Last Aftershock: Quake's Impact On L.A. Lifestyle
The key test comes next week when schools, government offices, more businesses reopen
JAMES MOORE had enough extra work to do this week and enough concerns about commuting on Los Angeles's hobbled freeways that he decided to stay at work - all week. The urban planner at the University of Southern California (USC) spent his nights in a campus dormitory instead of driving home.
Mr. Moore represents one example of how the normal rhythm of life in southern California is being altered by one of the nation's worst urban earthquakes.
Even as large sections of the city struggle to dig out from the strong temblor and meet the basic needs of thousands of homeless people, the rest of the area's residents are pulling out maps and setting back alarm clocks to cope with the damaged freeway system.
They are having only limited success so far. True, some motorists this week zipped along stretches of asphalt less crowded than normal because of the de facto state of emergency that existed in the city.
But others sat in rush-hour traffic that refused to move while the earth underneath did. Some got up at 3:30 a.m. to get to work by 8:00, unsuccessfully.
There were even a few Angelenos who tried something different altogether - a train.
``It was a bit of a zoo,'' says Randy Kaler, a lawyer who commuted from his home in Valencia, northwest of the city, to downtown Los Angeles by rail. Normally a 75-minute ride, the train trip took 2 hours and 15 minutes this week because of the crush of people and the frequent delays caused by the need to inspect the tracks following aftershocks.
The real test for the city will come next week. Schools and government offices will reopen, and many businesses that encouraged workers to stay home the first few days will find their parking lots full again, setting the pattern for what is likely to happen in the months ahead.
Some experts say Los Angeles will come through the experiment well. Even though 11 major roadways were damaged in the severe earthquake - some of which aren't expected to be repaired for 12 to 18 months - experts argue that the area's vast web of freeways and streets offers enough alternatives.
Many of the bottlenecks caused by the collapsed bridges and rumpled roadways are local, though that word is relative in Los Angeles: Consider that the Santa Monica Freeway, one of the main arteries severed, conveys 300,000 motorists each day. It is one of the nation's busiest highways.
``Commuting won't be a picnic, but I don't think it will be a disaster either,'' says Peter Gordon, dean of USC's School of Urban and Regional Planning.
Drivers themselves, of course, hold the key to the outcome. Small changes in behavior can have a big impact. Three out of every four car trips taken in Los Angeles County during a typical week have nothing to do with work. Thus, a canceled trip to the hardware store here, a shorter drive to the grocery store there can add up to freer freeways.
Some companies are drawing up flexible work hours so employees can commute during nonpeak traffic times. More people are expected to work at home.
Even that ultimate personal sacrifice for the common good - car pooling - may garner a few more adherents. At least, transportation planners are hoping so.
``There will be more experimentation taking place in terms of lifestyle, work, and travel,'' Moore says.
This week offered a partial glimpse of what will happen if motorists don't make changes. Streets turned into parking lots in some neighborhoods where motorists tried to circumvent damaged roadways.
North of the city, cars inched along the Sierra Highway, a bypass to the closed intersection of state Highway 14 and Interstate 5.
Ramon Hernandez figures that his usual 40-minute commute from Santa Clarita south into Los Angeles now takes two to three hours.
Not everyone, though, is finding the freeways so daunting.
Charles Contreras travels 120 miles a day from his home in Carlsbad, north of San Diego County, to his job in the San Fernando Valley. It usually takes two hours to commute one way.
This week, he found himself showing up at his desk early. Not having to make any detours may have helped. Still, he is hopeful the quake will help break some bad car habits.
``I think this will be good for transportation across southern California,'' he says. ``People will wake up and realize they can't take the convenience of their highways for granted anymore.''
Maybe so, but don't look for Angelenos to automatically embrace trains and car-pool lanes - at least not permanently.
After the San Francisco earthquake, use of local subways and ferries jumped while the Bay Bridge was under repair. But now, many residents are back in their cars.
Still, as Martin Wachs, an urban planner at the University of California at Los Angeles, points out, Los Angeles now has a unique opportunity to experiment with some transportation alternatives.