Carmageddon: Why Did Nothing Happen?

Despite months of hand-wringing and apocalyptic warnings of doom and destruction, Los Angeles’s weekend of “Carmageddon” resulted in exactly nothing happening.  Tales of traffic being backed up “to the Mexico border” and “worse” were told for weeks, and officials warned the populace to prepare for the worst as the 405 was shut down for 53 hours for the demolition of a bridge to widen the freeway.  How is it that arguably the most car-dependent city on the planet could completely close off the busiest section of highway in the country with literally no impact on traffic?  The answer: induced demand.

Traffic engineers once analyzed car traffic as they would a fluid–if you don’t direct it down one street, its going to flow onto others, causing “flooding” at pinch points.  Now traffic is analyzed like you would analyze a gas–it expands and contracts to fill whatever space you give it.  This is why anytime you add another lane to the freeway, the traffic will inevitably expand to fill that space, and traffic is as bad as ever.  Traffic expands (not necessarily in proportion to population growth) to fill every space you give it, inducing the demand every time. This is why despite the fact that no city on the planet has ever built their way out of traffic congestion, every city continues to try. And spends billions doing it.

The hype over Carmageddon led JetBlue to offer $4 flights between Burbank and Long Beach, another chapter in the never ending war among transportation modes. One group of bloggers/cyclists held a race to see who could get across the metropolis faster. The answer: bicyclists.

In the case of Carmageddon, the warnings seemed to have worked. Demand was virtually non-existent, thanks to a wide-spread campaign of warnings from every direction.  One blogger observed:

This weekend, most especially Friday afternoon and evening proved something that I hope transportation planners, city leaders, and local citizens will keep in mind. It is as simple as it is true. Fewer cars on the road equal less traffic. Less traffic means better quality of life. So what is the real way to put fewer cars on the road, wider freeways and more HOV lanes? Of course not. We keep trying that solution and it fails again and again.

The best solution was the one we all learned on Friday with the only real expense being an over abundance of media attention. People stayed home. People worked from home. Employers staggered work schedules, enabling employees to take the day off, work from home, or leave early. And you know what.

It worked. It worked better than a multi-billion dollar subway, worked better than wider and wider freeways. People all over the Southland were given a crystal clear message and they responded.

What do we learn from Carmageddon?  I suppose as this blogger stated: “Less traffic means better quality of life.” And perhaps we could consider the idea that another lane on the freeway isn’t necessarily going to solve our problems.  We may have solutions available already, we just need the to figure out how to enable those solutions without reaching the crazy rhetoric that surrounded Carmageddon 2011.


Running on Empty (Revisited) from Ross Ching on Vimeo.