Whoever invents commuting monikers in Los Angeles seems to prefer religious themes. Pundits dubbed last year’s weekend-long closure of the 405 Freeway “Carmageddon.” They’ve named the closure of Wilshire Boulevard on- and off-ramps to the 405 the “Rampture.” As a commuter who drives more than 60 miles each workday from my home in Altadena to my office in Westwood, I favor a different religious-themed descriptor: hell.
I battle Caltrans (local-speak for the California Department of Transportation) each morning and evening. Caltrans and Kiewit, the contractor tasked with expanding the 405, are cunning foes. Each day I test their battle lines looking for weakness. Each night I retreat home, defeated. A commute that once took 45 minutes now lasts an hour and a half or more.
Prior to construction beginning in earnest a couple of years ago, I’d reached a comfortable equilibrium. I had a primary route that allowed me to escape traffic on the 405 by taking Sepulveda Boulevard, which parallels the freeway. If Sepulveda was slow, I could stay on the 405 or take an alternate route. I knew what to expect, how to avoid entanglements, and how to get to my destination in less than an hour. Those were my halcyon days.
Caltrans/Kiewit declared war a couple of years ago. It was a sneak attack, masterfully executed. One morning my commute seemed managed; the next, chaos ruled. No longer could I rely on Sepulveda; it crawled. The freeway was no better; it was choked with my fellow victims. Side streets buzzed with impatient commuters. My under-an-hour trip grew 50 percent longer overnight. I detected no diplomatic efforts. Peace turned to commuting war in an instant.
I quickly recognized that mornings are worst. Leave too late and lane closures render Sepulveda impassable. Leave early, and you get caught in a bottleneck as the lanes close, leaving no escape apart from illegal U-turns or other maneuvers not covered by insurance.
The first few weeks were especially awful. Naïvely, I sought out breaches in the enemy’s line, but each seeming victory was merely a trap. What saved me five minutes one day cost me 10 the next. Many of my fellow combatants employed similar strategies, rendering Monday’s best side streets impassable during Tuesday’s commute. I’ve come to believe that Caltrans/Kiewit monitors social media, looking for reports of commuting success and cracking down on anything that works.
For six weeks, I clung to my pre-commuting-war Sepulveda route, refusing to shrink from the enemy. Maybe it was nostalgia; possibly pigheadedness. For a while, I tried a hybrid approach, combining some travel on Sepulveda with some on the freeway. This saved me about 15 minutes.
Until I was discovered. I don’t know who gave me away, but Caltrans/Kiewit clamped down. Hard. First, they closed my preferred exit at Sunset. Then, when I coped by getting off at Wilshire, they reduced my favored freeway on-ramp to one lane from two. My hybrid strategy in ruins, I surrendered.
So I began avoiding the 405 and Sepulveda altogether. Driving through hilly neighborhoods worked during the summer. This time, though, Caltrans simply waited me out. Once school started, school buses and school-related traffic forced another surrender. Eventually I learned to take a different route nearly every day. By analyzing the enemy’s patterns, and keeping him confused about my own, I discovered which routes work on which days. Equilibrium seemed tantalizingly possible.
But the struggle continued. Incensed by my small victory, Caltrans/Kiewit took aim at my evening commute. It reduced northbound Sepulveda to one lane at Moraga. This left Sepulveda impassable and prevented my entering the freeway at Getty Center (my pre-construction favorite). I tried Wilshire, but Caltrans/Kiewit struck back with the Rampture. Now side streets are my only evening option to get to a point where I can get on the freeway, but everyone else uses side streets, too. Some nights half my commute is spent on the first five of my approximately 35 miles just trying to get on the 405.
Caltrans/Kiewit obstructed my evening commute in other ways. There used to be a sign on the uphill side of the Sepulveda pass announcing the number of minutes a typical freeway driver would take to reach the 118 Freeway based on traffic conditions. If the sign said less than 20 minutes to the 118, I stayed on the 405. More than 20 minutes and I chose the 101. It was helpful. So the enemy destroyed the sign. Now there is a temporary sign announcing the drive time to the much-closer 101–but, since there are currently no exits between that sign and the 101, the information is useless, which is how Caltrans/Kiewit likes it. The enemy is increasingly depraved.
Worse, Caltrans/Kiewit has allies. One of my evening routes involved getting off near Griffith Park and taking side streets to avoid a nasty interchange involving the eastbound 134 and the southbound 5. Somehow Caltrans/Kiewit got word of my success and obtained help from the city of Los Angeles, which closed down a lane on those side streets, rendering them gridlocked. I don’t even try that route anymore.
It’s not all gloom. Our commuting forces have won small victories. Recently, I tried southbound Sepulveda again on my morning commute and discovered that lanes were no longer closed on an important stretch. Has the enemy become complacent? Maybe victory will come after all. In the meantime, call it Carmageddon, call it Rampture–it’s my personal hell.
Keith R. Thorell is an attorney with a lamentable commute. He lives in Altadena with his wife and three children.
*Photo courtesy of Paul Stevenson.
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