ON his drive to work here recently, Dick Tyler came to a dead stop, blocked by gridlocked traffic. Halted for 10 minutes, Mr. Tyler became so disgusted he turned his engine off, got out of his car and ... walked back into his house. Tyler had never exited his own driveway.
In a pattern increasingly mirrored in Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, and Miami, California's gridlock has moved off the freeways, big streets, and main drags and into suburbia.
``We're losing control of our streets,'' says Marvin Braude, a Los Angeles city councilman representing the San Fernando Valley since 1965. The valley constitutes one of nation's largest suburbs, with 1 million residents. Even the region's remotest recesses have become snarled knots of honking, fuming cars between 7 and 9 a.m.
``Southern California represents the peak of the phenomenon,'' says C. Kenneth Orski, president of Urban Mobility Corporation, a Washington, D.C., transportation consulting firm. ``It's a case study.''
``Commuter infiltration'' is the official name for congestion that backs up into residential areas. It affects mostly older neighborhoods where single-dwellings are increasingly being replaced with condominiums, and whose commercial districts have been displaced by high-rise office complexes. San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, and Orlando, Fla., round out the nation's worst-10 list.
But the 8.5 million daily commuters of Los Angeles lead the nation. With 300,000 to 350,000 new residents a year, there are half again as many cars crammed onto the area's freeways today as there were 10 years ago. The average 10-mile work-day commute now takes 30 to 40 minutes - 10 to 15 minutes longer than it took just two years ago. Engineers have been fighting the resulting infiltration with speed bumps, barricades, stop signs, and one-way streets.
``We don't feel our beautiful side streets are an appropriate place for commuters,'' says Maria Rychlicki, transportation manager for Beverly Hills. Her city has tried all of the above with some success. But such patchwork measures only shift the problem to another neighbor's doorstep.
There is the well-publicized case of Redondo Beach's Gene Brull, who persuaded the city to make his street one-way - sending shortcutters past neighbors' homes instead. Phone calls and stacks of hate mail ensued, exhorting Brull to leave the neighborhood or ``risk your health.''
The situation has been exacerbated in recent months with the publication of books detailing shortcuts from community to community that avoid main routes. ``I can regularly count 100 cars lined down a shortcut that two years ago was completely vacant,'' says Neele Mayer, a Sherman Oaks resident who uses six different routes to the school where she works. ``It's really a nightmare.''
Local council meetings have erupted into shouting matches and even fistfights over measures that might push one area's traffic problems onto someone else's streets.
The president of the Encino Property Owners Association was tackled in one such eruption, after placard-wielding youths crashed a hearing about extending one local street.
Some celebrity residents have tried to close off their streets altogether or make them private access only - but such measures have been found illegal.
All of the above underline the necessity of coordinated regional planning, and southern California has taken the lead in at least two major ways: The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) last year passed the nation's only regionwide traffic plan. It mandates all firms with over 100 employees - more than 8,000 companies - to provide car- and van-pooling options with the goal of reaching 1.5 passengers per car. If all reach that quota, congestion will be reduced by 25 percent regionwide, according to SCAQMD's Claudia Keith.
And the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) unveiled a national model two years ago called the ``smart street'' concept. Electronic sensors enable traffic controllers at separate locations to assess congestion and manipulate traffic lights to alleviate it. Now being used on a $50 million, 12.3-mile project that includes the Santa Monica freeway and adjacent streets, new sensors will eventually coordinate all of Los Angeles traffic. ``For the first time, all the various players - police, highway patrol, city and local officials - can look at and respond to the same information, minute by minute,'' says LACTC's Steve Lance.
Until ``smart street'' technology can unite more areas, and firms comply with the SCAQMD guidelines, officials say the answer to commuter infiltration is a collective questioning of auto use combined with demand management - staggered work hours, telecommuting, and fine-tuning of commuter routes.
``When 8 million people need to be somewhere in the same 30-minute period, somebody's got to say, `Hey, I'll work different hours,' '' says Sgt. John Amott of the Los Angeles Police Department. Other obvious measures that can help, he adds, are those the public habitually resists: on-ramp lights controlling access to freeways, lanes set aside for vehicles with several occupants, bus lanes, and the encouragement of other forms of mass transit.
Councilman Braude adds that reducing the number of dwellings per acre wherever possible and limiting commercial development have had little impact. ``There is nothing harder in this society than trying to limit the use of the automobile or take away someone's property rights,'' he says.
Dick Tyler says a little common courtesy wouldn't hurt: ``It got so I had to block cars with my body to wave my daughter out into traffic.''