Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ten Miles to Midnight

Two days from now, Los Angeles will be burning! There will be no escape for the millions trapped in the City of Angels as chaos and despair descends upon the Southland, turning the air yellow with smog and the surface streets into blood-and-gold rivers of headlights and brake lights! It will be madness, I tell you! Disastrous! It's Carmageddon!

At least, that's the impression I've been getting from the media. To put it in more prosaic terms, a sixteen-kilometer segment of the 405 freeway between the 101 and the 10, a route that carries hundreds of thousands of vehicles every day and one of the busiest stretches of highway in the United States, will be shutting down Friday night and not reopening until Monday morning for a lane widening project associated with the partial demolition of the Mulholland Bridge. For Torontonians, if you think of it as two and a half Don Valley Parkways, I don't think you would be far wrong. But I remember times when there was no movement on the DVP and it didn't break the city - we called it "rush hour." ZING!

In all seriousness, this is a hell of a thing to watch. Not being an Angeleno, in fact barely knowing anyone from Los Angeles, and having about a week's worth of experience with it, I know that I can't understand Carmageddon the way someone living there understands it. From what I'm seeing online, this seems utterly earthshaking, in the metaphorical sense. The Los Angeles Times has an entire section devoted to Carmageddon stories. The LAPD solicited the assistance of celebrity tweeters like Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, and Tom Hanks to spread the word of the closure. People are being urged to shop as locally as possible and stay close to home. Metro is going zero-fare for the entire weekend, which would be pretty nice if you like tooling around on the subway. Though, I do note that as of this writing, #Carmageddon isn't a trending Twitter topic in Los Angeles.

They say that it's in times of trial that a person's true colors emerge. I suspect the same may be true of cities, too. If that's the case, and if the news and reports I'm getting are credible, the general reaction to impending Carmageddon can tell an interested observer a great deal about Los Angeles... though a lot of it is nothing that wasn't already taken for granted.

Eastbound traffic crawls in a stereotypically Los Angeles manner along the 101 at Vermont Avenue in December 2009.

None of the cities in which I've lived have been particularly dependent on highway systems. Neither New Westminster or Vancouver have any, and Toronto's is just a fraction of what had been planned back in the glory days of the automobile. In the event of a closure in Toronto, people would be irritated but people would be able to deal. Los Angeles, on the other hand...

Los Angeles practically defines highway dependence. It is a city addicted to the automobile, married to the idea that freedom comes with a patch of asphalt and your own set of wheels. The reaction of Los Angeles to the 405's closure is almost sad, in its way - I can't help but imagine an alcoholic who wakes up on Saturday morning to find the booze chest empty and all the liquor stores closed for the weekend.

It's got to the point where I really think the time has come for Los Angeles to admit that it has a problem, one that goes beyond the simple closure of the highway. Its real problem, the real thing people should be angry about, is the series of choices that led to it being put in this situation. In previous posts, I've written about the importance of the network effect in public transit - that chopping routes damages the network to a greater degree than one would expect, because with more options comes more choices. The same is true for roads and highways. A city should not be so utterly dependent on its highway system that the closure of one sixteen-kilometer segment of it paralyzes the whole. Is Los Angeles really that fragile, that vulnerable?

When taken together with the pressures of rising gas costs, a growing environmental awareness, and the problems that come with an atomized society linked only the superslabs, I wonder if it's possible that this whole Carmageddon thing might catalyze some thinking in the Southland; be a reason for people to change the region's course. Certainly, Los Angeles County's current public transit expansion work is probably the single largest program in the United States - but there's a lot to do, and not just in Los Angeles. We've got to catch up after resting on our laurels for half a century.

It's time to admit that we have problems - everywhere, not just in Los Angeles - and it's time to get busy.

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