A daily bulletin of news & opinion

21 July 2011

While Congress continues to argue over how to balance the nation’s budget and other areas of the globe fight phone-hacking scandals and civilian uprisings, it may be surprising that the front page of one of the US’s most popular broadsheets focused on a road closure last weekend. As Sunday’s New York Times landed faithfully on subscribers’ doorsteps across America, over a million readers were confronted by an odd image — that of the completely vacant Interstate 405 in Los Angeles, 10 miles of which were closed for 53 hours, from the morning of 16 June. One of the most congested routes in one of America’s most congested cities, the I-405 is the country’s busiest highway — used by over 500,000 vehicles each weekend. Running from Irvine in Orange County northwards through Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley, the 50 mile highway serves as an important artery for the country’s second largest city. In a metropolis with more cars per capita than any other in the world, the closure of the 405 — in order to demolish the Mulholland Bridge as part of a $1bn (€702m) highway-widening plan — caused total panic as to where the road’s usual traffic would be displaced.

Local news concocted slogans such as “carmageddon”, California’s Department of Transportation advised residents to stay home and even LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa described the situation as a “nightmare”. JetBlue Airways offered $4 fares to fly over the drama between Long Beach and Burbank and institutions such as the UCLA Medical Center treated the road closure like a disaster, acquiring nearby temporary accommodation as emergency quarters for staff.

However, finishing almost 18 hours ahead of schedule, the weekend’s closure of the 405 was perhaps more auspicious than it was apocalyptic. With drivers heeding advice to stay off the roads, traffic dropped by around 65 per cent. And as car-dependent Angelenos sought other means of moving around their city, a larger discussion has begun around transport habits in Los Angeles.

“Shifting public and political consensus towards public transport has been an ongoing battle over the last 30 years,” says Art Leahy, CEO of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “No on cared when the rail lines were torn out of the city in the 1960s, because gasoline was cheap and it was the era of the automobile. But the consensus has shifted now.”

Taking advantage of the weekend panic, a group of cyclists highlighted the time, cost and environmental benefits of their mode of transport by racing — and beating — the JetBlue commuter plane while local Gary Kavanagh documented the speed and ease of taking public transport from Burbank to Long Beach.

With better bus and rail networks in progress, the 405 closure may have convinced some locals to stay out of their cars for good. Hopefully, by the time phase two of the closure takes place next year, there will be fewer Angelenos worried about getting out of their cars.


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