The Real Lessons of Carmageddon – Angelenos Aren’t Idiots, We Have Too Many Highways

This banner appeared over the I-10 briefly on Saturday morning. L.A. without cars? It was kind of nice. Photo: Jonathan Weiss

There are two theories to transportation engineering and traffic.  One theory is that traffic is like a raging river.  If you block it in one place, it will flow someplace else.  If you add more space for it to flow, it will flow more smoothly.  This theory has dominated traffic and transportation plans for years.

This theory got kicked in the shins over the last weekend.

The other theory is that people make choices based on what they believe makes the most sense at the time.  Under that theory, if you spend a disproportionate amount of resources building and expanding highways, people will drive, even for short trips that could easily be completed on bike or foot.

If you believe the first theory, this weekend’s temporary closure of the I-405, “the most driven highway in the country,” should have been a disaster.  There should have been drivers everywhere stuck on surface streets and gridlock should have clogged up all the freeways as people used their high-tech Waze application to “Beat Carmageddon” by exercising their God-given right to drive wherever they want to.  If you believe the second, then everything should have been fine.

The sad thing is, most transportation planners, especially ones working in Greater Los Angeles, still seem to believe the first theory.  After all, while the city and surrounding area benefitted tremendously from the closure of the 405, the reason the project was closed was so that they could expand the freeway, creating another pipe to flush our car traffic through.

Sig alert.com at 3:47 P.M. on Saturday

Despite all the warnings, media induced panic, apocryphal visions and ABC 7’s constant messaging that we needed to “fight back” by downloading a phone application to help you drive somewhere else; Angelenos made the smart choices this weekend.  In fact, most people seemed to think this was a great weekend, even better and more relaxing than the usual two-day break.  Reporters interviewed more people extolling the virtues of the day and talk about how great the city was with less cars mucking up the system.

The flight path for the Jet Blue flight in #flightvbike flew 145 kms = 90 miles. Thanks, Diane in Toronto.

On Saturday morning, I took a bike ride to Culver City with my son and my Mom and we commented  how it was one of the more pleasant rides we had had on surface streets (without a police escort.)  One Fox L.A. anchor joked that after the re-opening of the 405 “we can all go back to being miserable.”

Of course, I was home in time to watch the now legendary flight v bike (v Metro v in-line skater) race that took place.  If you’re not one of the 20,000 people that visited L.A. Streetsblog this weekend, you can catchup on the story here, here and here.

People keep saying this picture, and one's like it, are "pretty." Yeah, except for the asphalt. Photo: Carter Rubin

While the warnings of the upcoming  Apocalypse were everywhere, the Wolfpack Hustle, Gary Kavanagh, Ezra Horne, Joe Anthony and Jet Blue Airlines gave Angelenos something fun to do on Saturday.  Never have so many watched a “race” on twitter and a webpage with a GPS map.  Thousands were entertained, a city’s spirits were raised, and cycling in Los Angeles was portrayed in a positive light. Did the Carmageddon sub-plot of this race have anything to do with Angelenos leaving their cars at home for the weekend?  We’ll never know; but more than anyone else this unlikely team were the heroes of the weekend.

The silver medal for the weekend has to go to the p.r. team at Metro for doing a masterful job of getting the word out about the closure.  They used every media trick in the book, both old and new, and there was pretty much nobody in the area that didn’t know what was happening.  Whether you thought the coverage was overblown or not, this p.r. team did a great job this weekend and the months leading up to Carmageddon.

The big losers have to be the local media.  From ABC 7’s bizarre campaign encouraging people to download a phone application to “beat” a highway closure and drive wherever they wanted, to their celebratory “We Beat Carmageddon!” coverage on Sunday; it was hard to tell if I was watching local news or the Colbert Report.  Check that, Colbert’s coverage was actually restrained comparatively.

It was particularly painful to watch the evening news on Saturday when every station had a team of reporters spread out throughout the city to tell the same story: that nothing was happening.  Some stations, including one that was specifically warned not to buy into the hype, didn’t have a “Plan B” and didn’t report on any news besides Carmageddon…and there was nothing happening.  The news about the early re-opening of the 405 didn’t come until much later.

While many of the people that appeared on the news were asking when we can do this again, the answer is easy.  People can have a Carmageddon every day that they don’t get in a car.  Ride a bike, clean the yard, walk to the park, everyday provides a new chance to forget the car and do something else.  When enough people do that, the crippling congestion which has grabbed the hearts and psyches of too many people vanishes.

So when’s the next Carmageddon?  There’s no time like the present.  And you don’t need politicians or the media to tell you it’s time, just the desire to be car-light and the beautiful Southern California weather.

  • Anonymous

    Great re-cap Damien. Even I thought you were overestimating the “nothing is going to happen” outcome in the run-up to this past weekend, so I’m gladly dining on crow this Monday morning.

    :)

  • You alluded to this, but I think it confirms the assertion (from Australian urbanists Newman and Kenworthy in their Sustainable Cities book in 1999) that traffic doesn’t behave the way it’s modeled by traffic engineers. Engineering models assert that car traffic behaves like a liquid that seeking the path of least resistance. The newer model shows that car traffic behaves more like a gas – expanding to fill the available space. 

  • Adonia Lugo

    I got the impression that for many people the whole thing just made them
    feel warm and fuzzy about how everyone in LA suffers together in
    traffic frustration, rather than making them question driving as a
    primary mode of transport. Like it was a bonding experience rather than a time for reflection, and it showed that things aren’t really so bad for drivers in LA. Then again, I wasn’t there.

  • Juan Matute

    old models: chemical engineering (dumb materials through pipes via path of least resistance)
    new models: econometrics (complex, rational actors responding to an array of internal and external stimuli,including cost, policy, infrastructure, and travel times)

    New models are so much harder to create because we don’t have the data to describe the array of stimuli, nor the evidence to support how changes in the array of stimuli lead to changes in travel behavior (on the individual or aggregate level).

    Solutions are the same under both model frameworks: price the externalities (congestion, environmental, land use distortion, public health).  However, the existence of the new modeling framework allows nay-sayers to raise the question: shouldn’t we model the effects of these proposed solutions before we implement them?  (This is like “waiting for scientific consensus” in reacting to climate change – data and studies don’t change reality).

  • I posted a rant about freeway expansion in another Streetsblog thread ( The National View: Why Carmageddon (and the Wolfpack Victory) Matters ) that could just as well apply here. Essentially, I don’t think the primary purpose of massive automobile infrastructure projects is to solve traffic problems at all, rather, they function as bolsters for all of the industries that depend on the private automobile economy.Government employees and contractors can model traffic systems all they want—it amounts to busy work. Billions in taxpayer dollars are going to get dumped into automobile projects no matter what the results are (for the time being, at least).

  • Guest

    Or maybe a ton of people made plans to 1) be out of town or 2) not leave home because they were told for over a month that if they left home they’d never see the end of traffic.

    Then there are the reports of people who…just stayed home that weekend.  Of course, week after week, that isn’t a sustainable or rational option…but for a day and a half, yes, a lot of people just stayed home.

    This has nothing to do with flawed traffic models and has everything to do with PSAs scaring people into staying home.

  • John Wirtz

    It would be interesting to know if the car-free bliss could remain for an extended shut-down and how long before alternate routes appear more congested.  People can stay home for a weekend, but eventually they have to leave their homes, right?

  • Bob Davis

    It’s a lot easier to tolerate something if it has a set beginning and end.  When one travels by commercial airline, it’s usually not an enjoyable experience, but you know that eventually the plane will land and everone on board can “decompress”.  It’s when a bad situation continues indefinitely that people get depressed and irritable.

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