Timothy Egan on American politics and life, as seen from the West.
So, they shut down a 10-mile stretch of one of the world’s busiest freeways for repair last weekend, in the nation’s most driver-stressed metropolis, and gave it a scary name — Carmageddon. Predictions were that Los Angeles would look like Mike Huckabee’s arteries before he lost a hundred pounds, and that chaos and road rage would reign under the tired sunlight of the Southland.
Lo, the weekend came and went, and a miracle was proclaimed — “a historic moment” in traffic history, as Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called it. The 405 freeway opened 17 hours ahead of schedule. Pollution and smog levels dropped. A trio of pedestrians even dined on linen in the middle of the empty road. Ya-a-a-ay for L.A.!
Monica Almeida/The New York Times
“They loved it,” said Yaroslavsky in an interview. “It was Carmaheaven. My e-mails and Facebook comments have been not just 95 percent positive, but effusive. People who live near the freeway heard birds chirping for the first time. They heard the sound of kids playing.”
As a nonevent, Carmageddon ranks with Y2K, the much feared global computer collapse at the millennium’s dawn. But as an urban epiphany, the weekend when Los Angeles became a small town was no small thing. It disproved some of the most worn-out clichés about the city, while offering students of urban behavior some tantalizing glimpses of a better future.
To cyclists, the peace and harmony of the weekend was proof that people can get around on two wheels instead of four. And yes, Los Angeles was a green dream for the 36 hours of the actual shutdown, but not necessarily because pedal power replaced internal combustion.
Normal traffic for a weekend on the 11-lane stretch of the 405 is about 500,000 vehicles. Everyone feared those half-million cars would spill onto side streets, hopelessly tying up the city. In fact, traffic was down more than 60 percent in the surrounding area. And the rest of the city went an entire weekend without a major traffic jam.
This is terrific news. But it doesn’t mean all those drivers took to scooters or bikes. It just means their cars stayed in park — by intent, rather than the usual rage-inducing standstill. On a typical weekday, bikers make up just 1 percent of commuters in Los Angeles. One percent. If that figure doubles with all the new initiatives in the city to expand lanes, it would be a worthy achievement – but sort of non-consequential in the big picture.
Los Angeles, or any major American city, will never be Amsterdam. Too many goods and services cannot move by bike. Nor will the majority of commuters hop on a skinny seat, not so long as the automobile remains dressing room, breakfast table and phone conference center for millions of harried workers. Even in the nation’s top major city for bikes, Portland, Oregon, cyclists are barely 6 percent of the commuting traffic.
But cyclists did have a fine open house last weekend, with many Angelenos feeling giddy about the extra breathing room for bikes. And they won a moral victory in that race between JetBlue’s gimmicky flight from Burbank to Long Beach and a group of bike riders. Total time for the short hop by plane, counting airport hassles, security and taxiing, was two hours and 45 minutes (the flight itself took 12 minutes). The cyclists beat them by more than an hour.
Reed Saxon/Associated Press
Mass transit ridership increased last weekend, but only 10 to 15 percent — hardly a watershed event. Even though Los Angeles has done a herculean job of increasing its rail and subway system, only 1 percent of 29 million daily trips originating in Los Angeles County are on rail.
Overwhelmingly, still, Los Angeles is the city of the lone person driving in a car — about 72 percent of all commuters. That will not change. People know they’re going to be stuck in traffic at any time (the “rush hour,” a period of peak congestion, is now eight hours). They also know idling costs them a lot of money (about $855 a year per driver), and time (about 50 hours). For these reasons, Los Angeles ranks number one in the commuter stress index put out by the Texas Transportation Institute. That is, they are the most miserable, and have been for some time.
No, the big lessons of Carmageddon are not about transportation. They are about something else, something less easily quantified. They are about the small salves in life that make a day easier, or even memorable. When millions of Angelenos decided to hold a block party, or go to the park, or ride a bike, or play soccer, or spend half a day at the farmers market, or take advantage of free admission at some museums, they found a city far removed from that awful commuter stress index.
“Overwhelmingly, people told me they had a positive experience,” said Yaroslavsky. “They said things like, ‘How do we keep this going?’ And ‘Let’s do it again.’” Yaroslavsky, one of the favorites if he runs for mayor in 2013, wasn’t the only politician to hear such a thing. Yes, businesses at the beaches suffered, because people feared making the trip. But for many, maybe even the majority, the holiday from routine proved to be a delight.
In the same way that people used to say that crime would never come down in a city of “Blade Runner” chaos (the murder rate is now the lowest in four decades), the horror predictions for life without a major car lane proved absurd. With Carmageddon, Los Angeles finally had the moment Rodney King asked for — everyone got along. And all it took was closing a freeway.