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Driving in Utopia

Compared with the way it used to be, Andrea Nunn’s daily marathon of home-to-school-to-office commuting is a snap. She backs her Toyota RAV 4 out of her Porter Ranch driveway by 7:30 each weekday morning to drop her 12-year-old daughter, Brianna Gallardo, at school in nearby Granada Hills. Then, like thousands of others in the northwestern reaches of the San Fernando Valley, she gets on the 118, transfers to the 405 south, gets onto the 10 west and arrives at her Santa Monica office, where she works in affiliate sales for HBO. Nunn estimates the school-to-work stretch at about an hour. “Everything’s about an hour in L.A., right?” she muses.

The drive used to be longer and more complex. Nunn lived in Highland Park with her husband, who worked nights and looked after Brianna during the day. Father and daughter drove in the late afternoon to his job at a restaurant in Burbank. Brianna hung out there until her mother made her daily detour from her mid-Wilshire office on the way home. Then Nunn switched jobs, her marriage ended, and she enrolled Brianna in a school in North Hills where cousins could provide after-school daycare. “I didn’t want strangers to take care of Brianna,” Nunn explains. So the two of them would get on the Glendale Freeway north, take the 210 west to the 118 and be at school by 7:30. Then Nunn made her way alone to the 405 south, and from there to the 10 and Century City, where HBO was before its move to Santa Monica last year. Then, in the evening, the same thing, in reverse.

“I was always tired,” Nunn says. “Through the whole day.”

So they moved. Not close to work, where Nunn said she was priced out of the market for the kind of housing she wanted for herself and her daughter, but close instead to Brianna’s school and to after-school care, in a neighborhood with the hilly terrain and the spacious houses that reminded her of her girlhood home in Sunnyvale.

It is not so unusual a commute. Southern Californians hit the road to get what they want and what they need. A home here, but a job there, and a school somewhere else. It’s in part by design. Postwar planners separated bedroom communities, shopping districts, civic centers and offices, and the reasons for it still spark debate. Racial segregation, maybe, or upholding a semirural style of living.

But it’s not even that simple. The commuting pattern here always has looked more like a Jackson Pollack painting, with lines long and short zigzagging all over the canvas, than a symmetrical spider’s web with slender spokes radiating from a clearly delineated center. If weekday mornings brought everyone to downtown or Century City from the suburban valleys, traffic would be a nightmare but it would be easy to solve with smartly placed rail lines. The rail lines we do have certainly help, but they can do little for commuters driving from Pomona to Long Beach, from Culver City to Irvine, from Reseda to Ventura. Or from Porter Ranch to Granada Hills to Santa Monica. For those trips, you need a car.

And every car trip, of course, pumps out exhaust, which interacts with sunlight and makes smog. Southern California gets a surprising amount of its air pollution from the port, and the smog problem even can be traced in part to backyard charcoal barbecues. But by far the biggest source of air pollution remains cars and trucks.

Los Angeles seemed for a while to have gotten a handle on its smog problem, with state clean-air standards that changed the cars we drive and the fuel we put in them. But even if cars are cleaner today than they were 25 years ago, there are now more of us, so there are more cars. As costs rise for housing, the distance increases between the job you have and the home you can afford, which translates into more freeway time. And if the public school near you is failing and your children will be better off somewhere farther away, you drive.

There are thousands, tens of thousands, in the same situation, so more cars jam the freeways for longer periods, turning into slower traffic, more idling, and more spewing of auto exhaust into the air. Our mobility, our housing, our schools and our air quality are inextricably linked.

The irony is that the commuting patterns of the far-flung region were created by rail. Streetcar lines were installed by real-estate companies to entice Midwestern transplants to new subdivisions, many with town squares and bandstands and Main Streets. With the rail system that became the Pacific Electric Interurban, or Red Cars, there was really no reason not to get yourself a spread in Redlands or a beach-side place in Santa Monica, even if you worked downtown. But why work downtown at all if you could get a job in some other village-cum-suburb on one of the PE lines?

Once the parcels sold, of course, there was little reason for the Pacific Electric to keep up maintenance of the rails, and no reason to lobby or pay for the grade separations that kept the intersections clear from increasingly heavy car traffic. Passengers abandoned the now slow, broken-down interurban trains and bought cars to go with their ranch houses. The new mobility pattern meant innovations in commerce and development. Downtown department stores lobbied the city for parking lots but eventually opened satellite stores along Wilshire Boulevard and in Hollywood, and then the Valley. Grocers stopped delivering and instead let drivers fill up their trunks with packages. Branch banking was invented. Chain stores proliferated. But to enjoy the new lifestyle, you needed a car.

Southern California’s big spate of freeway building began after World War II and, except for the ongoing battle over extending the 710 northward into Pasadena, ended with the completion of the Century Freeway a little more than a decade ago. The last Red Car line was pulled out in 1961. We waited 30 years and then put the Blue Line back where that old Red Car line used to be, and it’s a big success. But for the most part, commuting patterns have changed. The kids used to walk to school, mom would stay home or do some local errands, and dad would commute from, say, Pacoima to the GM plant in Van Nuys, or Santa Monica to the studio in Hollywood. But now moms leave home for jobs too, and they may be nowhere near where their husbands work. The kids may go to far-flung magnet or charter schools. The daily commute for many people is now the region-wide voyage that Andrea Nunn and her daughter take.

A growing movement of urban planners, architects and transportation engineers who dub themselves New Urbanists insist that there is a particular time and place where everything went wrong. They argue that the necklace of rail-linked suburban villages worked fine until the postwar age of urban renewal, when the earlier generation of urban planners ran amok and intentionally segregated housing from commerce from offices. They argue that the pattern can be reversed, and their vision has coincided with a housing crunch to make the new landscape we see today: Wilshire Boulevard office skyscrapers becoming apartment buildings; housing built on top of shops and next to Metro stops; even the boom in walk-in coffee houses, in lieu of 1960s-style drive-in coffee shops.

All that remains is to take those re-emerging little urban villages and once again link them with rail, or maybe long-distance express buses, so you can get to work and back while leaving your gas-guzzling, smog-spewing SUV in the garage. Over time, you may even decide to live closer to where you work, or work closer to where you live. It’s not too late. San Diego is reinventing its urban sprawl as a city of villages. That was even once the template for postwar Los Angeles, in the mind’s eye of city planner Calvin Hamilton, although his vision was crushed by developers and residents too caught up in the here-and-now of the 1960s freeway and suburb lifestyle.

But wait. What about couples who work on opposite sides of town? Can there be enough rail or express buses to go around? And if you move to a village where you both work, what happens when one of you changes jobs? And if the kids need to get to school somewhere else altogether, wouldn’t it be more convenient if you had a — well, you know... A car?

It’s the dilemma that Andrea Nunn resolves with her Toyota RAV 4 and a couple of hours or more each day on the freeway. She loves her job at HBO, and doesn’t want to give it up. She loves her home in Porter Ranch. If she could get the same house and the same relatives available for daycare in Santa Monica, maybe she would. But she can’t.

“To work near my house,” she says, “I would have to get a job totally outside this industry.”

There is, of course, the traffic. Thousands of commuters who can’t take it anymore have moved to downtown apartments, deciding to settle for less than the suburban dream home, or deciding instead that the urban lifestyle is more hip and more fun. Or they decide that maybe the closer job is the better one. Or that the kids will be just fine at the local school. But thousands more still hit the road. They’ll keep doing it — until traffic gets even worse.

Nunn doesn’t mind the traffic, although she says she’s intrigued by the new program that allows hybrids to use the HOV lane. She just might get one, and drastically cut her contribution to smog while enjoying a smoother commute to work.

“But then everyone will get one, and it will jam up again,” she says.

There’s no simple answer. Clearing the skies of smog means tackling every urban problem simultaneously. More jobs. Better jobs. More affordable housing. Better schools. More rail. Better buses. Smarter planning. More choices. It’s hard. But breathing cleaner air is worth it.


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