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Visions of a Car-Free Los Angeles: Lessons from Carmageddon

Posted: 07/20/11 11:27 AM ET

After weeks of warnings of apocalyptic gridlock stretching for miles in every direction, Angelenos awoke on Sunday to find that "Carmageddon" had largely been averted. The closing of a ten-mile portion of Interstate 405 -- the busiest freeway in the US -- linking Santa Monica with the San Fernando Valley was not, in fact, the end of the world, as people had largely decided to heed the dire warnings, saturated through local and national media, and stay home or in their own neighborhoods for the weekend.

I'd seen Saturday's traffic reports and so on Sunday ventured from my home in Los Feliz to my in-laws' in Studio City, a trek of some 11 miles on the Golden State and Ventura Freeways. I knew I risked the possibility that everybody else would think as I had -- "people are listening and nobody's going out; the roads will be clear" -- and realize the grim predictions. But the freeways were emptier than I'd ever seen them, emptier even than at 5:00 in the morning on Sunday.

Driving home, it occurred to me that Carma-no-geddon had presented Los Angeles with a stunning vision of what it could be (and once was, I'm told): a place where every decision of how to spend one's leisure time, or where or when to schedule a business meeting, is not fraught with estimations of the likely effect of traffic on one's plans, risk-reward calculations, and visits to Google Maps. Will it be worth it to spend two hours at the zoo if it's going to take 45 minutes to get there? Can I book a 1:00 lunch in Beverly Hills and still make my 2:30 meeting in Burbank?

It's not uncommon to run into traffic at random unexpected times and days of the week. The part of the 405 that was closed, as well as the Hollywood Freeway from downtown to Caheunga Pass -- where in the 1830s there was a skirmish between Mexican and US nationals, firing at each other from horseback across a glassy glade -- and I'm sure other roads in Los Angeles' 450 square miles on which I rarely venture are pretty much always jammed. It's the classic criticism of Los Angeles: traffic sucks. (How much LA deserves this stigma compared to other cities -- the Dan Ryan in Chicago and I-95 in New York aren't exactly a day at the spa either -- is the subject of another essay.)

But what if traffic didn't suck, at least on the weekends? I often go to the beach on Sundays, and because I need to be back by 2:00 for my daughter's nap, we're always on the road by 10:00 a.m. It takes us 25 or 30 minutes to travel the 22 miles, which is perfectly reasonable. But when we leave at 1:30, the freeway coming toward the beach is clogged. Similarly, I live near the LA Zoo, and every weekend there's a four-mile backup of cars waiting to get to its freeway exit.

Cruising comfortably home from my in-laws', I thought of the traffic restrictions in London and other cities. What if half of all automobiles were banned from LA freeways according to the last number on their license plate? Odd or even numbers would be permitted to travel the freeways on alternating weekends. Expedited travel would make excursions to LA's many and varied cultural and recreational offerings an altogether different experience, for one thing. Once arrived, the air would be a lot more breathable, for another.

Perhaps even more significantly, people would discover there are other ways of living life than relying on your car all the time. Citizens told the LA Times of biking and walking to bars on Saturday night instead of driving, as they automatically did every other weekend. "People in L.A. definitely changed their lifestyles for a weekend," one man told the Times. "Change can take place with the freeways and we're all still alive." A visiting New Yorker proposed, "Every day should be a 'Carmageddon' day."

So how about it? How about seizing the opportunity, when the memory of a virtually car-free Los Angeles is still fresh, to enact weekend traffic restrictions to make the region infinitely more enjoyable on the weekends in exchange for surrendering the option to try to do anything you want and go anywhere you want (and likely suffer for your hope)?

The license plate-based restriction could be enforced by police on regular patrol and the many cameras already deployed to monitor traffic. Stiff fines would be levied on violators, who would have ample opportunity to provide proof of a good reason to be on the freeway when they're not supposed to, such as an emergency trip to the hospital.

What if you had a wedding or a funeral on a day your car was restricted? You could car pool. You could take a cab. You could ride -- imagine! -- public transportation! You could trade vehicles with a friend for the weekend, and pay back the favor on a weekend they wanted to do something they couldn't. Maybe some authorized permit-trading system would spring up, where car-owners without plans (or enough money) could sell their freeway rights to those feeling a need to drive (or with money to burn). It would be just difficult enough to discourage people from taking such measures when not necessary, but not so onerous that they couldn't get anywhere when necessary. And it might redefine "necessary."

Would people just take surface streets instead? Perhaps, to an extent. But no way am I driving 22 miles to the beach on surface streets; it's just not plausible even with no traffic. And if there is extra traffic on the main thoroughfares it might teach people a lesson not to try that again.
The restriction would have ancillary benefits: while traffic is halved, repair crews could fix portions of the roads needing work without causing heinous backups. With the infinite array of options so reduced, people would rediscover their neighborhoods -- and perhaps act to improve them if they're going to be stuck there every other weekend.

Look, I'm no urban planner or transpo engineer. It was just a random thought, and I may have overlooked something major. Nonetheless, the picture of a virtually car-free Los Angeles could inspire some big changes, and the benefits seem significant enough to be worth trying different fixes to overcome various obstacles.

What are your ideas? What do you think of this one?

 

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