The number one thing my students complain about in Los Angeles is traffic. And it’s my Swiss and German students, who, no doubt accustomed to trains
running like clockwork, are most often dismayed with LA’s lackluster public transit. Why, they ask, are the busses always so late? It’s not just LA I respond. I concede that in general, America doesn’t have very well-funded or well-developed infrastructure for mass transportation. After WWII, I explain, America built a bubble empire around private vehicle ownership, and then many communities ripped out well-established trolley lines and bus routes to encourage the use of cars. This was the case especially in southern California. Meanwhile, Japan, Korea, and much of Europe invested in mass transit innovation and infrastructure. Now, America’s biggest cities have serious issues managing where to put all those individual cars—that’s why traffic and parking are always so frustrating in LA or in any big American city.
Sometimes, though, I tell them that America missed the train and now we’re so far behind we can’t even run to catch the bus. Truly, as their American English teacher, I’m always a little embarrassed to explain why this great nation has such sucky public transit. But Nikolas, from Switzerland, insists it’s really because America’s favorite pastime is waiting. He says, “I don’t understand. If I drive, I wait on the freeway. If I take the bus, I wait. Disneyland, Six Flags, Hollywood clubs, the same. Don’t get me started on the Dodgers and baseball…” Nikolas concludes, “You Americans must really like waiting around.”
Hmmm. Maybe. Conspiracy theorist friends, any input?
Yeah, so traffic. I do it every day, whether by bike or car, for at least an hour. I prefer biking, though, and have discovered I can get places faster that way, especially during morning/evening rush hours. But, I do drive more often than I’d like, and therein lies the philosophical dilemma: how to make peace with having to do something that’s not really very enjoyable? It’s part of the price we pay to live in this amazing city—reconciling our lives, dreams, and careers with the tedious reality of LA traffic.
You must make peace
You have to make peace with the fact that living ten miles from your job easily translates into a one-hour, one-way commute. Obviously, living closer to your job would alleviate drive time stress, but the better-paying jobs are on the Westside while more affordable, artist-friendly housing is in Echo Park, Lincoln Heights, East Hollywood, Silverlake-ish.
When I lived at the international house, I commuted from East Hollywood to Westwood, ten miles there, ten miles back. Sitting in the car creeping along for an hour in morning traffic really, really sucked, so I began biking. But not everyday—that’d just be too much. Here’s how I made peace when I did the
stop and slow: Sing along with 100.3 The Sound, roll down the windows and rock out. Or some mornings listen along with 102.7, Ryan Seacrest and Ellen K. What? No, really. They’re sharp and funny, and I like listening to Ryan and Ellen banter on about celebrity gossip. Or talk about Ryan and his dog. And Richard Marks. Don’t judge. Listen for yourself. Here’s the thing: being mad, angry, and cranky—horn honking, finger flipping, screaming—and sitting in
traffic doesn’t work for anyone. You gotta get over it. And as I’ve embraced this, I’ve found that there really are a lot of courteous drivers, as if the collective commuter unconscious knows this sucks for everybody, so we might as well make the best of it and be kind. Patient. And not flip out.
In all this driving, biking, traffic-doing, I have noticed a few wonky things about our fair city that really would make most drivers in other areas lose it. Here are a few tips and observations:
Avoid the freeways
Mornings and evenings the 405 and 10 are parking lots. Forget ‘em. Instead, figure out surface streets that can get you where you need to be. True story—I have a route from East Hollywood to Culver City that can take under forty-five minutes in rush hour traffic.
We all do this, park in a space that’s really close to a red curb or driveway, or maybe we’re not sure if it’s permit-only parking. So, we leave the car running, get out, check the signs and make sure we’re not in the red, not blocking someone’s drive. Definitely make sure it’s not street sweeping day because the penalties are steep–$63 if you’re not permitted properly and $73 if you’re parked during street sweeping. Ouch. I’m more than OCD about this. As are most LA drivers. Parking check, necessary ritual.
Lane position is everything
There’s a less-impacted route I drive to work, but to do it effectively, you’ve gotta know the lane structure. For example, to maximize efficiency, you must be in the center lane for part of the commute and then know when exactly to get in the right lane because the center lane turns into the left turn lane at an intersection without a left turn arrow. Timing is everything. You can be stuck fifteen cars deep if you don’t change lanes at the right moment. Then, to get onto Westwood, you’ve got to get back over to the left lane and continue with a few more center/right lane changes for optimal forward motion. *Actually, the bike is much better for this route 🙂
Why do so many LA intersections lack a dedicated left turn arrow?
This mystifies me. Even some of the larger intersections don’t have a left arrow—WHY? A few days ago I sat, patiently of course, at Centinella and Venice for seven minutes to make a left onto Venice. Without a left light, cars end up turning as the light changes from yellow to red, so that left-turning cars remain in the intersection when the light turns green for the cross traffic. At peak times, this creates a huge traffic flow problem—cars stuck in the intersection trying to complete a turn. Why not add the left turn arrow to all the intersections?
Shitty Los Angeles city streets
Really, I’ve ridden and driven on a lot of streets—Hollywood, Silverlake, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Miracle Mile, and all over Westwood, Venice, and Santa Monica. The roads on the Westside are slightly better maintained (more affluence on that side), but they’re still not great, and the roads in Hollywood, Silverlake, east side-ish are really torn up and a peril to ride on. Where does all the revenue from parking violations go? Clearly, it’s not into road maintenance or street repair…
Well, there ya go, a 10 month intensive study of LA traffic. It’s frustrating but manageable, and if you let it, negotiating LA traffic can teach some humbling, very Buddhist life lessons. Patience, perspective, kindness, tolerance and peace.
Come ride with me.