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Carmageddon’s lessons

Killer bees never did swarm the Southwest, the Y2K bug was squashed, the world didn’t end on May 21 and “Carmageddon” wasn’t. Now that we’ve finished freaking out about the weekend closure of 10 miles of the 405 Freeway, can we do something about the fact that it’s Carmageddon every single day in West Los Angeles?

Last weekend demonstrated that Angelenos really can change their driving behavior if they’re motivated to do so. It’s not the first time they’ve done it. During the 1984 Olympics, when the pre-event hype about traffic nightmares was at least as intense as the media warnings about Carmageddon, commuter traffic across the city was a breeze. It’s not hard to get people out of their cars during extraordinary events; the tough thing is doing it on a daily basis.

Transit planning — and these days a lot of city development planning — is based on giving people incentives to leave their cars in the garage. The theory is that if you build it, they will come: Build a subway and people will ride it; build an apartment high-rise next to a subway station and people will live there and ride underground to work. The assumption built into this idea is that they’ll come because the alternative — driving to work on a gridlocked freeway — is worse. Yet it’s hard to imagine how much worse Westside traffic could get. Crossing the 405 on any artery at any time on any weekday is an exercise in sitting around. Has that encouraged people to find alternatives? Hardly. They just build delay into their daily lives. Visitors to L.A. often express astonishment that Angelenos can tolerate the traffic, but to us it’s as natural as Botox.

Obviously, it would be easier to choose alternatives if there were more of them. There’s still no rail service to the Westside, and buses are just as slow as cars. But there are other choices: carpooling, biking, scootering, walking. And it’s no secret what cities and countries need to do to encourage people to choose them. In Europe and Asia, such incentives are commonplace, and they work.

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Governments can jack up the tax on gasoline and use the proceeds to pay for public-transit improvements. They can employ congestion pricing to make it expensive to drive solo during rush hour to employment hubs. They can close big arteries to cars and open them to bicycles, or turn them into dedicated bus lanes. They can make businesses stop offering free parking to their employees.

Will any of these ideas fly politically in car-crazy L.A.? Don’t hold your breath. But if you won’t approve any of the difficult things necessary to reduce traffic, or change your own behavior, you surrender the right to complain about it.


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