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Carmageddon: Apocalypse … later?

July 20, 2011

Category: A Closer Look

This past weekend’s closure of the 405 freeway in Los Angeles dubbed “Carmageddon” turned out to be a prophecy that thankfully didn’t live up to its apocalyptic expectations. The fears of citywide gridlock in response to a two-day closure of nearly 10 miles of the 405 never materialized. Commuters and travelers with the courage to brave the predicted chaos were pleasantly surprised with nearly nonexistent traffic. So, what happened?

Dr. Xudong Jia, a civil engineering professor at Cal Poly Pomona, shed some light on the anomaly. As an expert in a field that deals with the design, construction, and maintenance of the physical and natural environment, including highways, his research focuses on a fact of life and a source of enduring frustration for LA commuters—traffic.

“The Metropolitan Transit Authority did a great job getting the word out. As a result, people didn’t go out,” said Jia. “The results were excellent for the first time a major traffic artery in Los Angeles was completely closed. They (the MTA) didn’t over-do it, they communicated in a way that let people know if they went out, they’d experience problems. So no one went out, and there were no problems.”

They were strong results for a simple approach. In fact, LA county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said about two-thirds of motorists who would have been driving on Saturday chose to stay home.

So the apocalypse was avoided. However, many are already mulling over “Carmageddon II”: about 11 months from now when the other half of the project will close the route again. It’s part of a larger $1 billion improvement project that includes the construction of a northbound carpool lane in a 10 mile stretch between the 101 and the 10 freeways.

Critics say the end result of the project won’t justify the means. However, Jia says any improvement is better than none at all.

“In terms of capacity, another lane is a good thing,” Jia said. “But adding lanes is a reactive approach and not the best long-term solution. Due to Los Angeles’ massive population, the city needs to address the problem proactively.”

Jia says that the best way to ease the pain of congestion is to incorporate an integrated approach, which includes policy change in addition to the physical expansion and restoration of roads. The other avenues include promoting telecommuting and adjusting work shifts.

As for Carmageddon II, Jia says catastrophe is unlikely.

“LA drivers are smart. They’re experts at finding alternate routes,” Jia said. “If they know that there’s going to be a closure in their area, they’re going to stay away.”

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