A crawl-along in America's traffic capital
At 7:22 a.m. Kerry Dockstader climbs into her white Chevy Lumina minivan and pulls out of the driveway of her Redondo Beach home, west of Los Angeles.Skip to next paragraph
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Destination: her law office in Glendale, 28 miles - and infinite lane changes - north.
"If I make it in 50 minutes I'll be really happy," says Ms. Dockstader, pulling her cell phone out of her briefcase and placing it on the dashboard as she inches down Artesia Boulevard toward the 110.
For the business immigration lawyer, the next hour is a test of patience and endurance - not to mention her 1994 transmission, which she's already had rebuilt once.
Welcome to Monday morning rush hour in Los Angeles - one of the most congested highway systems (sorry, freeway systems) in the world.
There is no official start to rush hour here now. It's seemingly omnipresent, like Regis & Kathie Lee.
"When you move to southern California, there are wonderful opportunities but there are also costs," says Cheryl Collier of Southern California Rideshare. "Commuting is one of those costs people adjust and adapt to." Or try to.
Americans across the country are spending more time driving to work. In their search for affordable homes and a backyard big enough for a sand box, they're settling in exurbs and former orange groves that offer a more leisurely lifestyle - but also are a moon-shot away from the job.
The result is a growing nation of commuters who are burning billions of gallons of extra fuel, polluting skies, cutting into corporate productivity, and perhaps most worrisome, spending more time with their Lexuses than at their kids' Little League games.
A 1998 Texas Transportation Institute study found that traffic delays in 70 major cities cost $74 billion in wasted time and gasoline. The California Air Resources Board estimates that congestion produces 250 percent more pollution than during free-flowing times. Nationwide, studies show the average commute now tops 35 minutes one way.
But nowhere is the travel to work more an ingrained part of the culture than in Los Angeles, where residents don't just drive from surrounding suburbs into the downtown area. They travel in a cobweb from suburb to suburb, exurb to exurb, through glens, over mountain passes, and past mini-malls in an endless landscape of stucco and palm.
"I like my job," says Dockstader, shifting in her seat as she eyes a tailgater in her rearview mirror. "But the commute is the thorn in my side."
Nearly half of commuters in southern California clock 30 minutes or more in the car one way. Thirteen percent spend an hour or more driving to the office. The area also probably has more "supercommuters" - people who drive 150 miles a day to and from work - than any other city.
Dockstader, a native southern Californian, has been making her 300-mile-a-week drive for only five months. But it feels more like five years. She knows every mile of her route - the fastest lanes, the speed traps, even which bridge drips water when it rains.
"You get so you can sense when people are coming over," she says, waving a driver over.
She's tested the traffic in 15-minute increments, leaving as early as 7 a.m. and as late 8 a.m. It doesn't make a difference.
On this particular Monday morning, all is going as planned.