Carmageddon Lesson

As you probably heard, L.A.’s 405 Freeway was completely car-free for 53 hours straight during a mid-July weekend as workers raced to demolish and rebuild a portion of the Mullholland Drive Bridge. The looming traffic disaster, dubbed “Carmageddon,” that consumed newspapers, airwaves, and Twitter feeds predicted that displaced motorists would end up clogging possible detours like the Pacific Coast Highway and Interstate 10. The culminating question was, where will all the cars go that normally zip (more like crawl) down the country’s most congested seventy-two miles of roadway? It turns out, they stayed put. That is, during the weekend of the 405 closure, L.A. residents parked their cars. Carmageddon, be damned.

Naturally, this news caught our attention since we spend every working minute trying to reduce the number of cars on the road. We loved hearing that many Angelenos stopped driving for the weekend and actually embraced the abandoned stretch of pavement for the rare open space. There were live bands, pop-up meals, and cyclists claiming double-digit lanes (soon to be widened further) for stages, dining rooms, and bike routes. Photo ops abounded since opportunities like this might never come again. We couldn’t resist thinking about the barrels of oil saved or pounds of carbon dioxide kept out of L.A.’s oppressive ozone when thousands of cars sat unused for two days (though JetBlue may have offset this gain by offering $4 local fares).

We also couldn’t help but notice the irony of the instant community that grew out of the 405 closure. The bridge construction was part of a $1 billion project meant to, once again, make more room for cars. Meanwhile, L.A. residents proved that perhaps this expansion isn’t necessary. The perception of code-red gridlock kept people out of their cars, but the inverse could just as easily encourage more driving. If there’s more road space available, won’t it end up just as clogged? It’s sort of like upsizing your house because you want more space for your stuff. It won’t be long before your new walk-in closet is overflowing again. In a city known for its excessive driving, we had fun fantasizing about people stepping out their front doors and discovering the parks, cafés, and stores right in their own neighborhoods. Talk about supporting local economy. The threat of congestion was so great, that people chose not to drive and it was the empty road (temporary or not) that brought them together.

No matter what the motivation is for ditching cars, the takeaway is simple: driving less brings us together. If it can happen in L.A., it can happen anywhere, including Vermont. If a temporary closure of I-89 or Shelburne Road came with threats of our own mini-Carmageddon, we probably would have hung up our keys, too. Realistically, the weekend shutdown of a major commuting thoroughfare is unlikely to change long-term driving habits, so we may have to come up with our own car diet. But, if the 405 closure is any indication, no doubt we’ll survive and have plenty of fun while we’re out from behind the wheel. What’s the worst that could happen? We stay close to home, have more time with friends, family, and neighbors, spend money at a local market down the street instead of a box store off the highway. We might even get a little exercise if we’re walking and biking rather than sitting in a car. It’s this community building that we strive for. More and bigger roads should no longer be the response to congestion problems. Rather than reacting to it by expanding our highways, let’s allow such stifling congestion be the catalyst for positive change. From what we can tell, the outcome looks pretty good.