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If people really are leaving Los Angeles in droves, why is the traffic still so terrible?

Some things never change in Los Angeles no matter how many people leave. It’s worth looking behind the recent numbers to find out why.

According to the most recent census, California’s population has declined by 500,000 people in the past two years, with Los Angeles County accounting for just over half of that loss. (And that was before Gustavo Dudamel announced that he was abandoning us for New York.)

The state’s growth rate has been declining for years, but 2021 was the first year that the population declined by 0.91%, a trend that continued in 2022 (0.29%). The decline cost California a seat in Congress and placed us fourth in net population infiltration, behind only New York, Illinois and Louisiana.

To add insult to injury, Texas and Florida had net gains in residents during this period, and some of them were actually from California. I’d like to believe that recent transplants are hoping to turn some red states purple, but that doesn’t seem likely.

No, the reasons seem to be the obvious ones, including the scarcity of affordable housing, the high cost of living, fires, drought, crime, the absence of anything approaching a decent crab cake. But what I really want to know is: Why, with over 270,000 fewer people in Los Angeles County, does it still take me a damned two hours to travel from Santa Monica to La Crescenta on a weekday afternoon?

If this county is hemorrhaging people, why can’t I ever find street parking in Los Feliz or get into-N-Out without waiting in an absurdly long line? Where is the housing that all these people have vacated?

Not in Culver City, that’s for sure. As Times business columnist Wendy Lee recently described, entertainment and tech companies including Amazon and Apple have transformed what was once a business neighborhood so eerily suburban that “The Wonder Years” was filmed there, in a rush to the space of rising rents and high-end restaurants.

According to a report from Rent.com, California has three of the top five cities with the highest rental rates and six of the top 10, with Glendale coming in at 11.

Glendale! When the cost of housing in Glendale is bumping elbows with San Diego and Cambridge, Massachusetts, I think we can understand why some people would move to Utah.

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On the other hand, if high home prices are driving people out of California, why is it still impossible to shop at Zara in the Glendale Galleria without standing in line for at least 20 minutes? In Glendale, it seems, the higher prices actually draw people in, rather than send them scurrying to the mountain states.

States that, it must be said, aren’t too happy with the recent influx of Californians and their “Wait, where’s the Zara?” expectations; Utah’s governor recently told Californians to stop coming to her state as “refugees.”

“Refugees” is short for “not Robert Redford, Katherine Heigl or Post Malone”, who are welcome to stay.

But if people are exchanging California for neighboring states in large enough numbers for those states to complain about traffic, house prices, and overcrowding, why don’t we see any relief on this side of the state line?

Perhaps that’s because, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, self-exiles tend to be poorer and less educated than those who keep coming, albeit in smaller numbers.

The ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the rest of us is increasingly tangible in urban centers, of which California has several. Those with lower incomes and fewer employment opportunities will always be hit hardest by higher prices and higher densities.

It’s also not usually the people who inflate real estate prices or demand a fleet of trucks that clog the highways with meal kits, Amazon parcels, and Postmates deliveries.

(And in case you were wondering, non-Hispanic whites are fueling the exodus.)

In the bright side department, there have been reports that influencers are leaving Los Angeles, but I’ll believe it when I can walk more than a few feet without seeing one playing a TikTok in front of a palm tree.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been blamed, at least in part, for the rise in ex-Californians: remote working has allowed those seeking lower costs of living and less pathogen-dense environments to escape to climates that they are, if not more sunny, perhaps a little less windy and prone to fire.

As it creeps east on 10 or 134 on a late Wednesday afternoon, I’m not sure what impact remote work is actually having. I’ve experienced rush hour before and after the worst of COVID-19 and there doesn’t seem to be much difference. I suppose everyone can go to the doctor or the supermarket, but traffic still follows the commuter pattern.

These are, of course, the times when even I consider leaving the Golden State for somewhere with less traffic and/or a decent mass transit system. A city where walking is more of an option or a city where everything is cheaper and you can have a lawn and have a 10 minute shower.

I’m tired of worrying about the state of the snowpack and if the last of my three kids hit a 5.0 and take 17 AP classes and become the captain of the US Olympic basketball team so they can get into their third-choice UC school . I see reports of gas going below $4 a gallon in other states and bubbling; I look at the people doing much of the actual work in this city forced further and further away from their communities and wonder how long before the Westside has no minimum wage workers to serve up boba and burgers.

My son recently joined the large diaspora, moving to Kansas City, which he assures me is about to become the next San Francisco — or, OK, maybe the next Austin. It makes perfect sense, considering it’s been years since San Francisco was the city of its own mythology, and if Lawrence Wright is to be believed, Austin is now “characterized by stuffy traffic and inaccessible restaurants.” (Sound familiar?) So some city has to step in. Why not the one with feet in both Kansas and Missouri?

Except cities step nowhere; people do. Cities and states don’t change; people change them. California is still the same state it was in before our population went down a bit. The net loss of 500,000 residents in a state of 39.24 million, or even 250,000 from a county that, with a population of 9.83 million, is larger than most states, isn’t a big change. (Sorry, folks gone; no doubt your friends and family miss you.)

It could hurt our egos, and if the trend continues, it will no doubt start hurting other things, like the economy and our collective creative energy. Cities that only the rich can afford to live in end up looking like New York, and we can’t allow that.

Either way, it’s beyond time that we start staring at the almost standard list of why people would leave a city where the sun shines most days and you can still get from ski slopes to beach in hours.

We need more affordable housing, a livable minimum wage, and a mass transit system that works. (We need decent crab cakes too, but it’s probably easiest to start with those three.)

We also have to accept that if people really would rather live in Texas or Florida than California, well, there’s probably nothing we can do about it.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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