L.A. downshifts and takes it easy
For all the doomsday warnings about “Carmageddon,” the first day largely came down to one question: Could a group of bicycle riders beat a plane across Los Angeles?
Life without the 405 Freeway to connect the San Fernando Valley and Westside was remarkable only for what didn’t happen. The canyons of the Hollywood Hills did not become giant parking lots. Hospitals did not go unstaffed. Stranded motorists did not abandon their cars and stagger down the freeways in search of food and water.
But although gridlock never materialized, something unexpected did: Los Angeles’ car culture took a day off. Many people simply stayed home. Flying down open freeways was reminiscent of the traffic-free days during the 1984 Olympics.
The free-flowing traffic was proof, officials said, that their warnings had worked.
In a California Department of Transportation “nerve center,” a giant electronic road map of Los Angeles glowed green all day. “Saturday light,” as Mike Miles, a Caltrans executive, called it.
Carmageddon could turn out to be the biggest non-event since Y2K.
Not that the day lacked drama. In the great tradition of the land of reality television, Los Angeles created its own.
First came a clever marketing ploy from JetBlue Airways: $4 flights Saturday between Burbank and Long Beach airports.
A flurry of Twitter activity ensued, followed by tough talk from the Wolfpack Hustle, a local cycling club, that six of its best riders could beat the 150-seat Airbus A320 -- including drive time to and from the airports, check-in and security screening.
In the end, the cyclists crushed it, cruising along the Los Angeles River to reach the final destination, the lighthouse in Shoreline Aquatic Park, in 1 hour and 34 minutes.
The plane had barely taken off. Cyclist Joe Anthony, on board as part of the challenge, said there was only one advantage to the airliner.
“It’s legal to drink beer and fly, whereas the cyclists have to follow all the rules,” he said.
Most passengers flew purely for the novelty. Alfred Pierfax, who was heading straight back to Burbank on the next plane, said he was unimpressed by Carmageddon.
“I’m going to call it ‘Carmadud,’ ” he said.
Still, it was a rare day in Los Angeles.
Even the much anticipated soccer game between the L.A. Galaxy and Real Madrid wasn’t creating traffic woes as fans arrived at the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon -- and found themselves with time to kill.
“Not once did we drive under 60 on the way here,” said Vatche Marganian, who came from Orange County using the 91 and 110 freeways.
Michele Cohn, who was perusing a garage sale in Santa Monica, said she felt like she was living in a small town for the day. “Its amazing; I love it. I wish it were like this all the time.”
Traffic isn’t a bad thing for taxi drivers, as long as the meter is running. But cabbie Mark Rivkind said not only were most roads traffic-free, but hardly anybody wanted a ride.
“No Carmageddon!” he complained while parked outside an LAX terminal waiting for somebody, anybody, to get in.
One astute woman realized what many others missed: The southbound 405 lanes south of the Mulholland Drive bridge, whose partial demolition caused the closure, were actually left open. Heather Grimmer didn’t have anywhere to go, but she went anyway, shooting a video of the empty freeway and posting it on YouTube.
“It was literally completely empty,” she said. “Like, completely empty. It was great.”
A couple of cyclists trying to get on the freeway were arrested by state troopers. A skateboarder and a jogger were also cited.
Tom White, a helicopter co-pilot, marveled at the emptiness of the 405 as he shuttled passengers from Van Nuys to LAX. The 14-minute trip cost $150.
“I’ve been stressed for days,” said one passenger, Kevin Norris, a professional golf caddy who needed to catch a flight to France. “I didn’t want to spend five hours in a car. When I saw this advertised, I thought that’s got to be the way.”
Some of the few complaints were not about traffic on the ground but traffic in the sky.
Residents near the bridge complained on Twitter about noise from helicopters circling the demolition site since late Friday.
As far away as Nevada, electronic road signs warned motorists of the 405 closure.
Traffic officials and politicians said they were pleased that motorists had paid heed. But as if trying not to jinx their good fortune, they were not quite ready to declare victory.
“We’re not over the hump yet,” said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the message had gotten through. “L.A. has risen to the occasion. They have turned ‘Carmageddon’ into ‘Carmaheaven.’ ”
In its copyrighted use, Carmageddon is a violent video game that involves smashing into cars and running over pedestrians. It is unclear who first used the term to describe the threat of the 405 closure, but it went viral after Yaroslavsky invoked it at a news conference in June.
Officials said its apocalyptic connotation made clear that this was no ordinary road closure, scaring many people into staying home this weekend.
“The only way to reduce the number of cars in the system is to penetrate the consciousness of the motorists,” Yaroslavsky said.
In light of the foreboding warnings, said Doug Failing, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s highway program, “it would be nice to have a little bit of congestion.”
He was joking, but his point was an important one. Public officials run the risk of becoming victims of their own success. Their messages have to be strong enough to produce action but credible enough so that people -- and the media -- trust them the next time.
“We’re going to have to be probably more creative in terms of getting the message out next time around, because there are going to be a lot of people who think, ‘Ah, there’s a lot to do about nothing,’ ” said Villaraigosa. “And frankly, they couldn’t be more wrong. This is working because people are heeding the call.”
The 10-mile stretch of the 405 was scheduled to be closed until 6 a.m. Monday. But officials said the partial demolition of the Mulholland Drive bridge is going so well that the freeway could reopen sooner.
Sometime next summer, transportation officials plan to demolish the other half of the bridge.
Stay tuned for “Carmageddon II.”