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Wanna Improve Traffic Flow? Leave L.A.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Angelenos have a habit of waxing nostalgic that is both endearing and ironic. Even people who moved here from Des Moines three months ago will look you straight in the eye and rhapsodize over the orange groves that once rose in frothy fragrance in areas that are always geographically hazy in the telling. And folks who actually grew up here, well, don’t get them started. About the pony rides and the old Bullock’s Wilshire, about the Red Line and the gondolas in Venice, about Malibu before Gladstone’s and Santa Monica before the Third Street Promenade.

But no topic is as fraught with tender remembrance than traffic. “I remember when you could get from Long Beach to Hollywood in 20 minutes. On a Saturday evening.”

“I remember when you could leave downtown at 5 and have your toes in the sand by 6.”

“I remember when Santa Monica Boulevard was the fastest street cross town,” when “Sepulveda was faster than the 405,” when “PCH would get you to Santa Barbara in an hour and a half,” when “you could bowl down Olympic at rush hour.”

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Giving voice to such memories will transform the face of any Angeleno. The eyes fix themselves longingly on the middle distance, the mouth goes soft and vulnerable, the brow relaxes, and an image of the past rises as if on a lantern screen above their heads. A past when drivers never missed a light, when street parking bloomed in abundance, when the city was latticed with freeways and streets that hissed and shone with speed, when everyone used their turn signals and no one ran an amber, much less a red.

It’s like watching “Kate & Leopold,” in which overwrought career gal Meg Ryan blithely chooses to live in 19th century New York where there are no tampons, no antibiotics, no birth control and women do not yet have the vote. Ah, yes, those were the days.

The thing that makes traffic in Los Angeles a problem is that so many people live here. On a regular basis people move here, presumably because it’s such a swell place to live, and the traffic gets worse and then people, especially the ones who just moved here, complain about it. But unless you are descended from indigenous tribes, you are part of the problem, my friend. You came, you saw, you rented a car and took up another 20 feet on the freeway.

Anyone who really wants to improve traffic conditions in L.A. should just go back to Des Moines. Or Miami Beach. Or Chicago. Or wherever their great-grandparents came from. Then those who remain will once again be able to get from Long Beach to Hollywood in 20 minutes. Like that’s some sort of cultural accomplishment.

So when someone or other speaks rapturously about the past, remember that what they’re really saying is, “Back when you people who came after me, including my spouse and children, weren’t here, things were just great.”

No matter the topic, nostalgia seems inappropriate coming from the denizens of one of the newest, most modern cities in the country. It is also an odd hobby for a culture that unapologetically deifies youth. Angelenos seem to forget that nostalgia is pretty much by definition the property of the elderly. The only people who used to care that there was ever such a thing as penny candy and that a big bottle of Pepsi went for a nickel were old codgers with nothing better to do.

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But what with computers and cell phones and DVDs, we’ve pretty much washed our hands of the traditional space-time continuum, so perhaps it really isn’t odd at all to hear a 27-year-old speak wistfully of the way things were “when I was a kid.”

Or to realize we are teetering on the edge of a new preemptive nostalgia.

“I remember when there was free parking at the Farmers Market,” one young man recently was heard to sigh to another.

That’s because there still is.

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