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Traffic, Traffic, Everywhere, but What's a Guy to Think?

By Frank Gruber

A few columns ago I said that traffic was hardly Santa Monica's biggest problem.

Let me clarify that.

Traffic is what people complain about when they have nothing left to complain about. When they are bored with the weather.

People have always complained about traffic (even before there were automobiles), do always complain about traffic (ad nauseam), and will always complain about traffic (because traffic will never be good), and their complaining will do nothing to end their complaints.

If a politician, or traffic engineer or planner suggests that traffic can be fixed, start laughing.

Not that I don't hate to be caught in traffic myself. Not that my gorge hasn't risen while I inch up or down the 405. Not that I haven't risked inflicting gridlock on my fellow motorists by trying to squeeze past a stale green light.

Traffic is terrible.

But "bad traffic" means different things to different people.

The "I just want to get where I want to go" people complain about traffic congestion, i.e, the tendency of large numbers of other drivers on the road to prevent oneself in one's own vehicle from driving at all times at or beyond the speed limit and from passing through all intersections without delay. In the Santa Monica context we can call this "Herb Katz bad traffic."

The "not on my street you don't" people consider the traffic problem to be the excessive number of cars driving too fast through neighborhoods -- specifically their own neighborhoods. In Santa Monica we can call this "Richard Bloom bad traffic."

The two species of complainers are at cross-purposes: the more we facilitate traffic, the more cars in neighborhoods. The obstacles we use to keep traffic out of neighborhoods not only slow traffic on those streets but also throw more cars onto the remaining streets, increasing congestion.

So what do we do?

Blame development. Naturally. All complainers about traffic agree on that. Development is the problem!

Unfortunately, development does not cause traffic problems.

Historically the universal gnashing of teeth about traffic has resulted in decisions and actions that have made traffic worse: increasing road capacity and parking and dispersing development. These decisions have both encouraged and necessitated more automobile trips and more miles driven, making fools out of traffic engineers and planners alike.

Nearly all traffic problems in Santa Monica -- of both the Herb Katz and Richard Bloom varieties -- are caused by the Santa Monica Freeway, built to be the mother of all traffic fixers.

That's right. Just about all the congested intersections and complaints about neighborhood cut through traffic in Santa Monica are associated with the fact that when the traffic engineers cut the 10 through Santa Monica (not surprisingly, through the African-American neighborhood), they left only a few north-south streets crossing, and even fewer access points to, the freeway.

So traffic concentrates and backs up on Ocean, Fourth, Lincoln, Eleventh, Fourteenth, etc.

Before Caltrans built the new on-ramp on Fourth Street, traffic on Fourth wasn't too bad. Fourth Street downtown was a more or less vibrant retail street with parking on both sides. After the ramp went in, Fourth became clogged (at peak periods) even though the city removed the parking lanes and the stores went out of business.

Of course, if people and their various activities -- businesses, jobs, schools, picking up the dry cleaning -- did not exist, traffic would not. In that sense, one can blame traffic on development.

But it would be just as logical to blame development on traffic, since we would not have development if we did not have transportation. After all, Santa Monica's greatest growth in population occurred after the freeway, not before.

Traffic, as measured by peak-period congestion at intersections (the way Santa Monica and traffic engineers measure it), is about the same in places that are much more densely developed, such as east coast downtowns, and in places that are much less dense, such as the suburbs.

Unless we erect walls all around Southern California, it is foolish to try to fix traffic in Santa Monica by limiting development, because we cannot limit development around us, in either our immediate neighbors or in the region. The more development sprawls, the more miles are driven, many of them in, through and to our little town.

So forget about fixing traffic. Instead, let's improve our lives in the context of traffic. Let's focus on what we can do and what we can't.

Let's deal with traffic by dealing with traffic and deal with development by dealing with development. We can take measures to encourage people to drive less, without detracting from what they get out of their lives.

Let's focus on convenience, and not mobility for its own sake.

Let's make development decisions based on the real city we want to live in, not the intersections we dream of driving through.

And happy New Year!
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