The Big Traffic Monster Is Us

Roger J. Rudick is a screenwriter and journalist based in Los Angeles

When you're crawling along the freeway in rush-hour traffic, did you ever wish there were someone or something to blame, such as a big traffic monster you could walk up to and tell off? No such things exist, right? Traffic just happens.

A few weeks ago I discovered that those traffic-causing monsters do exist, but they're not monsters. They're regular people.

A recent report says Los Angeles--again--has the worst traffic in the nation, and an average driver here spends 56 hours a year stuck in traffic. In New York, that figure is 34 hours--two hours below the national average. That's because New Yorkers have alternatives.

When I first moved here from New York, I was determined to keep my traffic time to a minimum. I settled in Los Feliz, where I can walk to most amenities and the Red Line subway. I also joined a transit-advocacy group called Friends4Expo, which has for years been trying to convince the MTA that it should build a light-rail line--a modern trolley--from downtown to Santa Monica. This would finally join the most populated areas of Los Angeles with the rest of the city's fledgling rail network. The L.A. City Council passed a resolution last Wednesday supporting the project. With strong support from the public, the mayor-elect and organizations up and down the route, the MTA board began hearings on whether to build this line.

You wouldn't think it would be a hard thing to convince the board, or anyone else, that building this line is a good idea. After all, the difficulty in building rail lines is that people along the route are displaced. But in this case, the line would be built on an abandoned, but still intact, rail line that was once part of Los Angeles' historic trolley system. There's nobody to displace and no tunnels to dig. It's just a matter of laying new tracks.

Or it would be, if not for a few key "not-in-my-backyard" folks along the line.

Take, for example, the neighborhoods of Cheviot Hills and west of Westwood. The Exposition Line tracks go through these neighborhoods. When some of these residents moved in, there were still freight trains running on those tracks. For the people who moved in later, well, wouldn't the presence of tracks usually suggest a presence of trains?

Yet the people who live in these neighborhoods have unapologetically tied up the construction of this line for about 20 years. And despite an outpouring of support for the line from the rest of the city and the Westside, they're still trying to stop the project.

Members of these homeowners associations shout all sorts of nonsense about trains being dangerous, smelly, dirty. In truth, rail is so much safer than automobiles that building the line will save lives by reducing auto use and with it, auto accidents. As for pollution, the trains, which are powered via an electric overhead wire, make no emissions.

To get construction of the line started, transit planners have devised a way to bypass Cheviot Hills and Westwood. It brings the line through far more densely populated areas, assuring more riders. But now some homeowners along the diversion route are upset, insisting the train be put back on its original route, threatening to delay the project once again

So next time you're stuck in traffic, realize that it's no accident that life has gotten so miserable. As for the traffic monsters, it was only recently that I discovered that an associate is one of those west-of-Westwood residents who has actively campaigned against rail on Exposition. Now when I sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way to the Westside, waiting for the day when that light rail line will finally be built, all I can think of is stopping off and giving him a piece of my mind.

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