In December, preparing to escape what turned out to be a mild New York winter for the palmy breezes of Southern California, I was stunned when friends suggested that I think twice about coming to Los Angeles. What could be awful enough to keep my wife and me in the Northeast? I soon discovered that, for every Angeleno I spoke with, the answer was the same. It wasn’t homelessness, crime, or El Niño; it wasn’t that Kobe Bryant was retiring. No, it was traffic: the subject of constant calculation and discussion, a matter of negotiation between friends, spouses, and would-be experts jacked up by computer mapping—which works well, until it doesn’t.
A map lover, I studied the landscape before I arrived. I picked a spot to rent that seemed a short ride from the home of my sister and brother-in-law. I found a nice cottage in Calabasas—Kardashian country. I told the landlady that I thought the trip from the rental cottage to my family’s house on Topanga Canyon Boulevard would take no more than 15 minutes. She fell silent on the other end of the phone. “Did I say something wrong?” I asked.
“It used to be 15 minutes,” she said. “But now it’s at least an hour. At rush hour, it’s even longer.”
“Perhaps I could avoid the rush hour?” My question triggered a tsunami of sentences on the nature of rush hour, the evils of congestion, and the impossibility of getting around a city that is almost always gridlocked.
For years, my Los Angeles friends had gone to the movies on Friday nights, but no more. Rush hour now begins early Friday afternoon and doesn’t relent until well past 9 PM. When I suggested a movie or a restaurant, they shook their heads. “You just don’t understand,” they’d say. They call it “forbidden Fridays.” After spending a week in Orange County, I understood why. Driving around the town of Orange was a pleasure, but then we agreed to meet some friends in L.A. for lunch—on a Friday. When we got on the road back to Orange for what should have been a 40-minute ride, the landlady’s admonishments came back to us. The tie-ups didn’t clear for two and half hours.
Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti offers a host of plans to alleviate the problem: Vision Zero, Great Streets, Complete Streets, Streets for People, and the optimistically named Mobility Plan 2035. But any proposal to ease congestion runs up against the gangrenous environmentalists who view gridlock positively, as a means of reducing car ridership and “saving” the environment. Los Angeles, explains urbanist Joel Kotkin, is “a region uncomfortable in its own skin.” The city was built for the automobile, but the liberals who run things have been trying to change that. They talk about putting highways “on a diet,” but they’ve only succeeded in worsening the traffic problem. Despite massive investments in public transportation, notes the Los Angeles Times, transit ridership has declined. Free H.O.V. lanes and “pay to play” H.O.V. lanes have made little difference. In a one-party town, failure has no consequences. Los Angeles mostly just throws more money at the problem.
People are increasingly confined to a shrinking ambit around their homes. As screenwriter, City Journal contributing editor, and Hollywood resident Andrew Klavan put it when I asked him to meet in Santa Monica, “No, that’s two days away by wagon train.” Angry and frustrated by I-405, Kotkin moved out of L.A. and is now a happier man. He can get to Chapman University’s lovely Orange County campus, where he teaches, via a short bike ride. As for myself, I’ve learned to avoid most of the traffic by heading north from Kardashian country to Malibu, where professors Steve Hayward and Ted McCallister run first-rate lectures and discussions at Pepperdine University.
We’re headed back to Brooklyn soon, anyway. As bad as traffic can be in New York, the issue doesn’t infuse every discussion of where and what to do as it does in L.A. In New York, we have real estate for that.
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