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Olympic commuting is the easiest event yet

The horror stories, many think, frightened tourists away, sent locals scurrying off to vacations, and spurred companies to change their hours. The Olympic Games would strangle Los Angeles' already congested roads with so much traffic, one local transportation expert predicted, that there would be a ''demolition derby'' on the freeways.

So there was a happy irony Tuesday afternoon when transportation official David Roper smiled and tried to think of any other time in his 30 years plotting Los Angeles traffic that the freeways had flowed this smoothly through weekday rush hours - Olympics or no Olympics. He couldn't.

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Commuters are not out of the woods yet. ''Black Friday'' - this Friday, when heavy end-of-week traffic meets an especially busy day of popular Olympic events - is still ahead.

''That's when we anticipate the real test,'' says Mr. Roper, deputy director of operations at the California Department of Transportation.

For the time being, commuters have regularly been slipping past the speed limit during rush hours.

All this doesn't sit too well with the southern California tourist trade. Many businessmen blame the lack of tourists on the predictions of a desperately overcrowded city.

Disneyland has been in a slump all summer, falling off even further as the Olympics began, says spokesman Joe Aguirre. A year ago, hotels were planning on capacity Olympic crowds. Now many hotel bookings are running below normal for this peak season.

''We feel the bad press nationally really hurt the games,'' says Greg Lehman, sales director for the Marriott hotel near the L.A. International Airport.

The regular influx of summer tourists and business travelers to southern California is apparently avoiding the Olympic crowds, real or imagined.

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United Airlines reports that traffic into Los Angeles is normal, but that traffic out of the region is below normal. This means, according to United spokesman Chuck Novak, that the arriving Olympic tourists and all those would-be travelers who are staying away roughly cancel each other out.

Some of the traffic decline can be attributed to steps taken to head off the predicted glut.

One local company, General Telephone of California, has changed its employee schedules to the point of keeping 5,000 to 6,000 daily commuters off the road that would ordinarily be there. It has used four-day, 40-hour work weeks, taken a liberal vacation policy, used ''flex time'' scheduling, curtailed meetings that require travel, stopped construction work near games venues, and run delivery trucks at night.

Other companies have done the same. In fact, a survey before the games began showed that more than a third of the large companies throughout Los Angeles County have altered their schedules around Olympic traffic patterns.

But Mr. Roper suspects that Los Angeles freeways are carrying very nearly their normal capacity of traffic. The free-flowing current of commuters where traffic is normally stop and go, he says, is probably due to the fact that the rush-hour peak has been spread out slightly. Commuters, wary of an Olympic gridlock during rush hours, are setting their alarms earlier or staying in the office later.

''Commuting to work in southern California is an art,'' says Wilfred Recker, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Southern Californians, he adds, are good at it.

''We're dealing with a very, very intelligent commuter,'' Dr. Recker says. Commuters here typically have several alternate routes to work that are nearly as fast as their preferred route, and they use a lot of information in their strategic decisions, much of it in up-to-the-minute radio traffic reports.

''I would almost characterize it as a game,'' he says. ''People like to outsmart the system.''

The road system, of course, is of high quality here, and allows for many alternate routes to work.

Use of the regional bus system, as well as a major Olympic bus service, is at record levels, but is much lower than expected.

The good news on Olympic traffic, however, could spell trouble for transportation planners. It has been the horror stories that have cleared the freeways. So publicity about the lighter-than-normal traffic since last week threatens to bring drivers back to them.

Indeed, Tuesday traffic was somewhat heavier than Monday's. ''Our suspicion, '' Roper said on Tuesday, ''is that people are beginning to go back to normal patterns.''

His hope is that a mild warning in the press will keep Angelenos on their guard.

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