Pope John Paul II's winding parade Tuesday through several Los Angeles ethnic neighborhoods and business areas will take only about 45 minutes, but traffic planners have approached the event with the kind of concern that went into preparing for the 16 days of the 1984 Olympics.
Whether all of that planning pays off with the same sort of trouble-free traffic experienced during the Summer Games or ends in the gridlock they have worked so hard to avoid will hinge on one crucial element: crowd size. No one knows for certain how many of the faithful or the curious will materialize to wave at and cheer the pontiff; city traffic planners estimate anywhere from 1 million to 2 million.
As a result of what they call "the big unknown," traffic planners and police officials alike have been forced to prepare for the worst. The Los Angeles Police Department has canceled all days off, moved officers off desk jobs and placed most sworn personnel on 12-hour shifts for security and traffic-related purposes.
Police Cmdr. George Morrison last week predicted "a massive traffic problem" and said he is concerned not only about protecting the Pope but also "making sure the general population is also protected . . . that we don't engage in activity where there could be a crush of people, for example."
During the Olympics, Morrison and other planners knew that gridlock would strangle normal congested rush-hour flow unless commuters and Olympic spectators alike applied such concepts as flex-time, staggered hours and car pools. An unprecedented level of cooperation, from government and private businesses, developed, and holiday-like traffic resulted.
This week, some of those same congestion-busting strategies will be tried again on government and private sector levels. The conditions are not the same, however.
Even though Tuesday's motorcade is a brief one, its location in the hub of the downtown business district during a weekday could have a massive, rippling effect on movement in the region.
Unlike the '84 Games, the papal parade will force the 95,000 morning rush-hour commuters who normally pour into the Central Business District to contend with street and freeway on- and off-ramp closures. In addition, street closings will bar late arrivers from pulling into their regular parking places or block cars of early arrivers from leaving most of the day.
And even during worst-case Olympic traffic projections, bus riders heading downtown would have fared substantially better then than on Tuesday morning, when tens of thousands of them will be dropped off several blocks from their usual spots, possibly in unfamiliar surroundings, due to closed streets.
Thomas Conner, a city traffic planner, said that if the spectator crowd is under a million, the traffic picture should be manageable.
"If people don't heed the advice and the crowd is large," he added, "then no matter what we do in terms of traffic signal timing and police officers and traffic officers and barricading and engineers in the field and cones and signs and buses, we're going to have congestion."
Papal visit officials have voiced confidence that traffic problems will be minimal and have encouraged a large turnout to greet the pontiff. Archbishop Roger M. Mahony said last week he hopes that up to 2 million will line the route.
Trouble With 2 Million
But Conner said such a turnout would spell trouble: "If the crowd goes as high as 2 million, the areas of congestion might go even larger than what we have (predicted) on congestion maps."
There is, of course, a real chance that all of the traffic warnings may discourage people from showing up to greet the Pope.
Motorcades in Miami, South Carolina and New Orleans in the last several days attracted smaller crowds than had been predicted.
Asked about this phenomenon Saturday, Melanie Savage, a spokeswoman for the Papal Visit Office here, said: "The Pope hasn't put a number of people he needs to see. He has no requirement for how many people show up, so why should we? We're persuaded by the adage, 'Everyone loves a parade.'
"We don't want to scare people. For a lot of people, this will be their only opportunity see the Holy Father. . . . There will be congestion, no one says there won't be. There just isn't going to be gridlock."
Scare Away Some
Conner said the only people Los Angeles officials want to scare from the downtown area are those not already planning to attend the motorcade and who have no need to enter the Central Business District on Tuesday.
Conner said the normal three-hour morning rush will be compacted into two hours if commuter and spectator traffic mixes on Tuesday. He advised all downtown commuters, regardless of when they normally go to work, to leave an hour earlier than normal.
Last week, the city set up a special traffic information hot line to answer questions in English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean. The number is (213) 617-8500.