Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 16, 2013

In the Lanes

An old saying goes, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” The same can’t quite be said about another perennial topic of conversation, and an integral part of life here under these western skies — in Los Angeles, that is: traffic.

IMG_8498 LA traffic Brad Nixon (640x480)

There are LOTS of things done about traffic. There’s a vast literature and professional discipline about traffic planning, management and maintenance. If you’ve ever driven in any major city in the world, you know one thing: Nothing works particularly well. Traffic congestion is the curse of modern urban life … or one of them.

Let it be said that there is worse traffic in this world than we have in L.A. A recent study showed that residents of Washington, D.C. and the surrounding areas suffer more commute time than Angelenos. The traffic in Delhi and Beijing makes a daily commute in L.A. seem like a vacation by comparison. In Manhattan and London, ordinary humans don’t drive at all; those tasks are performed by highly trained experts imported from other worlds. Other western American locales where it’s no fun to drive include greater San Francisco, Phoenix, and the poor souls streaming along I-5 and I-15 into San Diego in the morning, and back out in the evening. There’s no question, though, it’s tough here, and we have earned a justifiable reputation as a miserable place to drive.

IMG_3411 110 traffic (640x480)

That task is exacerbated for visitors by the abysmal state of freeway signage in Los Angeles. Despite a directive from the U.S. federal agency that manages highways, Los Angeles hasn’t adopted a system of numbered freeway exits. In L.A. you cannot use directions that say, “Proceed 5 miles and take exit 112.” Our exits have no numbers. Instead, one might encounter a sign that says, “Long Beach,” with a right arrow and “Anaheim” with a left arrow. If you want to go south, but don’t happen to know that Long Beach is north and west of Anaheim, you have only a 50/50 chance of choosing the correct lane that will get you to Disneyland. Remedying your error might require agonized exits and re-entrances. One concludes that there is no one in the administration able to count sequentially from one, to two, then three, and so forth. A quick check of the California and Los Angeles County budgets will confirm that suspicion.

That’s not the issue I’m here to address, but let it stand as fair warning before you come to visit Disneyland (in Anaheim), lest you end up at the Aquarium of the Pacific (Long Beach). The Aquarium is a wonderful place (wait ’til you encounter the sea dragons!), but it ain’t Disneyland.

Instead, I want to address the latest set of ideas generated by whatever bunch of nincompoops are in charge of a traffic “strategy” for Los Angeles.

For many years, Los Angeles, like other cities, has promoted ride sharing by reserving lanes for the exclusive use of carpools of two or more people. In the traffic biz, these are call HOV — High Occupancy Vehicle — lanes. Many cities have them. Washington, D.C. is probably the most aggressive adopter of HOV lanes because they have the severest challenges (and during certain hours you need at least three per car). The culture of the HOV lanes in our nation’s capitol is a fascinating one, and I might write about it some time. In recent years, California completely muddled the objectives of the HOV program with a bozo-minded policy that granted free access to the HOV lanes to low-emission autos like the Toyota Prius (technically a “partial zero emission vehicle,” whatever that is). Thus, a program intended to incent drivers to pool rides and REDUCE the total number of cars on the road suddenly PROMOTED single-driver cars. The result was predictable. The HOV lanes became clogged with single drivers in “partial zero emission vehicles.” Traffic got worse. There was a REWARD for driving by yourself.

Now, though, we’re enduring another assault on the admirable goal of promoting the pooling of resources. This one is PERFECT for L.A. You’re still able to drive in the HOV lanes as a carpool (though not entirely for free), OR, you can PAY to drive in those HOV lanes by yourself. Salesperson on an expense account making calls? Do it! Already making a million dollars a year importing cheap textiles made in China? What’s a few more bucks? Ordinary schmucks? You lose again, buster.

Even the name of this program reeks of bureaucratic doodah: HOT, or High Occupancy Toll.

OK, OK, so The Counselor and I have acquired a “transponder” and dial it to the appropriate setting and still use the HOT lanes to drive into downtown L.A., although not for free: there’s a $40 fee for owning the transponder, plus a periodic charge for maintenance. Great.

We have used the new system. It works, insofar as it captures a photo of our car’s license plate number and, presumably, of the two of us in the front seat, triggered by the transponder when we drive under the sensors. What one notices, though, particularly on a Saturday, is that the four or five “regular” lanes of Interstate 110, the Harbor Freeway, are clogged to the max with traffic crawling at 15 miles per hour. Many — MANY — of those cars contain two or more occupants but are unable to use the HOT lanes because they lack the transponder, while the HOT lanes (and there are TWO of them) have perhaps one car every few hundred yards (I am NOT exaggerating), breezing along. The HOT solution, as one could easily anticipate, has made things worse. Are you a supposedly cherished tourist to our fine city? Tough. Prepare to enjoy our most prominent attraction: traffic delays!

Amongst all the press, there are two very amusing takes on this circumstance. I encourage you to CLICK HERE to see a little animation created by Los Angeles Metro to introduce their “Loyalty Program,” intended to incent us carpoolers to continue to use the lanes. And, CLICK HERE to read the rant posted by the traffic control industry’s newsletter, which typifies objections to giving deference to the rich for freeway access as “leftist objection to tolls.”

This HOT lane thing is, supposedly, a “pilot program.” Does that mean that the hundreds of millions that L.A. is currently spending on HOV lanes for Interstate 405 might be switched to HOT lanes? When did an immensely expensive public “pilot program” ever declare itself a failure and revert to its former state? I’m prepared for the worst.

I have a better idea.

There, in the current HOV lane or lanes is an underused speck of immensely valuable real estate: the rarest and most precious type of real estate imaginable in a metropolis famed for its expensive space — a traffic lane. Open it up. Just make it another lane (or two, for much of its length) on the 110 freeway. Let everyone drive on it. Traffic won’t get a great deal better, but a little. At least we won’t be promoting the famous notion that, in this city, money talks.

N.B. The situation in 2017 regarding freeway entrance/exit numbers has improved slightly in 4 years, but many L.A. exits still lack numbers. Come prepared.

© Brad Nixon 2013, 2017

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