OLYMPIC BLVD — Traffic congestion and rising rents are often cited as reasons why companies in Santa Monica decide to close up shop and move out of the city by the sea.

That was the case for Jo Steele of the post-production house STEELE Studios, which has worked with international celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Beyoncé, as well as major corporations like Coca-Cola, Burger King and Nissan.

Steele and her husband Jerry founded the company in 1996 in Santa Monica, where they remained for a decade until their landlord wanted to quadruple their rent, she said. The couple decided to invest in a building in Culver City, which was blossoming into an entertainment hub.

But the Malibu residents soon realized that the commute was too brutal, sometimes taking as long as two hours to get home.

“The traffic just intensified,” Jo Steele said. “The major streets were backed up, so we started taking the back roads. Then those became congested, too, making it almost impossible to get home.”

Now STEELE is back in Santa Monica, having recently opened a studio at 1131 Olympic Blvd. Ironically, traffic brought her back.

“A lot of our clients love Santa Monica and love the fact that we are closer,” she said. “It’s just a good place to be.”

More cities are viewing bad traffic as much more than just a nuisance for harried commuters. It’s bad public relations in the never-ending competition against other cities to attract commerce.

City officials in Santa Monica are studying various ways to reduce car trips while still promoting growth through the development of housing and commercial spaces for the many technology-intense businesses popping up, helping Santa Monica earn the title “Silicon Beach.”

City Hall is promoting alternative forms of transportation and has plans to focus development along transit corridors so that it is more convenient for residents to leave their cars at home and take public transportation, such as the Exposition Light Rail line, which is currently under construction along Olympic Boulevard and Colorado Avenue. It is expected to be up and running in 2016.

Other ideas include charging non-residents to park in preferential parking areas, most of which are concentrated in residential areas. There’s even a controversial concept of reducing the amount of parking required for certain developments, which would essentially force people to get out of their cars out of frustration.

By promoting more affordable housing, city officials are also hoping those working in lower-wage jobs will be able to live closer to work and therefore be able to bike, bus or walk instead of driving.

The Steeles’ decision to move back to Santa Monica is an example of how commutes are impacting employers’ decisions on where to locate — and for good reason. An annual study of national driving patterns revealed that Americans spent 5.5 billion additional hours in traffic in 2011. That cost Americans $121 billion in lost productivity, wasted gasoline and increased vehicle maintenance costs.

“The statistics do not include meetings you might miss, or having to replace the dashboard or padded steering wheel because of frustration we take out on our cars,” Bill Eisele, a senior research engineer with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, told the L.A. Times in February. The institute released its mobility report, which showed that automobile commuters in urban areas are delayed an average of about 38 hours a year in the U.S. trying to get to work and other destinations because of congestion.

The delays in congested areas of Los Angeles and Orange counties were — no surprise — far worse than the national average. Those  commuters spent an average of 61 hours per year in traffic congestion, according to the report.

That has led some employers to allow workers to telecommute or have flexible schedules in which employees leave or arrive at work later or earlier to avoid rush-hour traffic. Some city employees get every other Friday off as part of City Hall’s trip reduction program. In exchange for the day off, the employees work longer hours.

For Steele, the move to Santa Monica couldn’t have come at a better time. Her company has contributed to four recent high-profile projects, including the Skechers “Relaxed Fit” 2013 campaign, which features TV spots with football legends Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott. STEELE Studios also recently provided visual effects, beauty work and additional color grading on Mariah Carey’s music video for “Almost Home,” the title song to Disney’s film “Oz: The Great and Powerful.”

When work piles up, sitting in traffic is the last thing Steele wants to do.

 

kevinh@smdp.com

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