Like coyotes through sage, L.A. drivers stalk traffic tangle

At 6:15 a.m., deep in the north end of San Fernando Valley above Los Angeles, a state car pulls up in front of David Kulikoff's house. Three others are in the car, monitoring radio traffic reports, but Mr. Kulikoff, a smallish man with a gray mustache, takes the driver's seat. This is his morning.

He heads south on the Golden State Freeway. He moves into the fast lane and he stays there. If he has learned one thing over the years about switching lanes , it is this: ''It doesn't pay.''

Kulikoff's first big decision this morning has got to come fast - inside of two minutes. KNX-radio announcer Bill Keene has come over the airwaves with a traffic alert on the southbound Hollywood. That's Kulikoff's route, and he is bearing down on the junction.

He trusts Mr. Keene more than the other traffic hawks. So Kulikoff makes his move. He lets the Hollywood Freeway slide by and sticks with the Golden State. That makes the 21-mile trip more like 25 miles, but the state car slips through the Hollywood Hills in the early morning light like a coyote through the sage.

After more than 28 years of serious-minded commuting in a four-member car pool, Kulikoff knows all the times, miles, and traffic patterns of every cutoff and back route along the way.

He is a precise and conservative player - a team player - in the great game of getting to work in Los Angeles. This is the dismal sport that most other Angelenos play solo, lone cowboys riding the L.A. freeways.

Last month's Olympic Games and the mysteriously fluid traffic (some called it ''eerie'') that came with them have provided traffic experts here with insight into the quirks and characteristics of southern California drivers.

''I think there's no question but we have the smartest, the wiliest drivers in the world around here,'' says the dean of local traffic reporters, KNX's Keene.

Southern Californians certainly own more cars and drive more than the American average, says Jim Hall, feature editor of Motor Trend magazine. They are also acknowledged to be less aggressive and more chivalrous than those of other major metropolises.

Some drive 150 miles or more to get to work and back every day, spending upwards of four hours a day on the road. The last thing most drivers here will choose is a car pool or bus, even under threat of massive traffic jams.

The Olympics made that plain, when the Southern California Rapid Transit District lost $5 million on the Olympic bus service which few riders used.

The Los Angeles freeway system is the best in the country, says Margaret Schwartz, a transportation planner with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

But of course, there are few alternatives here. The bus system is hopelessly slow and out of the way for most purposes. The trains that crisscrossed the region through the 1950s were outrun and underpriced by the growing freeway network.

Now the Santa Monica Freeway, connecting downtown and the west side of Los Angeles, carries more traffic every day than any other road in the world. In places, it is 12 lanes across and is traversed by well over 250,000 cars a day.

But it's all part of the larger picture. When traffic jams up in the Sepulveda Pass in northwest Los Angeles, Keene says, the shock waves will eventually slow traffic in Orange County, 35 miles to the south.

''We've got a very complex system out there, and every part of that system affects every other part,'' says David Roper, deputy director for operations of Caltrans.

''And we've turned that system over to the user to manage.''

Drivers have a peculiar way of managing their own system. Commuters often find they have a common bond with each other. They are a community of strangers coming from who knows where, going who knows how far. Know them by their custom license plates, half-torn bumper stickers, or familiar dents in the fender.

Sometimes traffic will sail along at free-flow speeds, even though the freeway is packed perilously tight with rush-hour traffic. These are career commuters, the adepts, working together at their best.

But one fast lane change, one lurching or careening driver buried in a freeway map, and the harmony is shattered. Brake lights ripple back through traffic like a shock wave. The sun shining in someone's eyes, or a woman changing a tire beside the road, is sometimes all it takes to bog down the traffic, according to Mr. Roper.

If it is around 7:30 in the morning, the broken current of traffic may not attain free-flow speeds again until after 9 a.m.

This is the great irony of freeway traffic. As the volume of traffic thickens , speeds drop little by little. But when volume reaches the level of about 1,800 cars an hour in each lane, or a car every two seconds, then traffic is hovering at a brink.

Any disruption, perhaps just the ''side friction'' of cars entering the flow from onramps, and speeds drop sharply. Then turbulence sets in.

Frustrated drivers switch lanes, looking for the fastest flow (experts recommend the middle lanes over the ''fast'' lane), and the rubbery push and pull of slowing and accelerating begins.

Now each lane is only carrying 1,200 cars per hour. Yet four full lanes of traffic are still pushing the now broken-down flow from the rear. Its capacity has been cut by a third just when it needs it most.

This is what never happened during the Olympics. It happens every working weekday morning of the year all over the Southland, but during the Olympics it was free-flowing all day long. The freeways appeared to be half full.

They were not. In fact, although the obvious explanation for the Olympic lull is that fewer people were on the road, daily traffic volume during that time was only down 2 or 3 percent.

But the rush-hour peaks were 7 or 8 percent lower, Roper says. People were leaving earlier for work, staying later. Hours were shifted. Peak traffic was spread out just enough so that, as Roper puts it, ''early demand never broke down the system.''

There is a second irony of freeway traffic: Any move that clears up the freeways, like the Olympics or adding a new lane, will slowly erode as new traffic crowds on. ''There are lots and lots of people waiting to take up the slack,'' says Roper.

Only 20 percent of commuting Angelenos have been persuaded to ride mass transit or join car pools, according to Peter Valk, director of planning and development at Commuter Computer, a quasi-government ride-sharing organization.

''Our conclusion is that people in Los Angeles endow their cars with personality, and really feel their cars get lonely without them,'' says Vicki Thomas, a spokeswoman for Commuter Computer.

There are more practical reasons to take one's car to work here, but then, commuter David Kulikoff saves $900 to $1,000 a year by car-pooling. For him, that's $27,000 so far.

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