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The Crisis that Wasn't

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

For weeks, the signs were flashing on every freeway in Los Angeles: 405 closed between 10 and 110/July 16-17. EXPECT BIG DELAYS.

For those who don't speak "freeway," it meant that one of the region's busiest freeways, the San Diego freeway, would be closed from Friday night until Monday morning in the usually jammed corridor between the Valley (the 101) and West Los Angeles (the 10). Don't go out, we were warned. Don't plan on seeing friends on the other side of the great divide.

Carmageddon it was called.

It didn't happen.

Oh, yes, the freeway did close -- but only for 53 hours. And the traffic during that time was so light that the mayor took to the radio on Saturday warning people not to take the absence of traffic as a sign that they should go out. Visit with your neighbors, he advised (this in a city where many people only meet their neighbors when an earthquake forces them out of their house). Take public transportation, he advised (this in a city where there are no subways that run to or from the Westside). Ride your bike (this in a city where riding a bike is perilous, to say the least, given the absence of almost any bike lanes). Walk. (How far?)

While Washington fretted about the debt ceiling, people here fretted about the weekend.

The weekend worked out better than the debt ceiling. It was like living in a better version of Los Angeles -- a Los Angeles with fewer cars. Imagine how nice this city would be with less traffic, we all told each other.

The traffic was back on Monday. Already planners are worried that when we have to do this again in 11 months, no one will listen to their warnings, remembering how easy it was this time and thinking they'll be the only ones who remember. And we'll be in gridlock.

This is not the first time fear of terrible traffic has led to no traffic at all. It happened in 1984, I am told, when the Olympic traffic scare resulted in no traffic. It happened in 2000, when the Democratic Convention left streets and freeways all but empty.

There is a lesson in this, but I'm not sure it's one the planners want to hear.

If we can manage to live without everyone climbing into their cars 24/7, why do we only do it on designated disaster days? Imagine a city where there really were fewer cars on the road. It would be, in a word, great.

But that is not the city being built, not the reason the freeway closed. The project is to expand the freeway, and not to create a new trolley or subway or even a bus lane that would make for less traffic. To be fair, the idea of the expansion, in addition to creating jobs (Where are all those jobs, by the way? I see the workers; there seem to be a lot of them. But the job numbers certainly don't reflect that.), is to add more carpool lanes. Carpool lanes are as far as we are going in trying to get people out of their cars.

I have friends who have bought banged-up Priuses with carpool lane stickers as second (or third) cars so they can move faster on their commutes. I am not sure that is the solution to the region's future. The supposed "subway to the sea," which everyone has been talking about for years, is not, after all, going anywhere near the sea. It will stop miles away, either because it's too expensive, or because people and schools and others closer to the sea don't want a subway bringing others there, or both. You take your pick. And on its way to a few miles from the sea, it won't be going through downtown Beverly Hills, a mecca for shoppers and tourists, for all the same reasons.

The short answer is simply this: We got out of our cars for two days so we could get right back in them on Monday, with an extra lane in the future.

Is this really the future we should be building?


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See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich.

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