There’s no getting around the fact that L.A.’s traffic is terrible and getting worse.

Doing something about it will require leaders with the political will not only to ask average people to make some real sacrifices but also to break the stranglehold developers too often exert on public policy through their campaign contributions.

Three of America’s busiest highways run through Southern California; the nation’s most congested urban stretch of interstate is the 405 through Los Angeles. Increasing sections of the 181 miles of freeway and 6,500 miles of surface streets within the city limits slow to a snail’s pace for longer and longer periods each day.

Congestion already distorts our social and economic decisions on a daily basis. It has imposed new standards of etiquette: Whether your appointment is with friends for dinner or your physician for a flu shot, you’re either ridiculously early or unforgivably late. And everyone understands the reason – traffic.

Traffic congestion imposes economic costs at a staggering level: The average Southern California commuter annually spends 61 hours, or more than 2.5 irreplaceable days, out of the only life they’ll ever live stuck in traffic. Congestion’s cumulative annual cost to the greater L.A. region is estimated at more than $12 billion.

When thinking about even partial solutions to this seemingly intractable problem, there are two rules to keep in mind:

For most of us, the best solution to congestion continues to be the one that gets the other guy out of his car so we can go on using the freeways as we like.

All the easy stuff already has been done. Easy in this context doesn’t mean cheap. If all the expensive mass transit projects now on the Metropolitan Transportation Agency’s books are completed – including the “subway to the sea,” the extensions of the Gold and Exposition light-rail lines and the light-rail connector under downtown Los Angeles – traffic congestion will not diminish. It just won’t get any worse. That’s a lot of money to spend on maintaining a status quo with which nobody is satisfied.

So rather than just grin and bear what’s become increasingly unbearable, perhaps it’s time to consider some of the “difficult” – by which we mean unpopular – solutions.

The cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica might start by refusing to permit new high-rise office and residential buildings west of La Brea Avenue and in Hollywood. Without such a step, giant office and multi-unit condo and apartment buildings are going to continue springing up all over the Westside, which already is choking on congestion. Such a ban will be attacked as just another of the city’s

anti-business measures, but allowing every developer to extract the maximum conceivable value from their land imposes increasingly onerous costs on all the rest of us. Such a ban also would put the brakes on the wholesale movement of jobs to the Westside, a change in the city’s economy planners never anticipated. It might even steer future development back toward downtown, which nowadays is relatively uncongested.

In the same vein, new lower-rise residential developments that are constructed on the Westside might be limited to one parking space per household and adjacent streets made permit-only parking zones. If people can’t park their cars, maybe there will be fewer of them. That would create conditions conducive to experiments with one of urban transit’s most promising developments – car sharing or “hoteling” as it’s sometimes called. Already in use throughout Europe and in cities like Seattle, people enrolled in such programs simply can use their credit cards to essentially “rent” Smart cars that are parked in convenient locations spread around the city. When they’re done, they can leave the vehicle parked in any legal public space for the next person to use.

One of our public transit system’s unheralded successes is the San Fernando Valley’s Orange Line, a dedicated bus way. Rail might be sexier, but dedicated bus ways are cheaper by far to build and move more people at a lower cost per mile than any other form of mass transit. They’re also more flexible by far and should be the focus of future mass transit expansion.

Finally, we ought to borrow a success from the past and limit trucks making commercial deliveries and pickups to nighttime hours. Doing that during the 1984 Olympics reduced rush-hour freeway congestion by as much as 17 percent, according to some estimates. Former Mayor Tom Bradley tried to make the arrangement permanent in the early 1990s, but abandoned his effort in the face of overwhelming opposition from the trucking industry and its unions.

Since then, we’ve had another success with similar policies at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which now charge trucks additional fees to use their container terminals during the day. As a result, more than 40 percent of the truck traffic coming out of the harbors has switched to off-peak hours and the costs of the container terminals’ additional staffing are covered by the daytime fees.

Adopting such a policy citywide would be denounced in some quarters as another of the city’s notorious anti-business measures, but the fact is congestion has dramatically – in fact, exponentially – worsened since the Bradley years and now imposes a kind of indirect tax on every commercial enterprise in the city. The trucking union’s inevitable objections could be overcome by pointing out that forcing pickups and deliveries into off-peak hours would be a major jobs program, since employers would have to add people for a nightshift. Drivers, meanwhile, could bargain for a night differential in their pay, which would push up participants’ incomes.

If the results were anything close to those obtained by the ports, then the impact on freeway congestion, particularly during rush hour, would be significant.

There is no one magic bullet when it comes to L.A.’s traffic congestion. Other ideas worth considering are staggered work hours, more telecommuting and greater use of one-way streets. Any one of these steps, however, can be nothing more than a partial solution and all of them come with some sacrifice or cost. The most expensive choice of all, though, is doing nothing.

In the end, it isn’t ideas we’re lacking, but courage and political will.

Richard J. Riordan is the former mayor of Los Angeles. Tim Rutten is a veteran L.A. journalist and commentator.

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