There are a lot of ideas for fixing traffic in L.A., but almost all would cost a fortune.
Subway to the sea: $5 billion. Extending the Expo Line: $800 million. Widening the 405: $1 billion.
Then there is an idea that would cost comparatively little and is generating growing buzz around City Hall and the Westside: turning Olympic and Pico boulevards into one-way streets from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica.
A traffic consultant is completing a study of the concept, which was proposed in January by Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and has been the subject of much discussion since.
It remains to be seen exactly how much the conversion would improve traffic. The study marks the beginning of what would probably be a more than yearlong process to reconfigure the streets. The change would require approval of the L.A. City Council as well as leaders in Beverly Hills, home of a small stretch of Olympic.
As the plan moves forward, officials will have to balance the potential inconveniences from rerouting two of L.A.'s busiest streets with the potential for traffic relief.
Some officials said the city needs to embrace ideas, even ones that might rankle neighborhood groups. In a sign of how severe traffic problems have become, two councilmen in the affected areas are backing Yaroslavsky’s push for one-way routes.
“As the frustration level of our constituents becomes palpable, anything is better than the current situation,” Councilman Bill Rosendahl said.
Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents another section of the route, said he hopes a design can be crafted that addresses community concerns while finally doing something about the gridlock that roils his district.
“I know my constituents want help,” he said.
Backers say it could be done quickly, simply by adding new signage, reconfiguring traffic signals and perhaps doing some relatively minor street improvements along the 15-mile stretch.
The idea isn’t new. After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which closed the Santa Monica Freeway for months, then-Mayor Richard Riordan proposed making Pico and Olympic one way to improve east-west traffic. The proposal died amid concerns from some residents that the boulevards would turn into dangerous speedways.
As traffic has worsened, fears of a “one-way racetrack” have largely dissolved.
Still, Pico and Olympic are unusual candidates for one-way conversion. Most one-way streets are one block apart, making it easy for drivers to switch directions.
By contrast, the distance between Pico and Olympic varies. Through large swaths of West L.A., Mid-City and Beverly Hills, the streets are only two or three blocks apart. But in Century City and neighborhoods south of Hancock Park, the gap widens to up to three-quarters of a mile.
Yaroslavsky said his plan calls for making Olympic westbound and Pico eastbound. Two lanes of each street -- one in each direction -- could be dedicated to bus traffic. The traffic consultant is completing a preliminary study to determine if the idea would work.
Yaroslavsky came up with the idea after years of hearing residents in the Westside and beyond complain about traffic.
Officials have talked for years about how to improve traffic flow between the Westside and downtown, but the price tags have been daunting. The most popular idea is to extend the subway along Wilshire; the line currently ends at Western Avenue. But even if officials can raise $5 billion and gain the political support to build it, the subway would be at least a decade from completion.
“This would cost a fraction of what it would cost otherwise to increase capacity,” the supervisor said. “It’s a radical idea.”
L.A. city traffic officials estimate it would cost millions of dollars to make the boulevards one way. The costs could include relocating street signs, moving parking meters, removing some signals, adding underground traffic detectors and re-striping the road, said John Fisher, assistant general manager of the L.A. Department of Transportation.
There could be additional costs if the city decided to install “traffic calming” measures on nearby residential streets to reduce cut-through traffic, including speed humps and barriers. Traffic engineers say one-way streets are faster because they eliminate the need for left-turn lanes and can be synchronized much more effectively than two-way streets.
“You can time them perfectly,” said Harry Parker, who worked for years as the county’s top traffic engineer before retiring. Parker said the one-way streets would probably benefit commuters by speeding up traffic but could cause more headaches for local residents, who would have to run a maze to get to their favorite shops or other destinations.
Westwood resident Lori Everett, who lives near Pico and Olympic, said the traffic has gotten out of control. But she worries that making them one way would result in more cut-through traffic.
“It’s already so busy it wouldn’t be safe at all,” Everett said. “As it is, I already can’t let my kids on the front lawn” because of fast drivers.
The model for this is an experiment that proved highly successful in downtown L.A. during the 1984 Olympics. City officials temporarily switched the traffic flows on Figueroa and Flower streets to improve traffic during the games.
At the time, merchants along the downtown stretch expressed concern that there would be confusion and a loss of customers. But problems were few, and officials found that the one-way lanes improved traffic flow, so they were made permanent.
A decade later, Riordan proposed making Pico and Olympic into one-way “super boulevards” designed to ease traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway. At the time, city engineers predicted the shift would reduce congestion along the east-west corridor by 17% and significantly speed up traffic.
Congestion has worsened in the 13 years since, and some business owners now hope that a one-way conversion would make it easier for customers to get to their stores. But others worry that the changes would discourage customers from coming in -- especially if some street parking is eliminated for the bus lane.
“Our customers come from both sides,” said Lucy Attala, a clerk at Michael’s Cleaners on Olympic Boulevard in Westwood. “If it goes one way, then we’ll lose people coming from the other direction. It’s not a good idea.”
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Q & A
The ins and outs of one-way streets
How would converting Olympic and Pico boulevards to one-way traffic reduce congestion?
Answer: Although the total volume of traffic on the two streets might remain the same, traffic engineers say one-way traffic is much easier to manage. With easier left turns (not crossing traffic), traffic signals can be synchronized much more efficiently. In fact, traffic experts say one-way streets are ideal for signal synchronization.
What are the drawbacks?
Most, but not all, one-way streets are one block apart. Pico and Olympic are 0.23 miles to 0.7 miles apart. That means people trying to go from east to west would need to drive several blocks to switch directions. Some residents worry about motorists cutting through their neighborhoods to get from Pico to Olympic.
How much would it cost?
It remains unclear. Early estimates place it at several million dollars. Officials would need to change signage, repaint lines and alter traffic signals. Barriers, cul-de-sacs and speed humps might be needed to prevent cut-through traffic in residential neighborhoods. That’s a tiny fraction of widening freeways, building a Wilshire Boulevard subway or extending the Expo Line (all about $1 billion).
Why Pico and Olympic?
East-west cross-city traffic has long been L.A.'s Achilles’ heel. There is no rail line and only one freeway, the 10. Pico and Olympic are the best candidates for one-way conversion because they are relatively close and are relatively straight shots between downtown and Santa Monica.
Where would the route go?
Backers would like it to run from downtown L.A. to the ocean. But it might end up terminating at the Santa Monica city limits at Centinela Avenue. Beyond that point, Olympic is bisected by a large, planted median that makes one-way traffic difficult.
From Times Staff