ON-RAMP : And Parking's a Snap on Melrose

Brace yourself for an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Step one--picture your morning commute: the tattooed twit with the backwards cap in the jacked-up mini-pickup jittering from lane to lane; the preening jerk with the perfect hair in the perfect Beemer, locked to his cel phone and your bumper; the guy whose driving skills were learned in the traffic circles of Rome, or maybe hell, passing you on the shoulder. And you, you're stuck with them, moving like lava along the freeway, listening to the traffic reports chronicling another step in the decay of our clotted megalopolis.

Step two--read this: Experts in transportation and urban planning say that recent data shows that travel times throughout the Los Angeles Basin are improving even though more people are putting in more miles than ever. And, they say, travel times here are among the best in the United States, far better than, say, New York or Chicago.

" Traffic is not bad in Los Angeles," says Martin Wachs, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and director of its Institute of Transportation Studies. "Drivers here have good driving habits. There's very good lane discipline, and even moving at very high speeds, drivers tend to be more courteous here." Another reason to thank God you don't live in New York or Chicago.

But it's not better driving skills that have cut commuting time (nor is it Metro Rail). More and more companies have moved out of central business hubs, says Peter Gordon, a professor of urban planning and economics at USC, creating more suburb-to-suburb commuting and spreading out the traffic flow. "Since there's more of that type of travel here than average, travel here is faster than ever before," Gordon says.

So why does it appear as if every major traffic artery in Southern California is thrombotic? "Perception," says James Moore, a colleague of Gordon in USC's urban planning department. "People repeat the idea that traffic is bad again and again without any scientific literature to back it up," he says. "The best measures tell us overall traffic is not getting worse--it's getting better."

Something to remember as you're crawling along on the 405, feeling hostile, surrounded by commuters transporting their personality disorders from one suburb to another.

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