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Much Ado About Nothing: LA's Ass-Backwards Take on "Carmageddon"

by Richard Risemberg

July, 2011--Had you been in Los Angeles for the several weeks leading up to the weekend of July 16th and 17th, you would have noticed a tedious stream of news paper, radio, and television reports indicating that life as we know it in LA would come to a dead stop that weekend, for a few miles of the 405 freeway would be closed while a bridge across it was demolished.


Lightly-used carpool lanes on the 405, around 9:30 on a Friday morning (read more)
The bridge was being demolished as part of an expansion of the freeway--the addition of two carpool lanes--which will inevtiably prove useless in relieving the turgid traffic crawl for which this freeway is known.

It was imagined that surrounding streets would become repositories of immobile metal, with the occupants of the Westside's Lexuses and Mercedeses slowly dessicating as the relentless summer sunglare heated their luxurious prisons.

The mayor activated the Emergency Operations Center and ensconced himself in a helicoptoer over the city; headlines ordered citiznes to remain calm and stay in their homes, bleached-blonde newsreaders spoiled their Botox treatments as they grimaced in scripted anticipation of the disaster that awaited the city's car-dependent residents. Metro made the buses and trains free for the weekend (though, showing more sense than most, only in areas within a few miles of the closure).

Zev Yaroslavsky, a longtime county supervisor, took credit for coining the word "Carmageddon" to describe it--though I myself have used that term in print since 2007, and there was a video game of that name out decades ago. And "Carmageddon" became the predominant subject of what passes for news reporting in LA, as well as the cynosure of table chat and arguments in bars and lounges.

The city collectively gritted its teeth, clenched its fists, held its breath, unearthed every cliche expressive of anxiety, and waited for doom.

And nothing happened.

Apparently, most of LA's weekend driving is discretionary, ie recreational. Traffic was lighter than usual, even around the few miles of the closure itself. Instead of burning untold gallons of gasoline driving for burgers thirty miles away, people drove to burgers two or three miles away, or evevn walked or pedaled to a neighborhood counter. Traffic everywhere was light, the streets nowhere frantic, yet commerce did not collapse. It wasn't business as usual. It was better!

Not to say that nothing happened as a result of "Carmageddon." Some interesting and comical things did occur.

A skateboarder and two bicyclists had the temerity to play a bit on the deserted freeway lanes, and were arrested. A trio held a dinner party in another section of the freeway, and were not noticed by the minions of the law. A fellow enacted the currently popular stunt of "planking" in a freeway lane, lying rigid as a board for a few minutes while his mother snapped a photo.

And--most tellingly--an airline's publicity stunt backfired on not only the airline itself, but on car culture as a whole, and on a kind soul who tied a contribution to a local nonprofit on a street-culture counterstunt. This is how it played out:

In an effort to take lemons and make free publicity for itself, locally-based airline Jet Blue scheduled fligths from Burbank airport to Long Beach, approximating the route of the most heavily-used portion of the 405. They called it Flight 405 and touted it as a way to bypass the (actually non-existent) congestion everyone expected.


Part of the Los Angeles River bike path
Upon hearing about this, local bicycle group Wolfpack Hustle issued a challenge: they would field a bike team to race a couple of Jet Blue customers door-to-door from ahouse in Burbank to a lighthouse in Long Beach. they would leave the Burbank house at the same time as the airline passengers would have to leave to arrive at the airport in time for security and check-in according to Jet Blue's own guidelines. The air passengers would drive private cars or take a taxi to the airport, and take a taxi again from the destination airport to the lighthouse. The biek crew would give them an extra fifteen minutes for fairness' sake. The actual flight time was estimated to be a little over fourteen minutes.

Now, upon hearing of the challenge, Anthony Converse of Santa Monica Airlines, which is a skateboard shop, pledged to donate $100 to the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition for every minute by which the bike team beat the fliers, figuring it would be pretty close.

The bike team's route would take them through downtown and onto the Los Angeles River bike path--which at rush hour is probably the fastest-moving roadway in LA.

The cyclists arrived at the destination in one hour and thirty four minutes.

Most surpising, perhaps, a fellow who walked to the North Hollywood Metro station, took the Red and Blue line trains to Long Beach, and then walked to the lighthouse, arrived in just under two hours. (His story here.) Yes, by foot and by Metro train, he still beat the car/plane crew!

The airline passengers' taxi arrived at the lighthouse after two hours and fifty-four minutes total elapsed time. A lost taxi driver cost them an extra five minutes.

The skateboard shop owner is making a $7,000 donation to the LACBC. Perhaps fittingly, he is selling his car to finance it.

There's a summary of it all on Slate.

The freeway opened a few hours early, and congestion returned to LA's streets. As several people have pointed out, "Carmageddon" is the typical condition of the streets in our city. In fact, it's becoming obvious that freeways actually cause congestion--a phenomenon known in traffic engineering circles as "induced demand." As Lewis Mumford pointed out in the 1970s, "Curing congestion by building more lanes is like curing obesity by buying bigger pants."

All over the world, cities including Seoul, San Francisco, and Portland have discovered that congestion actually eases when you remove freeways and traffic lanes, yet business gets better as people move to other modes of transport--modes that are friendlier to street life and , thus, to shopping. And modes that cost far less per passenger than building and maintaining car lanes does.

What the freeway closure did for LA was give us a little vacation from our self-imposed everyday Carmageddon.

Richard Risemberg