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By Frank Gruber

Fortunately the next step in Santa Monica's devising of a strategy to deal with gang violence will not occur until the next public meeting, scheduled for Saturday, March 12. Fortunate for me, that is, because it will take me a week to digest what I learned at the overflowing and overwhelming meeting that took place Saturday. So until then I'll digress.

* * *

A week ago Thursday was the day a rainstorm that had been predicted to arrive the prior Monday finally deluged Greater Los Angeles.

It was also the Thursday before Presidents' Day and my family and another family had made a plan to depart that afternoon for Mammoth, one of those attempts to get out of town fast that reflects the American celebration of hope over reality.

Both families managed to get on the road at 4:30, which we thought was pretty good. We knew traffic would be slow at first, but we still believed we would reach Mammoth by 10:30.

My wife was driving her trusty Honda; as readers may remember, my old Peugeot turned out to be not so trusty the last time I tried to drive up the 395. ("WHAT I SAY: Purple State," August 23, 2004) Our friend Dana, driving her car, had observed a horrendous back up on the eastbound 10 when she was returning from work, so we decided to take surface streets to the 405.

Freeway or surface streets: the defining existential choice of our time and place. Existentialism has been described as the attempt "to describe our desire to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe," which is a perfect description of the problem of existence as Westsiders most often experience it: "the freeway or Olympic?"

I suspect we made the wrong decision. (But will we ever know?)

Mind you, on the radio the traffic reporters were acting as if that rainy Thursday afternoon was Armageddon. Stay home, they said. The rain, the rush hour, whatever, there weren't even that many accidents, but the average speed on the freeways was less than 10.

Good advice, but if we drove to Mammoth Thursday night, we might miss the snowstorm that was predicted for Friday. We chose our destiny. Onward!

Nearly an hour and a half after our 4:30 departure we consulted by cell phone. Dana was on Wilshire approaching Federal. We were stuck on Santa Monica Boulevard to the west of Westgate.

Quick decision: let's get some dinner. Dana had just passed India's Oven on Wilshire and we decided to meet there. (India's Oven is on the second floor of a building at the northwest corner of Wilshire and Barry.)

My wife turned up Westgate. Northbound traffic wasn't too bad. She turned onto Wilshire; the right lane was strangely open.

Omigod! We had unsuspectedly turned onto the bus-only lane on Wilshire!

I was mortified. What if my transit friends saw me? I implored by wife to merge to the left; but would anyone let her in? Of course, the longer she cruised, looking for a gap in the queue, the more we could feel the hostility of those law-abiding and truly admirable drivers who hated us for bucking the line. (I won't discuss my darker suspicions that my wife had had it with existential dilemmas and was exulting in power of the Uebermensch.)

Fortunately, my wife made a tactical decision to turn right on the street before Barry. She drove down a block, took a left, then another left on Barry, where we found a parking space on the street.

We had a delicious dinner at India's Oven. Our table overlooked Wilshire, and we watched the traffic. It was still miserable when we finished eating at seven. But miracle of miracles, the bus lane remained open! My transit-loving heart beat faster to the rhythm of the Big Blue Buses and Metro Rapids and Metro Locals that swept past the cars stuck in traffic like whales through plankton.

I didn't know that the very next day The Lookout would report that County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is proposing to extend the bus-only lanes the length of Wilshire -- a great idea. ("Yaroslavsky Asks for Bus Lane," February 18, 2005)

Why is it a great idea? Not because bus riders deserve to have their patience rewarded and get somewhere faster than people driving personal street cluttering machines. Not because we will only lose street parking during rush hours and many cities around the world have both bus lanes and thriving street retail. Not because if we manage our preferential parking better there would be parking on the side streets for shoppers. Not because good transit and walking city streets go hand in hand.

No, it's a great idea because until something bigger and better comes along -- such as the extension of the Red Line that L.A. City Councilmember and MTA Board Member Tom LeBonge has now revived -- speeding up buses is the only possible solution to getting major arterials moving faster, which will benefit all those people in their personal street cluttering machines! (Including us trying to get to Mammoth,)

Remember, all personal road cluttering machine operators, only a small percentage decrease in traffic can make a huge difference (remember the 1984 Olympics), and if some of those people in their cars, particularly commuters, see those buses whizzing past, they will make decisions to leave their cars at home and take the bus.

But enough theory. Back to India's Oven. We made an executive decision. Instead of starting again, which would mean arriving in Mammoth in the wee hours and possibly during a snowstorm, we decided to go home, go to sleep, rise early, and leave at four in the morning.

Which we did. By 4:30 a.m. we were already on the 14 heading toward the Antelope Valley. What we saw then and there explains why traffic is so bad on the Westside streets that feed into the 405. Because at 4:30 there was already traffic on the southbound 14 -- a steady stream of headlights spread over all the lanes -- the dawn patrol of commuters heading into the Valley and beyond.

People have been complaining about traffic in L.A. for about 80 years and the solutions have, until quite recently, been the same -- further disperse development and build more roads and parking and otherwise make it easier to drive.

Uh -- has this worked? No.

A lot of people who complain about traffic accuse us urbanists who favor dense development and making it harder and more expensive to drive and park of being indifferent to their plight. It's just the opposite.

We hate traffic too; only difference is, we're trying to come up with something that works.


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