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A real L.A. gift: light holiday traffic

I had to work almost every day during this holiday season, but I enjoyed a vacation of sorts, thanks to those of you who didn’t.

My 35-mile daily commute -- from Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley to the Times building in downtown Los Angeles -- went from a slog to a breeze.

The traffic drop-off happens every December: Thousands of school buses are off the streets, hundreds of businesses scale back, and countless residents head out of town or stay close to home and off the freeways.

So why was I so surprised on Tuesday morning when I pulled into the Times parking garage 20 minutes ahead of schedule, with my mug of coffee still steaming?

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Clearly I hadn’t noticed it, but Los Angeles freeway traffic has been gradually easing. That’s what made last week’s holiday commute one of the easiest in memory.

The freeways seemed so empty to me during those morning drives last week because I had spent the summer and fall trying to time my commutes to avoid rush hour peaks. I’d leave home after 10 a.m. to take the 170 Freeway, and head home at night via the 5, along the 2 to the 210, five miles out of my way. Hard to say if I’m saving any time, but at least I’m moving. Transportation experts call that the “long-cut theory” of commuting.

Doug Failing, who has studied L.A. transportation for 29 years, told me that traffic was at its torturous peak last spring, after gas prices dropped and people who had switched to public transit got back behind the wheel. But the recession seems to be putting the brakes on freeway travel across the region.

“Five months ago, the numbers started to come down,” said Failing, who directs the highway program for L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Angelenos were driving 105 million vehicle miles each day last spring, he said; now it’s barely 100 million.

That’s still too many to keep traffic flowing, “but it’s enough to shift the traffic patterns to make a noticeable dent in congestion,” he said.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is typically one of the quietest on area freeways -- particularly during the morning commute.

“You might not see the difference in the afternoon,” he said, “when all these people who didn’t go in to work are heading out for their parties and visits. But the mornings? That’s a phenomenon you can’t miss.

“For traffic in Los Angeles, that’s as good as it gets.”

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But one week of “as good as it gets” is another year away, and it’s not good enough anyway. I realize that as I sit here at my desk, 35 miles from home, fielding calls from my daughters.

They want to know when I’ll be home, and I have no idea what to tell them. The trip could take 40 minutes, or 60, or 90. I spend 20 minutes just making my way through downtown traffic to the freeway some nights.

It’s not just the congestion that makes Los Angeles traffic so frustrating. It’s the unpredictability. A Caltrans sweeper, a fender-bender, a cop on the shoulder ticketing a speeder . . . the tiniest blip can sabotage a trip.

And fantasizing about holiday traffic year-round is an exercise in futility, said public transit guru Bart Reed.

Even light traffic is no

bargain, he said, “because

our freeways are so erratic, driving the roads is like gambling.”

I don’t want to accept that. I check Sigalert.com before I leave home, and plot my route according to which freeways glow yellow or green or red. I’ve got a phone with GPS that warns me, in a soothing voice, when to expect “congestion ahead.”

Why bother, Reed asked. “I find that just as infuriating. Tell me I’ve got traffic up ahead. . . . What am I supposed to do about it, but be frustrated?

“I had a colleague of mine who, every time he got in the car, had to take the radio off the music and wait for one of those traffic stations. We couldn’t even enjoy the ride and relax.”

Ouch. That would be me, switching obsessively between news stations, for traffic on the 5s or the 1s or the top of the hour. Maybe it is a psychological crutch, giving me a sense of control over something I can’t really do much about.

Reed is the head of Transit Coalition, a Sylmar nonprofit that promotes public travel options. He relies on the subway and Metrolink to get around whenever he can. “When you’re driving, every trip you’re dealing with is a mystery. When I leave home, I know 13 minutes to the train stop at Metrolink, and 30 minutes to Union Station.”

But not every trip can be made on public transportation. Or can it?

Ask Jerome, who visited us from Sacramento last weekend. He’s a friend of my daughter’s from college, in Los Angeles for a New Year’s Eve party. He needed to get from Northridge to Staples Center, and no one in my family wanted to take a chance on the “mystery” of freeway traffic, as Reed calls it.

So Jerome mapped out a route online: A 14-minute walk to the bus stop. Catch MTA line 242. A 17-minute ride

down Tampa Avenue to the Orange Line station near Victory Boulevard. A 33-minute ride along the busway to the North Hollywood station of the Metro Red Line. A 24-minute subway trip to the Metro Center Station. Walk 12 minutes to your Staples Center party.

Party until 5 in the morning. And leave Los Angeles that afternoon without a single complaint about traffic.

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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