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Going nowhere on the Westside

There’s been no meeting, no memo, no poll. But everyone who lives on the Westside of Los Angeles or does business there has independently arrived at the same conclusion:

Traffic has gotten so predictably, maddeningly, curse-the-gods miserable that only a fool would attempt to head east after 3 p.m. on a weekday.

Some war-weary traffic veterans say even that’s too late.

“Three o’clock is not a sweet spot anymore,” insists Kevin Sheehy, an attorney who lives in Santa Monica and has found that all the alternate routes he used to take as he zigzagged east are now bottled up. “It’s closer to 2 o’clock.”

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L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has told his secretary to schedule nothing for him west of the 405 unless he can wrap things up by 2:30 p.m. He’ll schedule later events, but only if they end after 8 p.m., when traffic has lifted. And, of course, he avoids heading from east to west in the morning if he can help it because that can be just as bad, with thousands of people commuting to jobs in Santa Monica and thereabouts.

“There is no part of Los Angeles County where it takes such a long time to go such a short distance,” says Yaroslavsky, who’s on the road more than most people. “I’ve several times been stuck in a traffic jam that is just total, absolute gridlock, where it doesn’t move. You’re in the same place for 10 minutes at a time.”

The trip that sent Yaroslavsky over the edge was in October. After attending an event on Cloverfield Boulevard near Michigan Avenue in Santa Monica, he headed east at 6:30 p.m., expecting to be on time for a 7:30 Beverly Hills appointment. But by 7:20, he was just getting to the 405.

“I never even made it to the Beverly Hills event, so I went home to Fairfax. It took one hour and 41 minutes from Cloverfield to Beverly and La Brea.”

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It was only about 11 miles, Yaroslavsky said. He could have jogged the distance in less time.

Now Yaroslavsky has asked a traffic engineer to investigate the possibility of turning Olympic and Pico boulevards into one-way thoroughfares.

In the meantime, Westside traffic has become the city’s all-purpose excuse.

Late for work? Westside traffic.

Marriage on the rocks? Westside traffic.

Lost 10 years of your life? Westside traffic.

Yaroslavsky said it’s a big topic at downtown cultural institutions, where they’re wondering if traffic combat fatigue is keeping Westsiders from filling up seats at music, dance and theater events.

Yaroslavsky recalled that in the late 1990s, Los Angeles philanthropist Richard Colburn declined a request for a donation to Disney Hall, arguing that a concert hall ought to be on the Westside. That’s where the subscriber base would be, he reasoned, and why would beach dwellers want to fight the traffic to get downtown, of all places?

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“We do now and again see some empty seats, but there isn’t anything in terms of research that could tell you why,” said Catherine Babcock of the Music Center, whose companies include the Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles Master Chorale, L.A. Opera and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

She said attendance held steady at about 1.2 million each of the last two seasons and figures aren’t available yet for the current season. When seats are empty, she said, the reason could be illness, scheduling conflicts and many other things besides traffic.

No doubt. But Sheehy, the attorney with the never-after-2 p.m. rule on eastern commutes, told me he and his wife subscribed to the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood several years ago, in part because the trips to downtown arts and entertainment events had become such a nightmare.

And patrons at Wednesday night’s chamber music performance at Disney Hall -- which had 160 no-shows (people who bought tickets but didn’t attend) -- told me Westside bottlenecks are making it harder to justify the trek. David Nimmer, who lives in Beverly Hills, said he recently picked up his mother in Westwood at 6 p.m. and they missed a 7:30 curtain for the L.A. Opera.

“It’s definitely something I think about all the time,” said his friend Robert Smith, who lives at Pico and Robertson boulevards and is reconsidering his commitment as a volunteer at a kosher food bank near downtown. “You have to be there at 6 o’clock, and you just can’t go east after 4 in the afternoon.”

Carol Schatz of the Central City Assn., which has helped lead the downtown renaissance, would like to see public officials get to work on the traffic problem. Especially since the Grand Avenue and L.A. Live projects will rely on lots more people making their way downtown.

Schatz left her home in Benedict Canyon at 5 p.m. on a Wednesday for a Rolling Stones concert at Dodger Stadium. She and her husband, Fred, took Beverly to Silver Lake Boulevard to Sunset and got to their seats at 7 p.m.

“If I have a show to do at KCET at 6 p.m.,” Brentwood resident and former Mayor Richard Riordan said of the public TV station in Los Feliz, “to get there from my house is probably an hour and a half. It should be a 30-minute drive.”

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As maddening as such tales are, none of this happened by accident. It was created by decades of horrendous planning, including a lack of mixed-income housing near job centers and transportation. As the number of Westside jobs exploded, the traditional traffic flow shifted, Yaroslavsky said. A lot of the new people working on the Westside couldn’t afford to live there, and so you had more cars heading from east to west in the morning rather than from west to east.

There’s also been a mind-boggling lack of interagency cooperation, under-investment in public transit, overpopulation and an unshakable preference for sitting alone in our cars and fuming at all the other drivers inconsiderate enough to be on the same road.

It didn’t help that Westside congressman Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) put the kibosh on Red Line tunneling two decades ago, even as more people were commuting to jobs by the beach. Or that in 1998, Yaroslavsky pushed a ban on the use of sales tax money for more subway digging. But in Yaroslavsky’s defense, the public was fed up with corruption, accidents and other disasters that came at a cost of roughly $300 million a mile.

Now Waxman has changed his mind, although he hasn’t yet produced the money to get the Red Line back under construction. A light-rail line along Exposition Boulevard is also part of the long-term plan.

I called Jaime de la Vega, Los Angeles deputy mayor for transportation, to see what he says about it all and to ask if he’s gotten rid of his Hummer yet. He didn’t call back. I know it’s a free country, but we have to hope the transit boss in a city with legendary smog and traffic is no longer tooling around town in a goofball buggy the size of a tank.

L.A. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl tells me he’s optimistic that with a Brentwood resident as governor, a bond measure that will funnel cash into Southern California transit and a mayor who was in Washington last week to start pumping the new Democratic power brokers in Congress, the big-ticket projects have a fighting chance.

But like Yaroslavsky, he says we can’t wait.

“I know that everybody on the Westside, from rich to poor and everything in between, is so fed up they’re willing to think outside the box,” said Rosendahl, who announced a plan last month to synchronize lights, add 32 left-turn signals, get the Green Line extension project moving and spend $200,000 on bicycle and pedestrian lanes.

But let’s not forget that north-south arteries are no picnic either, Rosendahl said. He’d like to try a contra-flow system on Lincoln Boulevard, adding a third lane in the northerly direction from 6:30 to 9 a.m. and switching the lane to the southerly direction from 4 to 7 p.m.

Yaroslavsky returned from a trip to Brazil several years ago with a drawing of a busway system that inspired the hugely successful Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley.

Last month, he went to Buenos Aires and came back talking about the contra-flow lanes in front of his hotel. Now he’s pushing an even more radical approach.

“I’m now talking about taking Olympic Boulevard from downtown to the beach and making it one-way in one direction and taking Pico one-way in the other direction,” he said.

That’ll tick off some people, he said, especially those who live on north-south streets that end up being used as crossover routes.

But he said he was going to discuss it with officials in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Los Angeles and call on a traffic engineer to report on the feasibility of doing it full time, just on weekdays or only during peak commute hours.

“It’s a relatively inexpensive way to move traffic over the short term while we work on the bigger things,” said Yaroslavsky. “I think the public would embrace and welcome radical ideas.

“Something has to be done when a mother tells me it takes her 40 minutes to take her son from Brentwood to Palisades Park for an afternoon soccer game and 40 minutes coming back. That’s ridiculous.”

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Anyone who wants to play amateur traffic engineer/urban planner can feel free to send ideas to steve.lopez@latimes.com.


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