July 8, 2004
How Traffic Has Rerouted Jewish Life
On a particular stretch of Wilshire Boulevard near Westwood at 6 p.m., right-lane traffic is hopelessly stalled. A stream of cars crowds the intersection, trying to squeeze into the nearby parking lot of a well-known synagogue.
It's a familiar sight: With most people heading home from work, L.A.'s Jewish community is swimming against the current, driving to services in some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city.
"If you come here at 3:30 p.m. and on, it is total gridlock," said Carol Sales of Temple Akiba in Culver City, just a few miles south. "But there are back ways of bypassing Sepulveda that [everybody] knows," Sales said of the major traffic artery in her area. Sales quickly explained that Temple Akiba holds services at 8 p.m., giving plenty of time for rush hour to clear up.
An imaginary L-shaped line connecting the western San Fernando Valley to the Westside, Culver City and Carthay Circle would represent arguably the most traffic-heavy area in the United States. The American Highway Users Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, ranked the most congested freeway interchanges in the United States in their study "Unclogging America's Arteries, 1999-2004." The 10 and 405 interchange in West Los Angeles is the fifth most congested in the nation and receives 296,000 vehicles per day; it causes approximately 22.7 million hours of delays for drivers annually. The 405 and 101 interchange in Sherman Oaks is the worst in the nation, which sees 318,000 vehicles per day and causes over 27.1 million hours of annual delay. The Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University recently counted $1,155 per Los Angeles resident in annually wasted time and resources due to traffic, the worst by far of any city in the country.
A huge portion of Los Angeles' Jewish community is centered along these most congested parts of the city, especially along Pico Boulevard north of the 10, on the Westside near the 405, and near the 101 in the Valley.
Is traffic a Jewish issue, then? You bet. How to handle it, how to schedule around it, how to build and create community despite it -- and what we can do to make it better -- is of ever-increasing concern.
"Two things: There has been a diffusion of the L.A Jewish population [over the past 20 years], particularly into the West Valley, and there are more cars on the road," said professor emeritus Arnold Band of UCLA, a longtime observer of Jewish life in the city. "[That] means it's harder to get to places and it's harder for people to get to each other."
"My No. 1 consideration is when to have the class, when to have the activity," said Rabbi Sally Olins of Temple B'nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, a Conservative congregation. "At least in our temple, the most difficult [time] is during the week in the evening."
Some L.A. synagogues have found creative solutions to increase participation despite rush-hour traffic. In some cases, services and activities are best timed for commuters to come directly from work. "My people explain to me that once they get home, it's so hard to get up and go out again [in the] hassle of traffic. [That's] something they really don't want to do," Olins said.
Rabbi Robert Gan of Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, a Reform congregation, had similar sentiments. Years ago, the temple used the opposite approach from Temple Akiba by switching its services from 8 p.m. to 6 p.m. to try drawing congregants directly from work. "The concern was, would people who were commuting from work have time to come? What we found was it was the greatest thing that ever happened to us," Gan said.
"Sometimes husbands and wives come [here] right from work and meet the rest of family. After services people would stay and have dinner," he said.
And it isn't only religious life that's forced to tiptoe around traffic patterns. "It's sort of an omnipresent concern. Two to five miles can make a difference in turnout," said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA).
"We're going to sacrifice part of our demographic making those choices. There's a lot of intersections in how traffic and transportation affect the number of people and what kind of people will go to an event," Sokatch said.
If the PJA wants to attract a crowd of established donors, it will have to find a way to host the event locally in Brentwood or Santa Monica, Sokatch explained. For a younger, activist crowd, the event should be more central to Silverlake. In other words: people stay local.
"You learn to ride the L.A. traffic and transportation patterns to your advantage," Sokatch said.
But organizations' efforts to ride that wave may fall increasingly short in the years to come. Congestion is on the rise. In fact, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is expecting a population increase of approximately 3 million people in Los Angeles over the next 20-25 years.
If Los Angeles' infrastructure is left unchanged, the American Highway Users Alliance estimates that by 2025, the 405/101 interchange will cause per-vehicle delays of 48 minutes and the 405/10 junction alone will lengthen trips by 35 minutes, both during those evening hours when many synagogues hold services and activities. And it isn't simply third-party groups who are pointing to the problem -- Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn has had a Traffic Safety and Congestion Relief plan in action since 2001, focusing on the 25 worst street intersections of each year for upgrades.
The most direct solutions, of course, involve building longer-running carpool lanes and wider freeways. But there are alternatives to simply building more miles of road.
"What's happening in our system is that surface transportation is really slowing down," said Carol Inge, deputy director for planning at the MTA. "I think that rail is a good way, especially in the densest areas, to separate [a] trip off of the congested streets."
Admittedly, rail transit has had a mixed history in Los Angeles. Rail is expensive to build, can easily run over budget and often struggles against low ridership once built. In Los Angeles County, commuters intent on rail travel must also contend with a complete lack of service to the Westside and Santa Monica and, oftentimes, a bus trip (or a long walk) is required just to connect to the nearest rail line in many other parts of the city as well.
The MTA strike in late 2003 didn't help matters. "[The strike] shut down the system and probably scared a lot of people away. After the strike we were down about 9 percent in ridership, and we may not be able to recoup those riders," said Rick Jager, senior communications representative at the MTA.
Speaking about the most recently completed MTA Gold Line rail route, "We had [the] strike, and a lot of the riders probably got upset and said, 'Well, I'm back in my car.' We've got to change that mentality," Jager said.
Changing that automobile mentality is also important to minimize another chore that comes with a car-centered city: parking. Keren Aminia, a member of the Conservative congregation Adat Shalom in West L.A., is heading a task force in her synagogue to solve the parking and access issues at the preschool.
"[The child] goes to school from 9 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. For these three and a half hours of school I sometime spend an hour just parking and getting in and out of the synagogue," Aminia said. For its part, Adat Shalom is working on solutions.
"I think what you have to do first is ask, 'Does the temple or synagogue have parking?' That is a very big issue for this temple," said Sales of Temple Akiba. "When it was built it didn't include parking, so we rent spaces next door, and that becomes costly." Temple Akiba pays thousands of dollars per year for its13 parking spaces.
Some temples try to circumvent the problem by only offering spaces to members. Others depend on street parking and meters, forcing congregants to compete with other cars in the neighborhood for a spot.
To address these automobile issues, new mass-transit infrastructure is already under construction in various parts of the city. The MTA is beginning work on an $880 million project, with a projected completion in 2009, that will expand the metro Gold Line past downtown and into East Los Angeles, though that remains far from most Jewish populations. Further to the west, an incipient rail project called the Mid-City Exposition Light Rail will run parallel to the congested 10 from downtown to Culver City, slated for completion in 2012. That rail line may eventually be extended to Santa Monica.
But rail is still nowhere to be found on the Westside, and there are no plans to bring it there. The Red Line metro was never extended west beyond Western Avenue. in order to avoid explosive pockets of underground methane. "For someone on the Westside, it does seem like public transportation is relegated to people who don't have the economic means to be able to afford a car," PJA's Sokatch said.
Instead, the MTA is designing a new east/west bus system north of the 10 near the thriving Jewish communities along Pico and Wilshire boulevards. This program, called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), will ferry passengers from Koreatown all the way to the Santa Monica pier, featuring perks like electronic ticket machines at each stop, clocks announcing the time until the next bus, renovated stations, larger vehicles and rush-hour bus-only lanes. The Wilshire BRT will cost $217 million and see completion in November 2005.
Another BRT system called the Orange Line will run from the opposite end of the Metro Red Line in North Hollywood through the Jewish communities in Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks to Warner Center in the West San Fernando Valley. The Orange Line will feature an exclusive bus lane and cost $329 million to build. An Orthodox Jewish community along the Orange Line's route strongly objected to its construction along Chandler Boulevard in North Hollywood, even filing a lawsuit against the MTA.
Rabbi Dov Fischer called it "grotesquely invasive" in a 2001 Jewish Journal article, worrying that it would disrupt the community's ability to walk to services and attract graffiti. Nevertheless, completion of the Orange Line is projected for August 2005.
Lawsuits aside, bus systems also have major functional limitations. "Logistically I cannot take a baby in a baby stroller and a toddler on the bus. It's just ... not a convenient means of transportation," said Aminia of Adat Shalom. "I actually have to walk for about 15 minutes to get to the bus stop. We took the bus to school with my toddler maybe 10 times, just for the experience and because I didn't have a lot to do that day."
The question that remains is whether Jewish families in Los Angeles would actually take advantage of -- or even desire -- any new public transportation alternatives to increase their community involvement, especially if they have small children or are attending after-hours events. "Driving is a pain, it really is. But I don't know anybody who would take a bus at night," Olins said.
Professor Band summed up that sentiment: "By the time you get [efficient public transportation] in, if you ever do, we're talking about 2040 or 2050, it goes so slow here and there's so much resistance, people will still use their cars."
"There are a few rabbis who attract people from other areas [of Los Angeles], but there aren't that many," Band said.
Having become accustomed to the automobile culture, Jewish life in Los Angeles may have already acquired its characteristics. "Generally speaking, what you have, I think, are pockets of communities that are within the larger geographic area [of Los Angeles]. People have created communities within communities," Gan said. "I think, generally in Los Angeles, people tend to go to most synagogues and temples that are near them."
Mark Musselman, parent of a child attending Temple Akiba's nursery school, echoed that statement exactly: "Me and a bunch of parents partly chose [this nursery school] because it's so close."
According to Olins, this tendency becomes especially clear when members of her congregation move to another part of the city. Congregants "might love the rabbi and the cantor and us, but when push comes to shove and [they move] five or 10 blocks from [a different] temple, why are they going to drive 20 minutes to us?" Staying close to home for convenience's sake is not necessarily a bad thing, said Olins, so long as the family is still involved in Jewish activity.
At least for his constituents, however, Sokatch of the PJA did hold out some hope for future alternatives to the car culture: "If they could get on a train and not worry about driving and parking, I think a lot of my folks would be adaptable. We have a bunch of people [in PJA] for whom environmentalism and community building, which is clearly served through public transportation, is of particular importance."
Today, unfortunately, some Jewish families are already being left out. Even only focusing on the religious aspects of community, "we [in Los Angeles] have 60 percent of our Jews nonaffiliated," Olins said. "That scares me."
No doubt, the record-breaking traffic isn't making it any easier.