Saturday, July 16, 2011

Is Carmageddon a Peek Into Los Angeles' Future?

It's been roughly 24 hours since the first closures of on-ramps and lanes began on the 405 in preparation for "Carmageddon," the feared two-day closure of Los Angeles' busiest freeway between the 101 and 10 interchanges. Thus far, judging by Tim Cavanaugh's photos at Reason Hit & Run, numerous reports from the LA Times, and at least one of our friends, it looks to have been pretty overrated by the standards of previous apocalypses. The streets of Los Angeles are wide open. As in "deserted." Even the surface streets of the Westside, which we expected might get snarled, are empty.


Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who had urged residents to stay out of their cars and use public transportation, is said to be "delighted" at the sight of empty streets in L.A. "We had hoped this would happen. People have answered the call. They have stepped up to the plate in recognizing that the best way to do this is to stay out of their cars." County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is also thrilled at the lack of people outside: "No one is on Santa Monica Beach or Zuma Beach. Hardly anyone is on [the] Pacific Coast Highway. It's dead as a doornail out there," adding, "L.A. has risen to the occasion. They have turned 'Carmageddon' into 'Carmaheaven.'" One resident of wealthy Bel-Air, just east of the closed section of the 405, was also loving the lack of traffic: "Its like we live in a small town today. [It's] amazing; I love it. I wish it were like this all the time . . . Let's just have this once a month." Also rounding out the Times' coverage of the event are stories of Angelenos forsaking their cars for public transit and bicycles.

We have two thoughts about this. First off, for that woman in limousine-liberal Bel Air and the city officials so delighted about the empty streets, be careful what you wish for. With Los Angeles losing jobs and population at a steady rate, and with its real estate market in free fall, the streets and freeways of L.A. are not as jammed as they used to be. With the region set to lose as many as 50,000 jobs if Sacramento is successful in disincorporating the city of Vernon, there might soon be a lot fewer Angelenos with places to go. The point being that, while the light traffic must be a delight, it's not exactly helping the city's economy rebound.

Second, while we're happy that the closure didn't result in traffic chaos, our weakness for conspiracy theories makes us wonder if there's a reason why city officials and news media were so intent on whipping up hysteria over it. Given how often we're reminded of our need to embrace a future without automobiles, in which we live in cities and ride bikes and trains instead, is it far-fetched to imagine that the powers that be might look at Carmageddon as an occasion to sell their New Urbanist vision for our collective future? In other words, is this a case of not letting a good crisis go to waste?

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