Another Way to Avoid “Carmaggedon,” Stop Widening Highways

While I was away, one story seemed to dominate the transportation news coverage, the 52 hour closure of a stretch of the I-405 from July 16 to early in the morning of July 18 that is part of the Sepulveda Pass Widening Project.  News casters broadcast breathless reports of impending doom, reporters seemed to produce oracle-like pieces and politicians held press conferences warning constituents to stay far-far away.  Even after hanging out with the web team for Metro last night at the LA Weekly Party, I’m not entirely sure whether or not Metro is teasing with the “Countdown to Closure” ticking clock on their website.

But does it explode at zero?

Sadly, all that hand-wringing did nothing to cause any questioning of whether the entire 405 project is one that makes sense.  The mammoth project is costing billions of dollars and is actually the largest infrastructure project to receive federal ARRA (aka stimulus) funds.  The main purpose of the project is to add a 10-mile HOV lane on the northbound I-405 between the I-10 and US-101 Freeways.  To do that, the project also needs to remove and replace the Skirball Center Dr, Sunset Bl and Mulholland Dr bridges, realign 27 on and off-ramps, widen 13 existing underpasses and structures and construct approximately 18 miles of retaining wall and sound walls.  All this construction has cost commuters hours of lost time to the created congestion.

Usually, when analyzing a capacity enhancement project, Streetsblog would examine whether or not the “induced demand” created by the project would render it moot.  In short, when a highway is widened, it actually creates greater demand to use the new roadway as explained in the graphic below.  If the congestion created by construction is greater than the savings created, than the project is a net negative before you even consider the costs in dollars, public health, and air pollution.

However, when it comes to carpool projects in the Southland, we’ve seen a different dynamic develop.  As Metro and the county “doubles down” and rapidly expands its carpool network, fewer people (both in percentage and actual riders) are carpooling.  If building carpool lanes is done to induce more people to carpool, than why are we seeing fewer people carpool.  Consider this graphic from Metro’s Long Range Plan.

In 1990, when the HOV system looked as it did on the left, 15.5% of commuters carpooled.  The blue lines on the right are the current HOV system, but barely 11% carpool today.  Image: Metro 2009 Long Range Transportation Plan
In 1980, when the HOV system looked as it did on the left, 15% of commuters in Los Angeles County carpooled. The blue lines on the right are the current HOV system, but barely 11% carpool today. 209,685 people in L.A. County commuted via carpool in 2000. Despite population growth and a jump in the number of HOV lanes available, that number dropped to 194,228 in 2009. Image: Metro 2009 Long Range Transportation Plan

In short, there’s no reason to believe that there’s going to be a long-term benefit to commuters from this project.  Even if Metro is correct and more people choose to carpool, history teaches us that every car removed from the mixed-use lanes will be filled with a new car almost immediately.  Yet, there’s almost no media scrutiny of the value of this project.

Bucking the trend was a piece by Hector Tobar in today’s Times that downplays the impact of the coming Carmageddon in Mid-July and notes that the rosy promises made on behalf of the 405 never materialized.

“When it’s finished, driving the Valley and West Los Angeles will be a breeze,” The Times wrote in 1961, as construction crews rushed to complete the freeway. “Eight lanes of virtually straight, minimum-grade roadway will allow motorist to skim over the hills….”

The promise of congestion-free, smooth flowing commutes, has been punctured so many times, it’s impossible to count.  Yet, pols and planners continue to pour resources into widening projects that don’t live up to their promise or costs.  With the coming “Carmageddon” dominating the news, there’s no time like the present to ask whether all this construction and spending is worth it.  Yet too few writers, and no politicians, are leading the discussion.

  • Eric B

    Minor quibble: it’s ARRA, not TARP.
    ARRA = American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. stimulus)
    TARP = Troubled Asset Relief Program (a.k.a. bailout)

  • Eric B

    What is most astounding to me in this whole thing is that Metro is so against advising drivers to *gasp* take a bus, that they aren’t even considering the 761 Rapid as a viable substitute for the freeway closure.  Instead, they’re offering free rides on the subway, which doesn’t (yet) go to West LA!

    Metro: Put on your TDM hat and ponder a bit.  Hmm, close Sepulveda Blvd to all but local traffic and buses.  Increase frequency of 761 to connect from Orange Line over the pass to Wilshire.  This will be the closest thing to simulating the future Sepulveda Pass transit project you’ll ever get.

    Damien: Please hound Metro about what they’re doing to 761 service that weekend.  The Source has not been responsive on the topic, being too focused on CARmaggedon.

  • Anonymous

    If a freeway lane can handle 2,000 vehicles per lane per hour, then it can handle 24,000 vehicles per lane per day. Is the 405 approaching that limit? If not, there’s no need to widen it yet.


  • Dennis Hindman

    People around the world allocate a certain amount of time for travel to and from work (I believe the average is 90 minutes.) If you make it faster to travel a longer distance then they will live further away from work where it is cheaper to live.

    If you ask someone in Los Angeles how far away they have to commute the answer is usually given in time. Fifteen minutes? Oh, well that’s not far at all!

  • I’d like to see a discussion of repurposing an existing mixed flow lane to HOV.  Such a project could be completed in 53 hours without a full freeway closure.

  • Right, but to efficiently use the roadway, you’d need “managed lanes”

  • Darrell

    A heavily congested freeway lane typically carries less than 1,500 vehicles per hour – yes, capacity decreases with congestion.

    My rule of thumb on the p.m. commute is if you’re not on the freeway out of Santa Monica by 2:30 you’re too late. In other words, the evening commute “hour” is nearly five hours long. And the southbound I-405 stops before the 101 by 7:00 a.m. So much for thinking flexible work schedules will solve congestion.

  • Darrell

    I remember as a kid in the 1960s wondering why the San Diego Freeway (we didn’t call it the 405 then) moved so freely, compared with how congested the Hollywood Freeway was. That was then, before so much development occurred on the Westside.

    I’m amazed at the commutes that people will suffer to West L.A. and Santa Monica now, but that’s the reality of so many jobs without either housing or transit alternatives to driving.

  • Joe B
  • Tony W

    I posed the same question to The Source days earlier too asking Metro to grant Metro Rapid 761 and the Van Nuys FlyAway buses access through the Sepulveda Pass as a contingency measure; because when it comes down to closing the pass to general through traffic vs local traffic and buses, the latter is less impacting.

  • Dennis Hindman

    Amazing how the residents of Brentwood and Condo Canyon areas are not putting up and stink about the disruption in their lives from this project. They are complaining loudly about bus only lanes during peak hours on Wilshire Blvd.

    If there can be Metro bus lines that take advantage of the car pool lane on the 405, then this may make it worthwhile for encouraging mass transit use. It would also help to make bus only lanes on Wilshire Blvd a success.

  • Widening highways as a means to solve congestion is like curing a cocaine addiction by giving the addict a wider straw.

  • Joe

    I get weary of people obsessing about Condo Canyon folks.  I have no problem with bus only lanes on Wilshire, but no one ever mentions that the 1 mile stretch in Westwood (Comstock to Selby) is the fastest moving segment in all of Wilshire per DOT. It is not a commercial corridor, just residential, churches and an assisted living facility.  Making any changes to that stretch is a big waste of $$ for something that doesn’t need fixing. BTW, Councilman Alarcon was texting during the entire testimony at the Transportation Committee.  Then he gave an impassioned speech pandering to the BRU which got them to change their support for the 7.7 mile option which could have gotten the bus
    lane project to sail through Council so construction could begin.  

  • For me the issue with the CC folks is that if that segment is not in the final design, you’ll never get Bev. Hills on board.

  • For the same billion plus dollars it is coating to widen the 405 through Sepulveda Pass a Metro Subway Line could have been built from LAX to Burbank Airport serving Westchester, Culver City, Westwood with a connection to the Subway to the Sea, Studio City, Van Nuys and the Eastern San Fernando Valley.  There would still be enough funding to pave the shoulder and restripe the freeway  to be able to add the HOV lanes. This was a terrible misappropriation of transit funding. Within weeks of the reopening of the new widened freeway with the HOV lanes congestion will be back to what it was before this huge project.

  • Devan

    The idea of induced demand is kinda hard to grasp for most people.

    I think an easier way to explain it is The Bottleneck Effect. Widening ten miles of a 100 mile freeway does nothing to ease traffic congestion because the 90 miles that has not been widened becomes the bottleneck. You would have to widen all 100 miles of the whole freeway before you might even hope to see any improvement in traffic flow. But of course that would be totally cost prohibitive. So they’ll just widen 5 or 10 miles here and there which is just an exercise in futility and pointless waste of money.


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