LA traffic is back. Why didn’t people change their habits?

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Traffic on the I-405 Freeway. Photo by Bart Everett/Shutterstock.

Remember a year ago, when Los Angeles freeways and streets were nearly empty? Now it feels like a distant memory. According to Seleta Reynolds, general manager at the LA Department of Transportation (LA DOT), traffic levels in the region have returned to about 90% of what they were pre-pandemic. 

There are a few explanations, says Reynolds. First off, a lot of Angelenos never stopped going to work. Secondly, those working from home have found other excuses to get in their cars. 

“They can run an errand in the middle of the day, they can take their kids to the park, they have more flexibility in their schedule. And it actually ends up that people are moving around more.”

Thirdly, an uptick in delivered goods led to more cars on the road.

“As people lost their jobs in the service industry or tourism, they began driving for tech platforms like Postmates, Caviar, Amazon, etc., so there was actually more travel happening because of the rise of the dependence on those apps,” says Reynolds.

During the pandemic, Reynolds says her department was able to create new protected bike and bus lanes. She hopes that will help people consider alternatives to driving as they return to their old routines.

That’s a step in the right direction, according to Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at UCLA. But he thinks LA needs to go much further when it comes to prioritizing alternatives to the car.

“As someone who studies this, but also as a cyclist and a pedestrian, Los Angeles has a very long way to go,” he says. “We are not a bold moving city in this regard at all.” He points to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia as examples of cities that are taking back space from cars and making more room for bikes, pedestrians, and buses.

According to Manville, the biggest barrier to change is not government agencies like LA DOT, but local residents and politicians.

“Some of the loudest participants in these processes are drivers … [and] there's a lot of resistance on the part of different members of the City Council,” he says.

Manville hopes politicians will begin looking at the overwhelming majority of residents who are indifferent to traffic solution projects, rather than fixate on the loudest voices on both sides.

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