Traffic Jams Keep Consumers Away From LA Businesses

Staying close to home is ok, but not if congestion forces you to

An Uzbek restaurant in LA-who knew? I didn’t until I happed to drive past it one night and ever since then I’ve wanted to check it out. The restaurant (conveniently named Uzbekistan) sits only eight miles from my home, but a year passed before I dug into my first bowl of ogra. Why? Traffic congestion.

When I noticed the restaurant in one of the city’s anonymous strip malls, my wife and I were embarrassingly late for a dinner party. We had factored in a generous amount of travel time, but the Saturday evening Hollywood traffic was downright wicked. So although I was intrigued by the mystery of central Asian cuisine, I certainly didn’t want to venture into that traffic hell again.

When conversation would turn to dinner options I would think of Uzbekistan sometimes and suggest it occasionally, but only half-heartedly. For an entire year my cranky, hassle-averse self overcame my adventurous, boundary-expanding self. Whenever the spark of interest emerged, it was smothered by dreaded congestion. A clever mockumentary buoyed Uzbekistan’s profile by highlighting its rivalry with Kazakhstan, but even Borat-mania couldn’t propel me to Sunset and La Brea.

Then one evening my hunger coincided with the realization that it was the week after Christmas-the citywide lull when even congestion takes a break. The missus and I headed to the car, breezed all the way to Uzbekistan, and even scored a parking spot right in front.

Once inside we experienced what critics of LA miss when they fixate on the external drabness of the city—s strip malls. The architectural tedium gave way to gaudy murals and a concave ceiling complete with a partly-cloudy faux sky and a dangling disco ball. The synthesizer-heavy live music alternated between Uzbek tunes (or maybe they were Russian) and Sting cover songs. Most of the cocktails were vodka-based, some with simple ingredients (vodka, pickle), others a tad more elaborate like my “Asian mule” (vodka, beer and lemon juice). We enjoyed eggplant and beef salad, noodley kaurma lagman, ogra (dumpling soup), and some oh-so-juicy chicken kabobs.

No doubt congestion has thwarted the plans of other would-be diners and explorers across the city, and it’s probably not those bent on experiencing something specific who get thwarted most often. Rather, it’s the fence-sitters (like me) who get nudged to the “don’t go” side.

Traffic congestion restrains all sorts of businesses, but the quirky ones face special challenges. We all need milk and toothpaste, so a supermarket can rely on a customer base that extends just a short distance. But businesses that cater to niche markets are especially dependent on mobility.

At any one time only a fraction of Southlanders get a hankering for Uzbek cuisine, karaoke, dance lessons, model trains, hiking trails, or any of the off-beat offerings that make cities interesting. The more ground potential customers can traverse quickly, the more actual customers establishments will attract.

But urban planners urge us to stay close to home-no need to go across town if you have entertainment options nearby. It’s great to take a stroll to a neighborhood restaurant, but variety matters too. We shouldn’t expect frictionless travel to every imaginable destination, but more access is better than less.

Too bad we’re on course to get more traffic and less access. Over the next 25 years local transportation officials plan to spend $115 billion, yet despite all that money congestion is on track to get 25 percent worse.

Los Angeles could actually improve mobility by directing funds to where they would do the most good. Although automobile travel accounts for 98.7 percent of travel, officials are devoting over half, 58 percent, of transportation spending to mass transit.

There are many other state-of-the-art reforms, like one-way street conversions and “queue jumpers” that allow toll-paying motorists to hurdle over traffic stops that could help LA traffic flow more freely. If state legislators passed a sensible public-private partnership law allowing private financing of roads who knows what kind of innovations would emerge. Perhaps underground toll-tunnels, like those used in Sydney and other world cities, would help us gain access to more of our city.

When mobility degrades, a city offers less of itself to its denizens. In Commuting in America III, transportation guru Alan Pisarski suggests that policies that suppress freewheeling travel “are destroying part of what makes a big region a great region.”

Indeed, it is gridlock standing between Angelinos and so many of the city’s most intriguing nooks and businesses.

Ted Balaker is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation and co-author of the book The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think and What We Can Do About It (Rowman & Littlefield 2006). An archive of his work is here. Reason’s transportation research and commentary is here.