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SigAlert on the Roadway to Love

Times Staff Writer

From the moment their eyes met at a bar, Jeff was smitten.

The svelte and darkly stylish woman with dyed red hair and a tattoo on her lower back “was everything I looked for in a girl,” sighed Jeff, a 28-year-old animation producer. “I’m into Goth chicks.”

But the West Los Angeles man soon found out something that hit him like a cold shower.

“She lived in Glendale! That killed it -- totally, absolutely killed it for me,” said Jeff. “It’s so far away ... I hate sitting in traffic.”

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Of all the terrible consequences of traffic congestion, here’s one more to ponder, singles and couples alike: Car-choked streets and freeways can be hazardous to your love life.

Jeff’s tattooed beauty lives just 20 miles away, but in sprawling Los Angeles and other large cities, smart drivers have come to realize that true distance is no longer measured in miles, but in the time it takes to get somewhere. And as congestion worsens, so grows the distance between potential lovers and mates.

A generation ago, singles were reluctant to date someone across state lines.

These days, many urbanites like Jeff -- who asked that his last name not be used -- label as “geographically undesirable,” or “GU,” anyone who lives across town, no matter how attractive the candidate.

Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder.

“You don’t want to meet people at the other side of the city,” said Sonya Grigoruk, a 34-year-old publicist in Beverly Hills, recalling a former love interest who lived in Sherman Oaks. “It was only seven miles, but it was a barrier ... the traffic’s too much.”

Even those who do hook up say their local romance is often saddled with the same pitfalls as a long-distance affair, because the required travel time either forces an awkward overnight stay before the relationship is ready for it, or allows face time only on weekends.

Is it any wonder then that so many Angelenos can’t find a mate?

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Nationwide, 30.3% of males older than 15 have never married, according to the 2000 census. But in Los Angeles, 37.9% of the guys are stuck in bachelorhood. For women across the country, 24.1% of those older than 15 have never married. In Los Angeles, 30.5% are single.

Behind the statistics, other factors are surely at play. Maybe Angelenos are just picky. But cohabiting or married couples say they, too, are suffering the toll of congestion. How can a long, numbing, energy-sapping commute put anyone in the mood for love?

“Traffic has a negative psychological as well as a physiological effect on the brain,” said Anaheim psychologist Greg Cynaumon, author of the book, “Married but Feeling Alone.” “It lowers the sex drive and decreases performance.”

Experts say they are not aware of any direct research on how congestion affects amorous feelings. But studies suggest that chronic high stress can lead to high levels of the hormone cortisol.

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“If being stuck in traffic causes a surge in cortisol, that might be enough to suppress testosterone,” said Lynn White, associate professor of psychology at Southern Utah University, who teaches a course on stress.

Testosterone deficiency, she added, is associated with low libido in women as well as men.

A more likely malaise afflicting those stewing in traffic, experts say, is fatigue, which can also deflate passionate desires. Consider how much more time urban dwellers spend in traffic.

In 1982, residents of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, on average, spent an extra 10 hours on the road because of congestion, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. These days, a person in America’s most populated areas loses more than 30 hours a year to congestion.

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In the Los Angeles metropolitan region -- the most traffic-choked in the country -- traffic delays consumed an additional 19 hours of an average resident’s year in 1982. Nowadays, congestion costs every Southlander more than 50 hours a year.

The increased traffic has caused the rush hour in the largest metropolitan areas to spread -- to nearly eight hours a day.

To steer clear of congestion, many commuters now must leave home earlier in the day or stay at work later, leaving little time for social interactions and building relationships.

“Once you commute, you can never have dinner with your spouse again,” said Eric Larsen, 40, a corporate consultant in El Segundo, whose 30-mile drive home to Rosemead can take up to two hours. “You don’t see each other as much.”

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Even in their free time, Larsen said, he and his wife Suzana are sometimes reluctant to go out. “You just want to avoid traffic, which is kind of sad,” he said.

Research shows that a key to enhancing long-term relationships is to engage in novel, challenging and exciting activities away from home, said Arthur Aron, professor of psychology at State University of New York at Stonybrook and co-author of the book “Handbook of Closeness and Intimacy.”

A major relationship-killer is not conflict, Aron said, but boredom -- which can happen when couples don’t get out of the house enough.

Traffic can dampen romance in other ways. Dates seem less than gallant when they show up late. And so much for spontaneity -- or the perfectly planned evening.

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On a recent Friday night, Terry Tanael, a 38-year-old Brentwood restaurant consultant, tried to take his girlfriend out to a fancy dinner and theater downtown. But by the time they arrived -- two hours after they had left the Westside -- they had missed their restaurant reservation. There was no time to eat. Not even fast food.

“It was frustrating, stressful,” he said. “It went from a romantic dinner and a play ... to running from a parking lot to a play.”

Of course, heartwarming tales of true loves that overcome distance and other barriers do occasionally surface.

But odds are, relationship experts say, cupid’s arrow doesn’t travel very far.

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“Proximity is one of the best predictors of a relationship working,” said Shelly Gable, assistant professor of psychology at UCLA. “We’re attracted to things we find rewarding. To the extent that driving in your car is unpleasant ... that detracts from our attraction to whomever we’re seeing far away.”

For lonely hearts, the increasing traffic also means fewer opportunities for meeting others.

“Dating in L.A.'s really hard,” said Joy Quamrud, 40, a jeweler. “You’re in your own little world. You’re all alone in your car.”


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