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Column: Coronavirus has changed things we took as givens in L.A.

Is it possible the pandemic could point the way to lighter traffic if we all learn that telecommuting works?
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

This just in:

At 11:30 a.m., in Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles, I counted just seven people in line at Eggslut.

This is bigger news than the stock market crash.

I’ve never seen such a short line at this eatery, where millennials and others are always more than happy to queue up and wait eons for an egg sandwich.

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The coronavirus may be scary, but there are upsides, it seems.

At 11:40 a.m., only one person was in line at Eggslut. It was me, and I wasn’t really in line. I just wanted to ask if business had ever been slower.

“No,” said Eli Watson, who manned the cash register.

I don’t want to minimize the potential impact of the coronavirus. We know it’s a killer and have no idea how much further it will spread. We also have no idea how much our lives will be altered. Already, people are out of work, the markets have tanked and, if panic buying gets any worse, Southern California stores will be out of toilet paper by tomorrow morning.

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But my colleagues were kibitzing in our downtown bureau the other day about how easy it is to get a restaurant reservation just about anywhere, and it’s tempting to get lost in the idea of a livable Los Angeles, where you can breeze from here to there in a fraction of the time and avoid crowds at even the most popular eateries.

Traffic was indeed lighter than normal as I tooled around Thursday morning, both before and after the rains arrived, as long as I didn’t try to get anywhere near a supermarket. The Harbor, Golden State and Santa Monica freeways didn’t offer clear sailing, but the misery quotient was lower than usual.

Lance Hill of Torrance e-mailed me to say that his daughter’s 30-minute commute to his house, where she drops off his grandchild before continuing to work, is now a 20-minute commute.

Hill, a retired civil engineer, knows this because he uses an app to monitor traffic as he follows his daughter’s progress toward his home.

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“I noticed that her freeway was lighter, and I checked to see if traffic was lighter all over L.A., and it was,” Hill said when I gave him a call.

He knows more than he’d like to about the near-daily backup at the intersection of the 91 and 710 freeways, Hill said, and there’s been much less congestion in recent days.

This is no surprise, as schools are closed, events canceled, and employees encouraged to work from home if possible. And then there are the repeated reminders to stay away from each other, with warnings every two minutes to practice “social distancing.”

But Hill is wondering whether some of this doesn’t give us hope for the long run. Might companies now realize that telecommuting can work? And might that lower the volume of cars on the road even after the crisis passes?

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“We spend billions of dollars” on transportation projects that take years to complete, Hill said. “Why can’t we take that money and use it to incentivize companies and people” to allow more telecommuting? “Give an employee a computer and a tax break.”

Hill is onto something, said local transportation guru Martin Wachs, distinguished professor emeritus of urban planning at UCLA.

“Small changes in traffic volumes can make large changes in travel times,” said Wachs. “So, at peak hour, when people are moving at 10 miles an hour, if you remove 7% of the traffic, you could be moving at 35 miles an hour.”

Wachs noted that he stayed home Thursday but was able to monitor a traffic safety conference online. One problem, he said, is that many workers, such as restaurant employees, can’t telecommute. And then there are the many employers who don’t allow telecommuting, Wachs said, because they don’t trust their employees to be as efficient when working from home.

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But he noted that L.A. officials are studying congestion pricing as a traffic deterrent, and if there is a stiff fee for traveling in high-volume corridors at peak hours, it could lead to more telecommuting.

Don’t get too excited, because in a region with millions of people and vehicles, lighter traffic wouldn’t mean no traffic. But at mid-morning Thursday, I arrived at the Original Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax far faster than usual, and when I got there, two-thirds of the parking lot was empty.

The only person at E.B.'s Beer & Wine was the bartender, Ryan Morrison. It was mid-morning, but I’ve seen butts in seats there at that hour many a time. Morrison was watching the Players Championship golf tournament and noted that fans would not be allowed to attend the match this weekend thanks to the virus.

The thought of a barkeep with no customers, watching a golf tournament with no fans, might just get me to the beer garden this weekend. Come on, can’t we be careful and safe without having to wave a white flag?

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Cathy and Bob Pringle aren’t staying home. They were enjoying a cup of Joe while sharing sections of the L.A. Times at a table near Coffee Corner. They told me they weren’t panicking but would have liked more information from President Trump’s Wednesday-night address regarding what’s being done to make more virus testing available to people with symptoms.

Driving back downtown, I heard on the radio that Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s top health officials, acknowledged in a congressional hearing that our testing efforts to date haven’t been up to snuff. “That is a failing. It is a failing. Let’s admit it,” he said.

I tuned in to Rush Limbaugh for a different perspective. The radio host, a recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was defending Trump to the hilt, saying the president was on top of things and that his critics were hyping hysteria as a way to bash him.

“We’re talking about a virus that comes from the family of the common cold,” Limbaugh said.

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This is true. But it’s like saying that Trump and Bernie Sanders both come from the East Coast.

Limbaugh then made fun of the calls from public health experts to refrain from hand-shaking and hugging. Don’t hug anyone, he said mockingly. “That’s how Harvey Weinstein got in trouble.”

One good thing about lighter traffic is that you get to your destination faster, and off goes the radio.

My last stop was Chinatown, because I was thinking the combination of rain and the virus pandemic might mean I could finally get some chicken at Howlin’ Ray’s without having to stand in line for three hours.

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I parked, walked over in steady rain, and the dream died.

About 70 people were in line, with none of the prescribed social distancing.

We have entered a new frontier in Los Angeles, but some things never change.

Steve.lopez@latimes.com


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