer for an insurance company, could sleep 15 minutes later. Her weekday drive “seemed more like holidays. It was kind of eerie, the people were gone,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about busting out the door, eating my toast and drinking my coffee while I’m driving. It’s great.”

Among some whose commute has improved, “there’s a sense of ‘How come my life is better than usual or not as affected as others I know?’ ” said Dr. Lilli Friedland, a member of the Los Angeles County Psychological Assn.'s disaster response team. “Some people do, in fact, translate this into: ‘God must have loved me.’ ”

The more appropriate response, Friedland said, is “not to feel favored but to know that it’s really luck and to feel good about it.”

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For McCann, an improved commute was one of the great anomalies of the earthquake that all but destroyed her kitchen, including the glass collection that she had begun as a child. It seemed as if she and her colleagues had endured the earthquake together, all suffering damage in their homes. But there was one key difference: While their commutes worsened, hers improved.

Initially, no one talked about it.

“We all felt the earthquake and all the aftershocks,” McCann said. “It just seemed odd that my drive would be easier than the people I work with.”

Today, McCann’s colleagues, teasing her about her commute, call her spoiled. She counters that Simi Valley--the butt of much derision after the 1992 trial involving police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney G. King--is not such a bad place to live.

The reduction in her round-trip commute--cut to about 40 minutes from 70--has brightened her life. Now she gets home in time to kick off her heels and watch TV before her water aerobics classes. Instead of eating fast food, she cooks dinner.

“I don’t dread getting into my car to get home anymore,” she said.


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