405 Freeway shutdown: Two words of advice — surface streets

About the first thing I heard 20 years ago, when I moved to Los Angeles, was this: “Take surface streets.”

“Surface streets” is a uniquely L.A. phrase meaning, roughly, take Beverly Glen. It can mean other streets, depending on what side of town you live on, but the underlying philosophy is clear: Do not take the freeway. The freeway will swallow you up. The freeway will take your day and twist it, irrationally, into a stressed-out ordeal in which you’re always running 20 minutes late. The freeway will be jammed for no reason; it will suddenly come to a stop and then will ease inexplicably. If an elderly couple needed to change a tire on the side of the freeway six hours earlier, cars will still slow down near the spot.

So, take surface streets.

It’s good advice. Los Angeles’ freeways empty out for only two occasions: for the first couple of days after a steep increase in the price of gas, and for all Jewish holidays. The rest of the time, they’re clotted with cars, cars driven by short-tempered people of all races and creeds who simply cannot understand why the car in front of them will not move faster.


Once, when I told a Los Angeles native that I was driving across the country, he asked me what route I was planning to take.

“Surface streets,” I said.

And he nodded sagely, as if to say, “Good call, dude.”

I have a friend who grew up in Brentwood in the 1950s. On early mornings, his dad would take him and his brother up to the western slope of the Sepulveda Pass to watch the 405 Freeway being built.

“This, boys, is progress,” my friend’s dad probably thought. It was the end of the surface street. American know-how and California big-thinking, all combined in a gigantic earthmoving project that would guarantee fast-moving, effortless transit for the Southland residents of the future.

Which, at 3 a.m. on a weekday, it often — though not always — does. At all other times, it’s an iffy proposition. And it’s about to get worse.

The 405 Freeway is going to be shut down for 53 hours next weekend — you’ve heard about that, right? — and local media and residents have started calling it “Carmageddon.”

It’s going to be one of those weekends during which the already threadbare strands of civilized behavior in Southern California finally snap, unleashing the kind of rage and frustration we’ve only seen, so far, in the streets of some Arab capitals. In their desperation to get to Van Nuys, or Carson, or Granada Hills, or on to La Tijera, people are going to freak out. Their beloved 405 closed; the complex web of surface streets, jammed; the fat artery that connects Encino to Brentwood, and that allows people in Encino to say to themselves, well, we’re almost in Brentwood, will no longer be available for self-delusion.

(Self-delusion is one of our specialties here. “Twenty minutes, door to door,” people will insist, is their average commute, from, say, Woodland Hills to Century City. “Seriously. Twenty minutes.”)

So the morning line on Carmageddon is that it’s going to be chaos.

I beg to differ.

Chaos on the 405 is anytime between 7 in the morning and 9 at night. Chaos on the 405 is weekday afternoons, summer evenings, rainy days and anytime a gallon of gas is slightly less than $4. Chaos on the 405 is a Type A guy in a BMW pounding furiously on his steering wheel as the traffic snakes slowly over the hill, a gigantic truck rumbling to his left and a Latino gardener in a rattling pickup truck on his right, with another guy in the back who stares at the raging BMW driver with expressionless eyes and an imperceptible smile.

Chaos, in other words, is situation normal for Los Angeles freeway traffic.

As anyone who has every sprayed for ants knows, the ants always figure out a way around the spray. When Carmageddon hits, we’ll do the same. It’ll be back to the Los Angeles of boulevards and canyon roads. For 53 hours, we’ll creep along Beverly Glen, snake down Sepulveda, try to figure out where Roscomare really ends and challenge the authority of signs and locked gates that say “ROAD CLOSED. FIRE ROAD ONLY.” We’ll be ants in a glass farm, figuring it all out anew. It’ll be a collective adventure. It’ll be fun.

Of course, I’ll be sticking around the house that weekend. Like most of my Venice neighbors, we’re always looking for an excuse not to have to go to the Valley, and Carmageddon is a perfect out.

But we’ll miss out on the discovery that without freeways — without the expectation of rapid and efficient transit — we all do fine, we get where we’re going, we build in a little extra time, we don’t waste our rage by pounding impotently on a steering wheel. We save it instead for the people we’re driving to see.

The freeways — all of them, not just the 405 — are a lie that we tell ourselves every day: Twenty minutes door to door; it’s just over the hill. Every day we approach the onramp with high expectations and hearts full of hope, and every day the 405 betrays us with unexplained delays and an unpredictable rush hour. Now, finally, we’ll know the truth: Freeways lie. Only surface streets tell the truth.

And now they’re making the 405 bigger. Show of hands: Who thinks this will make it easier to get to Century City?

Last weekend, my friend called up his dad and suggested that they climb back up to the old spot to watch the freeway stop.

“What are we going to see?” his father asked.

“Nothing,” my friend said.

“I’m in,” his father said. And so this coming weekend, the two Brentwood boys and their father will head to the western side of the Sepulveda Pass and stare at an empty ribbon of freeway asphalt and, probably, think about the intervening 50 years with a mixture of regret and joy and exhaustion.

That is, if they can get there. I hear the traffic is going to be miserable. They should take the fire road. Someone will have busted open the gate by then.

Rob Long, a writer and television producer in Hollywood, is a contributing editor to Opinion. His weekly commentary, “Martini Shot,” airs on KCRW-FM (89.9).