This past weekend Los Angeles residents survived “Carmageddon” – a closure of 10 miles of highway on interstate 405 in southern California between the “101” and the “10” freeways. But the real story about the lessons we can draw from last weekend’s glimpse into a less car-dependent metropolitan mega-city.
CAP’s Jorge Madrid and Brennan Alvarez have the story.
Hailed by the media as a disaster-level disruption in weekend mobility, the closure of a major traffic artery that links two sides of the country’s second-largest city went off without much incident at all.
In fact, according to numerous twitter and facebook updates, real-time online Google traffic monitoring, and round-the-clock coverage by the LA Times, roads and highways throughout the city were uncharacteristically clear throughout most of the weekend.
LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared “mission accomplished” on Sunday afternoon after the massive 2-day, 11-lane, repair and improvement project was completed 17 hours ahead of schedule – without so much as one major traffic jam, worker injury, reported road rage incident, or disruption in hospital, emergency, or airport operations.
“A lot is said about the fact that this is the car capital of the United States,” Villaraigosa said. “Everybody has seen we can get out of our cars every once in a while and survive.”
While all this could make for an amusing “only in LA” punch line, the real story is far more important to our national dialogue about mobility in America’s metropolitan centers. It also highlights the importance of crucial infrastructure investments, especially during challenging economic times.
The first thing to consider is that car-dependent metropolitan centers like Los Angeles are completely vulnerable to shocks in their primary transportation arteries – unlike their more transit friendly counterparts San Francisco, New York, and DC. This kind of vulnerability does not usually rear its head in the wider public domain until we are faced with a crisis, both real and/or anticipated. But when it does surface the problem usually becomes quite clear, as one editorial in the LA Times describes:
It hurts to lose the 405 even for a weekend not because freeways are so valuable or because we love them so much but because we’ve painted ourselves in a corner in terms of mobility. We have left ourselves no escape hatches or viable alternatives.
Secondly, many experts credit the success of this particular closure to an information and outreach blitz from the media, public officials, and social networking websites like facebook and twitter, asking “Angelinos” to stay out of their cars and enjoy local recreation in their own immediate neighborhoods via walking, biking, and public transit (a breakthrough idea to be certain).
The city’s official marketing website launched a campaign (405 things to do in LA) that promised “tweeting 405 fun and iconic things to do in Los Angeles … without a car.” It turns out with enough information and a little bit of coaxing even the most car-dependent city in America can change its commuting behaviors.
Granted, this was one weekend out of the year and many residents likely chose to simply delay their driving instead of re-aligning their transit priorities altogether. However, this experience could serve as a real example to residents that altering their normal commuting behaviors – if only just a bit – could have exponential impacts across the city when aggregated over a large swath of the population.
For example, harmful pollution and smog levels dropped, according to air quality monitors stationed across the city – not an easy accomplishment in the peak summertime heat. Likewise, public transit ridership increased 15 percent to weekend highs, and many residents found their carless weekend was a welcomed reprieve from the stress of driving and anxiety of needing to traverse the city on their day off.
These kinds of small-time behavior changes (and big-time payouts) should not be taken lightly. According to a recent study by the University of California at Irvine, there is a strong correlation between long vehicle commutes and severe mental and physical health problems, including high blood pressure, increased bouts of anger and depression, and even obesity and heart disease. This could be increasingly dangerous for the 1 in 6 Americans who spend an hour and a half commuting to and from work each day.
Another study by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) found that households that use public transportation and live with one less car can save $9,000 on average every year, and reduce driving by 4,400 miles each year per household. The same APTA study found that one person switching to public transit can reduce their contribution to harmful daily pollution by 20 pounds per day or more than 4,800 pounds in a single year.
A third takeaway is that all metro areas should invest in the kind of transit infrastructure that could prevent another Carmageddon-like panic, while at the same time provide the kind of quality-of-life payouts that residents enjoyed during their weekend reprieve from gridlock. And it’s not just about our enhanced leisure; this issue has serious implications for our economy, public health, and safety.
We already know that investments in public transit create nearly twice as many jobs as investments in new highway construction. We also know that if we want to get serious about mitigating the dangerous effects of vehicle pollution and smog, particularly public health impacts like asthma and respiratory disease, then we need to reduce exhaust from vehicles. Finally, we must address the fact that the transportation sector accounts for approximately 33 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion.
A step in the right direction is Mayor Villaraigosa’s 30/10 initiative, which aims to accomplish 30 years worth of transit projects at an accelerated 10 year pace. Back in Nov of 2008, LA voters agreed to tax themselves a half-cent sales tax for traffic relief and transportation upgrades throughout the county (68 percent of voters approved this during the height of the recession); the fund is projected to raise $40 billion over the next 30 years.
The 30/10 initiative will leverage the funds raised through this sales tax to secure long-term bonds and loans from the federal government, which will allow LA Metro to build 12 key mass transit projects in 10 years, rather than 30. The initiative is expected to create 160,000 new jobs, as well as reduce pollution emissions by 521,000 pounds, and save 10.3 million gallons of gas and 191 million fewer vehicle miles traveled per year. The LA Times describes the project as:
The most important initiative ever proposed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. If, as seems increasingly likely, it’s embraced by Congress, it will become one of the nation’s most significant public infrastructure projects.
When the would-be disaster that was Carmageddon passed without incident, residents and city officials released a collective sigh of relief. It turns out that some Southern Californians can live without their cars for a weekend, enjoy their neighborhood on a bike or on foot, and get to work on a train or bus once or twice a week. This may seem miniscule, but aggregated across millions of people, the results can be exponential. Carmageddon was a sort of litmus test for the possibility of a car free weekend in the city, one that could have ended very badly, and LA passed without incident.
It should be noted that not all folks who live in LA are fortunate enough to have adequate transit to get to the places they need to be. Additionally, we must acknowledge that not all residents can enjoy a breath of fresh air on their bikes – LA is also home to some of the worst air quality in the nation. Finally, we know that one weekend will not magically change the culture of a city that was built for the automobile.
However, with projects like the Mayor’s 30/10 initiative and other commitments to invest in public transit, along with some slight behavior modifications in the way Angelinos commute, more residents will be able to experience the simple pleasure of enjoying their city with less gridlock, less smog, and less stress.
– Jorge Madrid is a Research Associate with the CAP energy team; Brenanna Alvarez is an intern with the energy team. Jorge and Brennan are both Southern California natives.