The Irony of Carmaggedon

Angelenos recently survived an event that threatened to unleash unknown terrors. Yes, I’m referring to Carmaggedon–or the closure of a ten-mile stretch of the 405 freeway this past weekend.

I was in L.A., my hometown, for the first two weeks of June and spotted freeway signs advertising this event of doom. At the time, I thought the city was advertising the closure a bit early, but I never would have predicted the media maelstrom the planned closure would cause.

There were cries of massive traffic jams on surface streets and fears over doctors and ambulances not being able to get to hospitals. City officials and the LAPD even asked celebrities to tweet about the closure. Of course, a lot of the exaggerated coverage was humorous, such as the YouTube video about Hitler’s difficulties dealing with the 405 shut down. Still, there was genuine concern that vehicular traffic would snarl surrounding streets, as half a million cars pass over the ten-mile section on a typical July weekend. Businesses talked of losing customers and tourists fretted over rescheduling vacations. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa predicted that the weekend would be “an absolute nightmare.”

Now that Carmaggedon has ended, L.A. officials are praising locals (and patting themselves on the back) for heeding warnings and staying off the road. It turns out Carmaggedon wasn’t so disastrous after all.

But is that really true?

The stretch of the 405 freeway was shut down in order to bulldoze the south side of the Mulholland Bridge, allowing crews to conduct bridge reconstruction and add a northbound carpool lane. (The north side of the bridge will be demolished in 11 months, requiring another freeway closure.)

In other words, the weekend closure was the small price to pay for a better commute and safer bridge in the future. But is an extra carpool lane really the answer to L.A.’s traffic woes?

I don’t think so. Carmaggedon highlighted the city’s need for more extensive, efficient and publicized public transportation–particularly on the West side. More freeway lanes encourage, rather than hinder, more cars. The irony of Carmaggedon is the construction project will only allow residents to continue commuting long distances to work, eventually creating more traffic and further polluting L.A.’s skyline.

I haven’t lived in L.A. in seven years. Now that I’ve enjoyed time away from my hometown in the Bay Area and New York, I feel ready to head back the City of Angels. My past year living in Manhattan really made me appreciate the glorious weather of the Southland. Although I’ve truly enjoyed my experience in the Big Apple, I miss the beauty of the Big Orange–the palm trees, the beach, the mountains. I’ve learned that fall colors are beautiful, but in general, seasons are overrated. In fact, most of them just plain suck. I’ll take mild winters and dry heat any day.

But it’s the very beauty of L.A. that makes me abhor the car culture that characterizes this city. The greenhouse gases that car pollution creates threatens the very ideal landscape and weather of L.A. And I worry that one day, my hometown will be better known as the city of heathens.

I’m currently reading David Owen’s Green Metropolis, which makes the argument that Manhattan is much greener than suburbia and the countryside, as well as cities like L.A.

My dire-hard L.A. friends shudder at New York’s tight living quarters, trash and concrete landscape. But the truth is that Angelenos are really a lot dirtier than New Yorkers. Sure the streets of Berkeley Hills have nary a trash bag in sight, but people in L.A. drive everywhere. And the more they drive, the more dirty air they create.

Moreover, Angelenos don’t just drive because L.A. is spread out, they drive because they are conditioned to–meaning they drive when it’s unnecessary, when a block’s walk will suffice or when an outside jog would be better than commuting to the gym treadmill. Driving is a way of life.

Of course, I’m hugely stereotyping, but my observations are pretty much true. According to a report by the UC Davis Land Use and Transportation Center, nearly half of all L.A. carbon dioxide emissions are from car use. The Davis report notes that 90% of L.A. households own a car. According to Owen, 46% of New Yorkers own a car (only 33% of Manhattan residents own a vehicle). So, if New York City were its own state, it would be the twelfth most populous, but the lowest in greenhouse gas emissions.

New Yorkers avoid driving not because they are environmental stewards, but because they pretty much have to. When you stick more than 1.5 million people in a 23 square-mile space, traveling by foot, bike or public transit is the only way to make the city livable. Thus, I doubt Angelenos will ever jump on board the train unless they’re forced to as well. The new construction on the 405 freeway will hardly encourage residents to look into better alternatives for getting around. Easing traffic will only enable drivers to push down harder on that accelerator. And the more carbon LA sends into the air, the less likely the beaches, mountains and palm tree weather will stay so nice.

While European cities are clamping down on carbon emissions by making it harder for their residents to drive, Los Angeles is doing just the opposite. I’d rather L.A. take on New York’s method of transportation than its sleet and humidity. A freezing, muggy or palm tree-free L.A. sounds much more disastrous to me than the closure of a few stretches of highway.

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2 Responses to The Irony of Carmaggedon

  1. stlexplorer says:

    Great post! Improved transit will make LA a much more attractive city to the conscious citizen of the modern world. It seems ridiculous that the city is continuing to invest in today’s autocentric culture while simultaneously acknowledging its unsustainability.

  2. raecal08 says:

    Thank you! I agree that improved transportation will make LA a much more attractive place, including for tourists, who often have to add the expense of renting a car, on top of airfare and hotel costs, when visiting the city.

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