By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Five years ago, it took me less than 30 minutes to drive from my house in the Crenshaw district to Disney Hall downtown. Three years ago, I could still make the trip in under an hour. Now it takes me nearly an hour to cover the same distance.
My complaint that it takes way too long to get anywhere in Los Angles — be it driving the city streets or the freeways — is voiced by anyone who slides behind the wheel of a car in the city. The problem of traffic gridlock has been the subject of eternal complaints, protests, countless plans, schemes and proposals to tackle the problem. Tens of millions of dollars have been allocated for one or another traffic control measure to speed traffic along.
The problem starts with cars. There are too many of them and too many of them with only one person in them. The result: traffic congestion diminishes economic and labor productivity, increases the city and county’s worn and deteriorating infrastructure, is the cause of countless injuries and even fatalities, and contributes to massive never-ending rising insurance costs.
Surveys have found that Los Angeles and other major cities lose as much as $22 billion yearly due to traffic congestion. The ones who pay the steepest price for that congestion are the commuters.
Traffic congestion is a major political football and sore point. L.A. drivers constantly demand action from city and county officials about the problem. The issue of L.A.’s brutal and nightmarish traffic almost certainly will be — and should be — a major policy issue in the upcoming mayor’s race. The candidate who can produce some feasible plan to effectively attack L.A. traffic gridlock will be the candidate who voters should take the hardest look at.
There are certainly things that can be done both short term and long term to attack the problem. Other cities facing traffic problems have taken some innovative and creative steps to decrease road congestion.
The obvious measures are increased carpooling, increased bus and light rail expansion and use, and more road construction and improvements. Those aren’t enough.
They are just stop-gap measures that do little to permanently speed traffic along on the streets and freeways. That will take a county regional transit plan in which the diverse cities within the county coordinate planning and traffic movement improvements. There is an array of steps that a regional plan can propose and take.
The first is the most elementary. That is better use of the technology at hand to speed traffic flow on the streets. Streetlights and better-timed signals on the most heavily used streets should be synchronized to end stop and start driving at lights that serve to back up traffic, waste fuel and increase air pollution.
Smart phone alerts should be made to motorists detailing what streets are congested at what hours and provide alternate routes. The placement of traffic control personnel on the busiest streets during early morning and late afternoon and evening rush hours to continually move traffic in both directions should be part of the plan.
Road repairs and construction should be done between off-peak driving hours. That’s usually between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. daily. That would eliminate much of the construction related back-ups and delays due to lane closures on road construction and repair projects. In years past, most construction was done during those hours to avoid lane and road closures. The city and county must stipulate those hours of work in awarding road repair contracts.
During the 1984 Olympics, many marveled at how smoothly traffic moved in Los Angeles. It didn’t happen by accident. There was a thoughtful, coordinated plan by county officials to move traffic during the peak hours of the day.
The plan encompassed some of the measures discussed here. In addition, officials required trucks and cargo shipments to be made during late night and off-peak driving hours. This vastly decreased the volume of traffic on the streets and freeways during the day and especially rush hours.
The traffic reduction plan must include incentives to get more drivers who are driving solo to work out of their cars. That includes cash subsidies to individuals for carpool and ride share use, greater use of buses and light rail, staggering business hours and the continued expansion of telecommuting.
This latter measure is a crucial game changer in traffic congestion reduction. More people working at home means fewer people in cars on the roads during peak traffic hours.
The blunt reality is that Los Angeles is not going to give up its love affair — and need — for cars. People are not going to stop coming to L.A. and driving the city’s streets.
Given that reality, the next L.A. mayor must devise and pledge to implement an effective plan to end L.A.’s nightmarish traffic problem.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is “A Young Person’s Guide to Classical Music” (Middle Passage Press). He hosts the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.