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Gettin’ Bugged Drivin’ Up and Down the Same Old Strip
Gettin’ Bugged Drivin’ Up and Down the Same Old Strip
By Frank Gruber
July 18, 2011 -- It should not have been a surprise that the region did not grind to a halt over Carmegeddon weekend, considering that the Santa Monica Freeway was closed for months in 1994 after the earthquake and people still got around. The transportation system in the L.A. area is more flexible than one might expect, given that it is still so dependent on cars, and people will adjust their driving and transportation needs to take into account circumstances.
But over the weekend naturally I was thinking about transportation and car culture, and also what it means to be “home” in a metropolis with 15 or 20 million people.
There is no reason to fault the politicians and officials who predicted disaster. Their controlled hysteria had a purpose, to make sure that people knew that they should drive less. That was part of the drill. Nonetheless, it all created a story that the national media could understand in a simplistic and satisfying way: Los Angeles means cars, Angelenos have no sense, they deserve a monumental weekend long traffic jam, and won’t that be hilarious.
There is a mathematical certainty that if you remove a road that carries a lot of traffic there are going to be fewer cars on the roads that it connects to, and that means that regional traffic will decrease. This phenomenon has been shown in many places, such as in San Francisco when the Embarcadero Freeway collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and was later replaced with a boulevard.
But let’s face it, mobility also decreased over the weekend. In this metropolis we consider everywhere, from the mountains to the sea, to be home. It was hot in the San Fernando Valley, but with the Sepulveda Pass closed, many fewer Valley residents could cool off at the beach.
While it wasn’t reasonable to expect doom, the 405 has some unique issues. It is the westernmost edge of the region’s freeway grid, which means that while most freeways, if they were closed, have two freeways, one on each side, that can take up the slack, the 405 only has the 101/110 combination to cover for it.
The 405 is also the main connector for one of the most dense and vibrant extended zones of economic activity in the U.S., if not the world, connecting as it does dynamic coastal Orange County, the ports, the industries and people of the South Bay, the Westside, and the Valley. There is no driving alternative to the 405, and because it crosses the Santa Monica Mountains, there are no practical plans to build a rail alternative either. (What would help would be a future connection of the coming Wilshire Boulevard subway through West Hollywood to the Red Line going up to North Hollywood.)
We will be stuck with traffic congestion on the 405 indefinitely, and the current One Billion Dollar project to add a carpool lane won’t make a difference.
The build up to Carmageddon made me recall a study that came out in 1999 from the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership (STPP) called “Roadwork Ahead: Is Construction Worth the Wait?” The STPP found that projects designed to reduce traffic congestion by expanding the capacity of existing roads typically generate more delay during construction than will be made up for many years after project completion by the predicted increased speeds. (You can find the study at the STPP’s website : http://www.transact.org/report.asp?id=169.)
There is so much demand to travel along the 405 corridor that it is unlikely that any increase in capacity will improve traffic for long, unless the new carpool lane were dedicated exclusively to buses and shuttles.
But we know that’s not going to happen because in our car-centric culture transit alternatives are evaluated not on their own merits, but on how they might reduce traffic congestion. The cover story in this week’s L.A. Weekly is about the controversy in Beverly Hills over the route of the Purple Line subway. The story is an important one, but the reporter prefaced it with gratuitous remarks about how the subway will only result in a minuscule reduction of traffic congestion.
But the reason to build a subway underneath Wilshire is not to relieve traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway; the reason for building it or any transit system is to create an efficient and alternative way to get from point A to point B. If some of the subway riders would otherwise drive, fine, but with population growth the 10 will have more traffic no matter what.
And while we’re talking about transit, the economics of a subway are not based on whether the fares pay for the costs of building and operating it, but on the increased economic activity and land values the subway creates.
The only way to create alternatives to the 405 over the Sepulveda Pass would be to develop a system of express buses and point-to-point shuttles that would use the carpool lanes to bypass traffic congestion. Unfortunately, what it looks like now is that the carpool lanes will be filled with cars carrying only two people, electric vehicles, and anyone willing to pay a toll.
This will mean that there will be more cars on the 405, which means that there will be more cars exiting the 405 onto local streets in morning, and trying to get back on the 405 using those local streets later in the day.
Forget Carmageddon. The real mess from this billion-dollar fantasy will come in the future.
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