‘Calmed’ Roads Led to a Storm
For the most part, Glen Friedman loves living in Cheviot Hills, a choice Westside neighborhood with undulating streets and gracious multimillion-dollar houses.
If only he could get in and out of it.
The same goes for Chuck Shephard, a lawyer in Century City who in spring 2004 had to allow 40 minutes to get from his desk to his son’s 5 p.m. Pony League games at nearby Cheviot Hills Recreation Center. That’s for a 1.4-mile trip that Mapquest, the online service, says should take three minutes.
“People have become prisoners of Cheviot Hills,” said Shephard’s wife, Robin. “You can’t leave in the morning or get back at night.”
If it sounds like it’s time for a traffic fix, consider this: The city has already instituted its most extensive neighborhood traffic measures ever to slow down and redirect the crush of commuters who pour daily through Cheviot Hills.
Many residents say it’s the so-called traffic calming fixes themselves -- four-way stop signs, metered signals, road narrowing curb extensions known as bump-outs, re-striped lanes and right- and left-turn restrictions -- that are the problem.
The people of Cheviot Hills and traffic engineers are learning a sobering lesson about life in the vehicle-laden big city: In the absence of mass transit that gets people out of their cars, or more roads to accommodate the rising number of motorists, it’s not enough to just push the traffic around. One street’s sweet relief can quickly mean another’s misery.
“Nothing is working on the Westside anymore,” said Sandy Brown, a longtime activist. “All these wonderful mitigations, and traffic is backed up for blocks. If you really talk seriously to a traffic engineer, they’ll tell you they’re out of tricks.”
For years, residents of Cheviot Hills have complained loudly to City Hall about traffic -- with good reason.
Their affluent enclave of doctors, producers and lawyers, in the heart of the Westside, has long been the cut-through of choice for thousands of commuters trying to get from the Santa Monica Freeway to Century City, and vice versa.
Under pressure from high-powered residents, the city years ago embarked on its most ambitious effort ever to control residential traffic. Engineers began installing just about every traffic calming measure they knew.
Along Motor Avenue, the community’s main drag, residents say they can now at least back out of their driveways or cross the street on foot without risking life or limb.
On side streets, however, neighbors like the Shephards and Friedman are in an uproar. The traffic plan, they say, has prompted commuters to detour onto quieter lanes like their Monte Mar Drive. The metered signals and curb bump-outs, meanwhile, have added minutes to locals’ trips into and out of the area.
Meetings of the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Assn. have gotten nasty. In June, a group called Neighbors for Change succeeded in ousting four longtime board members, including the woman who had most doggedly pursued the Motor Avenue measures.
The ill will was stirred largely by resentment over traffic. Robin Shephard, for one, says short shopping hops to Century City have become time-consuming forays. To avoid Motor’s backups, she drives the opposite direction, skirting the Rancho Park Golf Course: Monte Mar to Lorenzo Drive to Lorenzo Place to Patricia Avenue to Pico Boulevard, which she jogs across to continue on Patricia, finally mushing on to Olympic Boulevard, where she turns right to backtrack into Century City.
At the urging of disgruntled residents, Councilman Jack Weiss recently revealed that he planned to adjust some of the measures. Motor Avenue residents erupted, saying his actions threatened to undo years of hard work.
Now talk of litigation is floating on the jasmine-scented air.
It’s no secret that the Los Angeles area has some of the nation’s worst traffic and that the prosperous Westside is the region’s most congested pocket. Seeking to ease the dust and din, residents have clamored for landscaped medians, traffic circles and speed humps. Traffic engineers have obliged.
A New Age-sounding name for an old-fashioned idea, “traffic calming” does not refer to a campaign to get caffeine-hyped commuters to trade their rush-hour lattes for Valium or to practice yoga behind the wheel. Rather, these techniques are aimed at getting drivers to slow down and steer toward streets built to handle the load.
The efforts take their cue from the ancient Romans, who erected stone barriers to cut down (no joke) on nighttime chariot racing.
“It’s not a new behavior problem or strategy,” said Elizabeth Deakin, director of the UC Transportation Research Center in Berkeley. “We’re all looking for ways to try to balance wanting to be mobile with having quiet little neighborhoods.”
In recent years the use of traffic calming measures has soared in the U.S. They have had “a positive effect,” said Glenn Ogura, principal transportation engineer with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
They have also sparked controversy. In Encino Hills, a plan to manage traffic failed to win community approval three years ago because some residents and motorists feared being inconvenienced. Emergency response teams routinely complain about speed humps, but residents continue to demand them.
The brouhaha in Cheviot Hills, however, “rises far above the others in terms of magnitude, controversy and impact,” said John Fisher, an assistant general manager at LADOT.
Named for the hills that traverse the border of England and Scotland, Cheviot Hills was built on former bean fields starting in the 1920s. The British theme echoes today in street names such as Dumfries, Wigtown and Troon. Houses sell for $1 million to $3 million.
Over the years, Cheviot Hills has boasted a mini-galaxy of celebrities, including Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Phil Silvers, Jack Paar and Agnes Moorehead. The area is now home to a handful of celebrities, including former Mamas and the Papas folk-rocker Michelle Phillips and author Ray Bradbury. Former Gov. Pete Wilson also has bought a house in the neighborhood.
In the early 1960s, Century City began rising to the north as a modern mini-metropolis on what had been the back lot of 20th Century Fox Film Studios.
Los Angeles soon imposed limits on building heights, density and car trips in and out of the Century City area. The aim was to balance development and quality-of-life issues in adjacent residential areas, including Cheviot Hills, Beverlywood and others. It was agreed that both a Beverly Hills Freeway and a rapid transit line would be needed to make the commercial center workable.
Neither freeway nor rail line came to pass. As the city continued to approve large developments in Century City, it failed, critics say, to keep a lid on neighborhood traffic.
Bisecting Cheviot Hills is Motor Avenue -- which, back in the day, was the first paved road between two prominent Hollywood studios, Fox and MGM.
Motor “has always been the solution to excess traffic going from Century City to the freeway,” said Lucie Bava, a 30-year resident who led the charge for traffic calming and failed to win reelection to the homeowners board.
As Bava tells it, traffic tension really began rising in 1993, when Fox announced plans for a major studio expansion. The city approved the proposal over the objections of Cheviot Hills homeowners.
As part of its deal with the city, Fox deposited $500,000 into a mitigation fund. LADOT was to use the money to install measures to divert traffic toward major streets -- Santa Monica, Olympic, Pico, Robertson and Westwood boulevards and Overland Avenue.
The city later approved two other big projects: the now completed 38-story MGM office tower and 2000 Avenue of the Stars. The latter project involved razing the ABC Entertainment Center, which will be replaced with dual 15-story mixed-use office buildings. The projects’ developers together pumped in a total of $3 million for more promised traffic measures.
Still to come are two 47-story condo towers and the completion of the Westfield Century City shopping center’s expansion.
With all those projects in the works, city officials years ago began devising the neighborhood traffic plan.
At that point, said Fisher of LADOT, the department made “an unwavering commitment” to minimizing congestion on local streets. The traffic management project, he added, “was our biggest undertaking, and we had to do a lot of soul-searching as an agency responsible for mobility.”
To ease Motor Avenue traffic in particular, the city timed traffic lights and added four-way stop signs to prevent commuters from treating the avenue like their private Grand Prix course. Faux brick crosswalks were installed to make crossing safer for pedestrians. Cobblestone bump-outs were put in at intersections to narrow the road.
The results, traffic engineers say, were dramatic. Along the stretch of Motor just south of the Fox studios, trips were cut by 4,600 a day -- to 18,700 from 23,300. As the city intended, those motorists appear to have shifted primarily to bigger arterial routes, notably Overland and Robertson.
But some traffic has found its way onto Queensbury Drive, Monte Mar and other smaller residential streets.
“These things have made us crazy ... and, frankly, Jack Weiss has heard an earful,” said Laurie L. Levenson, a law professor who lives in the neighborhood. As people slow down, “I’m just wondering what kind of road rage they’re working up.”
Janet Levine, an attorney who has lived in the area for a decade, said the bump-outs on Motor “serve no purpose except to make driving, walking, biking and running on the street more dangerous. And they’re not even pretty, to boot.”
The rounded features stick out six to eight feet from the curb and are intended “to get you to see [that] the roadway is narrower and you need to drive slower,” Fisher said. “If you’re inattentive even for a moment,” he acknowledged, “you could end up hitting them.”
Bava counters the critics. “No matter where they live, everyone in Cheviot is going to be impacted by traffic,” she said. “As Motor goes, so goes the neighborhood.”
Elaine Gilbert, another Motor resident, likes the measures, which she believes have reduced accidents. Previously, she saw or heard many from her kitchen window. One driver careered into a magnolia tree across the street, setting it ablaze; the scorch marks remain to this day.
Meanwhile, the bump-out installed recently on her corner has cut down on the squealing of tires and “makes it feel more like a neighborhood and less of a highway.”
With the debate raging, city officials are trying to figure out what to do.
At the urging of many disgruntled Cheviot Hills residents, Councilman Weiss is poised to add, among other changes, a second right-turn lane from northbound Motor onto Pico Boulevard to speed the flow to and from Century City.
That, in turn, has outraged Bava. She has suggested that she and other supporters of traffic calming might fight in court to keep all the measures in place.
Traffic experts predict many more such battles as neighborhoods across the region face increasingly crowded surface streets at a time when funds for road projects are severely limited.
“We’re going to see more of these traffic calming efforts,” said Brian Taylor, director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies. “And I would suspect you’ll see more reaction against them.”
Meanwhile, the furor in Cheviot Hills rages even though engineers have yet to install all the traffic relief measures. Still to come are a couple of landscaped islands on Motor.
“This kind of completes the effort,” Fisher said. “There is nothing more that can be done.”