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Sorry, Traffic

October 30, 2014 • Los Angeles

Beverly Hills worst NIMBY nightmareWriting in the LA Weekly, Hillel Aron says that Angelenos make small talk about traffic rather than the weather, because there’s rarely anything to say about the weather. It does provide the perfect explanation for being a little late, easily explained with a single word, “Traffic,” and usually accepted without comment. It’s even a viable excuse when I ride the Expo Line; all the light-rail trains run through and across vehicle lanes when they’re above ground, and unlike freight trains, light rail trains don’t get priority over cars, waiting at red lights just like everybody else. It makes sense, if you consider how much vehicular traffic there is; if a boulevard was closed every time a train went by, traffic congestion would reach gridlock proportions in minutes. Ideally all these light-rail lines would have been buried, but if the funding options selected by the political class are no train or a slow train subject to red lights at cross streets, I’ll take the slow train.

The Blue Line and the Expo Line are also struck by vehicles on an alarmingly regular basis. This doesn’t seem to happen as often on the Gold Line, perhaps because it runs along quieter streets. But it will continue to happen as long as our cars can’t drive themselves. Personally, it seems pretty obvious how not to drive into a train, and it’s not like the crossings along Exposition and Washington Boulevard are especially exotic or misleading or somehow booby-trapped. It has to be about percentages, and with zillions of cars crossing the tracks every day, some percentage of them are obliged to plow into the train.

It’s also fairly annoying to read news reports that start out with “Train hits car,” implying that the train was somehow in the wrong. They never are; it’s always the motorist. It reflects the deep-rooted resentment and bias against public transportation that still lingers in this town, even with all the train-building that’s happening. NIMBY activists in Beverly Hills have effectively resisted extending the subway through their rarified earth for decades, culminating recently in a lovely manipulated video of Beverly Hills High School exploding in a giant fireball (see the image), somehow caused by subway trains running nearby. Even some beloved Westside politicians, who now style themselves as champions of public transit, resisted transit funding for decades. Voters seem to have a short memory, or maybe it’s because of the confusing political dance of terming out of one office and taking up another, because one of the most effective anti-transit politicians now might just get a subway station named after him, while he’s still in office. I’m not going to cite his name; like the authorities who banned mention of the name of the idiot who burned down the Temple of Artemis in 356 BCE, I suspect it would be better if his legacy was obscurity.

I asked a friend of a friend in New York one time why the 7 train, which runs from the depths of Queens into Midtown, ran so late into the night when the other lines had stopped; he said, “How else are people in Manhattan going to have their drivers and maids at work on time?” It’s kind of like traffic on the Westside; people in wealthy neighborhoods finally started to get on board with building public transportation infrastructure when the average speed of traffic on their streets sank to something 3 mph between 3 and 7 p.m., which happened in about 2006. Since the recession it’s almost certainly the same or worse, but it will be interesting to see how the opening of the Expo Line extension to Santa Monica, slated for early 2016, impacts traffic congestion. There has been much hand-wringing on the Westside about the widening of the 405, and finally, now that it’s completed, there has been little or no improvement in traffic speeds. So it seems expanding rail travel really is one of our only viable options for sensible growth in this town.

The delightful quote from Aron: “Most people talk about the weather. We can’t, because our weather is always perfect. Our traffic is our weather, a force of nature unto its own; she cannot be conquered, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.” (LA Weekly, August 19th)

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