The Lesson of the 405


Monday, July 18 Sunny pleasant Monday morning with a ride in the front seat of a Toyota Prius. Our driver is a 30s something lady wearing gray sweat pants and a brown sweater. I drop my $1.25 into the cup holder and off we go. We’re hardly 2 miles down the road when traffic starts drastically slowing down. Fearing the worst we crane our necks peering over the traffic to see what disaster lies ahead. All we see is a CHP officer standing by the side of the road with a small pick up truck and driver. One of those never to be solved freeway mysteries. Traffic picks up and we’re soon rolling along again at 60 mph. The driver tells me she’s somewhat new to casual carpooling. “I’ve been enjoying the yellow sticker privileges because of the Prius”, she says. “But no more”. Sounds like she’s been enjoying the luxury and privacy of being a single driver as well. But I point out that now she’s completely toll-free, with two paying passengers covering her toll. She agrees, and says it’s not bad at all. As we near San Pablo, once again there is slowing, and looking down the hill we see traffic completely stopped in all lanes. The sight of an empty freeway makes me think there’s been an horrendous accident, but once again there seems to be nothing going on and traffic mysteriously resumes.

Seeing the empty lanes brought to mind recent images of this past weekend’s closing of 10 miles of the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. Perhaps you saw those pictures of that beautifully empty freeway, stretching car-free into the distance. As a former driver of the 405, I have never experienced even light traffic on that route, so it was an amazing sight, indeed. L.A. officials feared the worst with the closing, and a “Carmageddon” was predicted with snarled traffic and backups galore.

Instead, the much publicized week-end began on Saturday morning with nearly deserted streets – the major intersection of the Interstate 405 and Sunset Boulevard was empty except for a few police officers. And all they had to deal with was a group of curious trespassers with cameras, hoping to get a photo of the historic event. Officers at other major intersections simply stood at the ready, with nothing to do.

The weekend closing allowed the demolition of a portion of a bridge that crosses over the 405 freeway. Later in the year, the freeway will be closed once again while the other half of the bridge is torn down. The demolition is part of a plan that will extend L.A. Basin CARPOOL LANES, (yay!) connecting Orange County to the San Fernando Valley.

In a somewhat eccentric move, JetBlue offered flights from Burbank to Long Beach (a distance of 40 miles, about the amount of my carpool commute from Vallejo to San Francisco) for $4.00 during the freeway closure. They sold out.

Responding to the absurdity of flying on a jet for 40 miles, a group of six bicyclists, from a Los Angeles bike group called Wolfpack Hustle challenged Jet Blue, claiming they would arrive in Long Beach before the airline. And they did. Both the bikers and the fliers left from the same intersection in North Hollywood at 10:50 a.m. on Saturday morning. The six pedalers arrived in Long Beach an hour and 20 minutes BEFORE the passengers on Jet Blue. Although the flight itself lasted only 20 minutes, ground transportation and security gave the bikers the edge.

Another Angelino decided to take public transportation and made the trip in 2 hours, 2 minutes, proving, he said, “that there are transportation alternatives, even in L.A.”

The obvious lesson here is that there are ways to get around without a car and without depending on freeways. Although we are not all about to leap onto our bicycles each morning for a 40 mile commute to our jobs, the L.A. story, ridiculous as it may seem (405 t-shirts being sold along the freeway, drivers honking and cheering when the freeway re-opened, exotic snacks and a 405-decorated cake served on the Jet Blue flights) proves that we humans are an ingenious lot. If those committed 405 commuters were able to abandon their freeway for 53 hours, just think what the rest of us car junkies might accomplish if we started to seriously consider, and demand alternatives. Those of us in the casual carpool are off to a very good start.

One Response

  1. Great post. Loved the bike vs plane story. You are right, people can figure out what to do when they need to. What we need them to see now is that the power to solve traffic congestion is in their hands, every day. Just be a passenger some of the time.

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