In ‘Carmageddon,’ some see road map for the future
Angel Sawle was one of the thousands of Southern Californians who heeded the “Carmageddon” warnings and curtailed her weekend routine, choosing to stay close to home in Los Feliz.
Sawle was glad to do her part, but she doesn’t see herself making this a permanent thing. “I didn’t mind doing it to help out,” Sawle said, though she enjoys exploring in her car on weekends too much to give it up.
The success of Carmageddon has given way to a political and lifestyle question: If L.A. residents can cut their driving for one weekend, how can they be encouraged to drive less the rest of the time?
The closure of the 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass came with the threat of epic gridlock -- but the exact opposite happened. Streets and freeways were clear. California Department of Transportation statistics show significantly fewer cars on some freeways and significantly less traffic, even in areas far from the 405.
“You can suddenly hear people talking. You hear kids playing,” said L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “People discovered something about themselves and Los Angeles auto culture that shocked them. Why can’t we take some chunk of L.A. and shut it down to traffic on certain days or weekends, as they do in Italy?”
Some mass-transportation advocates went further, saying that Carmageddon showed the need for less freeway expansion -- like the $1-billion project that closed the 405 -- and for more investment in rail and bus service.
But turning Carmageddon into a movement is likely to prove difficult, particularly in a city planned around the car, where people generally choose cars over transit. Some of those who stayed out of their cars this weekend said they doubted that it would become a habit.
“I find it hard to imagine that ordinary middle-class Angelenos will be satisfied with living and working and shopping and spending their time in the space of the area encompassed by their ability to walk or even ride a bike,” said L.A. writer D.J. Waldie.
Waldie said he was impressed by how much traffic eased over the weekend, but he also noticed another thing: “Most of what I hear about car-free weekends comes from people who wish that you weren’t driving around in your car, but they’re happy to be driving around in their car.”
Weekend traffic is considerably less congested than weekday traffic, and even getting a modest number of cars off the road can make a big difference in reducing gridlock.
“Appeals for car-free weekends may sound appealing, but from a somewhat cynical perspective, or a skeptical perspective, is that ultimately we hope that other people don’t drive as much,” Waldie said.
Caltrans statistics seemed to back up that point. On the southbound 5 Freeway in Santa Clarita, about 74,000 vehicles were recorded Saturday, compared with 84,000 the Saturday before. On the eastbound 101 Freeway in Sherman Oaks, the vehicle totals dropped from 75,000 to 55,000.
Carmageddon turned out to be a boon for those who decided to stay on the road. Those heading west on the 101 Freeway in Encino on Saturday were able to cut their driving time into downtown from 30 minutes two weeks ago to 20 minutes.
Those heading north on the 5 Freeway in Commerce were able to reach the 101 Freeway in four minutes, compared with nine minutes a week earlier.
Los Angeles was developed, particularly after World War II, around regional hubs such as shopping malls and entertainment venues that are most easily accessible by car.
Transportation officials are in the midst of a campaign to create a viable commuter rail system. But though the county now has six Metro rail lines, with several others on the way, transit rides still represent a small fraction of commuters. Indeed, about 80% of mass transit users get around on buses.
Some neighborhoods have the mix of residences and businesses that allow people to ditch their cars. But they remain the exception. Still, mass-transit backers hope that Carmageddon showed people that they can survive without a weekend of driving around.
“One of the great things that we can learn is that in Los Angeles we have so many dynamic neighborhoods, and there’s so much stuff to discover and enjoy in every part of the city,” said Alexis Lantz, planning and policy director at the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. “We can really enjoy the city by walking, bicycling, using public transit.”
Added Denny Zane, executive director of Move LA, a nonprofit group that advocates public transit: “It is good Karmageddon.”
The results have Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other politicians suggesting that the city try to build on the momentum and encourage people to stick close to home and stay out of their cars more often.
Borja Leon, the mayor’s deputy for transportation, said that if people get more conditioned to occasionally doing without their cars, the city could use that to ease congestion during special events, emergencies or other times when heavy traffic is expected.
“You could say ‘Today’s a red day, stay home,’ ” Leon said. “This is the type of thing that could be developed.”
Yaroslavsky thinks people would support car-free zones in designated areas of the city on summer weekends. Such campaigns could be tied to special events in neighborhoods designed to keep people from having to use their cars.
In April, more than 100,000 bikers, skateboarders, runners, dog-walkers, in-line skaters and hula-hoopers turned out for the second annual CicLAvia event in L.A. Streets were closed for 7 1/2 miles from East Hollywood to Boyle Heights.
Yaroslavsky said that success shows there is a public hunger for more car-free zones, if only for a day or even a few hours.
“It’s doable, but it will take a lot of effort and public support,” he said. “Nothing like this will happen without public support.”
Santa Monica resident Shane Butler wonders whether the success of Carmageddon will make it harder to persuade people to stay close to home next year.
“People will remember the let-down,” said the UCLA classics professor and Vespa driver.
Butler wishes for a repeat.
“Clearly the experience resonated with a lot of people who realized that it was something surprisingly pleasurable. It shows not everyone in L.A. is in the car all the time, and not everyone who’s in the car all the time needs to be.”