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What LA’s ‘Carmageddon’ can teach us all

There are many lessons to learn from this weekend’s closure of I-405 in Los Angeles. Perhaps our cities are not as dependent of freeways as we thought. Perhaps bicycling really is a viable (and fun!) means of transportation in our cities. Maybe our tendency to go into a collective hysteria over changes to our roadways is unnecessary and pessimistic.

Here’s what happened in LA this weekend: One of our nation’s busiest freeways was scheduled to be closed mid-Friday through mid-Monday (it actually reopened 17 hours ahead of time). The mayor was telling people to stay home all weekend. The transportation department and the media built the weekend up to be “Carmageddon.” The hysteria grew to the point that Jet Blue started offering $4 flights from and airport in Burbank to one in Long Beach, effectively flying over the sure-to-be chaos on the streets below.

Well, the Jet Blue flight pushed people over the edge. Tom Vanderbilt (author of “Traffic” and writer for Slate) tweeted that he wondered if some people riding bicycles couldn’t beat an airplane across town. As you might expect, there happened to be a group of bike riders up for that challenge (see his excellent write-up about the event for Slate).

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And thus #FlightVsBike began. In the end, one group (which included Bike Commute News’ Joe Anthony) drove to the airport, got on the plane and took a cab to the finish, one group rode bicycles, at least one person took public transit, a TV news crew drove their van and one person rollerbladed. The TV news crew got there first, finding the other freeways in the area practically empty, followed by the people riding bikes, then taking transit, then rollerblading, then finally by airplane.

In fact, the people riding bikes arrived in half the time it took to go through security, fly, then take a cab. Granted, they were a crew a fast, fit cyclists (though, for the record, they were riding legally and obeying all traffic rules). But even a person on rollerblades beat the plane, suggesting that even a more leisurely-paced person on a bicycle would have been competitive with the airplane.

Isn’t that empowering? That’s what I loved so much about this twist on the transportation mode challenge: The element of flight, jet fuel, hubris, imagination. I mean, who hasn’t been sitting in a traffic jam day dreaming of just lifting off and flying over the cars to get to your destination? Flying within your city is straight out of the Jetsons.

But if we get our heads out of the clouds, we can see that we have the power to get where we need to go using our feet and a clever, simple machine invented over a century ago.

Another lesson from Carmageddon shouldn’t be new here in Seattle, but it seems we could use a little refresher. THERE WAS NO CARMAGEDDON. They closed the highway and … it was fine. People figured out other ways to get what they needed done. It was such a non-issue that I hope some people are beginning to question whether they really needed a highway expansion in the first place.

As West Seattle Blog pointed out on Twitter: “LA’s Carmageddon-not is no surprise if you “lived through” Seattle’s Freeway Fright ’07.” Here’s a quote from an interesting post from WSB in ’07:

The state still promises it’ll all be over by this time tomorrow; all we’ll have to show for it is a slightly smoother drive on part of 5, and the knowledge we are flexible enough to try alternative means of commuting when we absolutely have to.

Look, the Seattle region needs to get even more brave. Carmageddon and Seattle’s so-called “Freeway Fright” show us that we are smart, adaptable people who can find our ways around obstacles to get where we’re going. Meanwhile, we have state and regional environmental goals that we are simply not going to reach unless we make a choice to do something. We also have an ever-growing population without room for more cars in our city (no matter how many highway lanes there are). The number of people riding bicycles is booming, the number of people taking transit is overwhelming and the number of people choosing to drive has gone down consistently for a decade and a half. That’s right, population is rising and the total amount of driving is going down. That means the regional driving rate is plummeting.

To date, this is the only argument I have heard in defense of the state’s $2 billion (at least) deep bore tunnel downtown: We are afraid there will be gridlock without it.

We know better. If LA can do entirely without I-405 and Seattle can handle a dramatically-reduced I-5, I think we can handle a state highway without a $5/day downtown bypass tunnel expected to carry a measly 40,000 cars per day. We are creative, smart and empowered people. We don’t need to let fear drive us to sacrifice $2 billion at the altar of the state highway gods in a desperate prayer that this plan — which has no evidence to suggest it will work — will deliver us from a future where some of us might have to change some of our habits. In fact, the state’s own environmental impact study is having a hard time demonstrating the plan will be any better than simply tearing down the viaduct and doing nothing to replace it.

The majority of our state, county and city politicians are telling us that we cannot live without a Hwy 99 freeway downtown. This unfounded pessimism is not the kind of leadership we need. We absolutely can make positive changes in our personal lives and change the shape of the city while we do it. Perhaps some City Council hopefuls will find success by spreading a message of empowerment and optimism.

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5 responses to “What LA’s ‘Carmageddon’ can teach us all”

  1. Gary

    Here’s the google maps suggested route:
    39 miles. For me riding alone it would have taken me 2 3/4 hrs or so, if I use my commute timings as my average riding speed. And I still beat the Jet! (and tie with the roller blade’r which makes me think I could have been faster as I can usually beat any roller blade’r I see when I’m riding.

    Still what a great marketing gimick by Jet Blue! And of all cities, LA should have a great bicycling culture, it’s flat, it’s warm, and it rarely rains!

  2. LWC

    I dislike the DBT plan as much as the next guy, but I don’t think comparing the removal of the viaduct to a temporary freeway closure will gain many converts from the “bore, baby, bore” crowd. It’s just not an apples-to-apples comparison. You make some good points here though – thanks for the insight.

  3. Charlie

    Building roads & freeways is not so much a matter of fear and pessimism as it is of power and money. The automobile and highway lobbies promote adding a lane to LA’s 405 at $100 million per mile, boring a $2 billion tunnel in Seattle, or any other car transportation projects. Need and empowerment are defined only in terms of the lobbies’ constituents and otherwise are meaningless. The charade starts at the federal level. Local leaders and politicians sell the projects locally to enrich themselves politically and financially. Cyclists, those using public transportation, folks with roller blades, pedestrians, and others using “alternative” transportation count for almost nothing.

  4. Todd Holman

    The lesson learned here is to always play it safe and overstate the impact. That way Jet Blue will keep selling $4 tickets! Awesome.

  5. […] Madrid soccer match got there “with time to kill.” Cyclists raced–and beat–JetBlue flights from Burbank to Long Beach in #FlightVsBike. “In fact,” recounts Seattle Bike Blog, “the people riding bikes arrived in half […]

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