Commuters stayed home or rescheduled work hours to avoid downtown congestion Tuesday as Pope John Paul II's visit ushered in Los Angeles' first free-flowing rush-hour traffic since the 1984 Olympics.
Traffic moved so smoothly, in fact, that a multi-agency command center set up at police headquarters to monitor the city's streets and highways shut down operations at noon, 12 hours early.
Heeding weeks of warnings that the papal visit--with its mid-morning motorcade--could result in massive downtown traffic snarls, commuters and parade spectators alike either headed into the Civic Center during the pre-dawn hours or watched the papal events unfold on their TV sets at home. Many of the motorcade area's 12,250 businesses, which employ about 355,000 workers, simply shut down for the day.
"I give these people a lot of credit," said Bill Keene, radio station KNX's veteran traffic reporter. "It's very typical that when you warn drivers around here that there are going to be problems, they have the moxie to stay away."
The normal 3 1/2-hour peak morning rush was cut in half, but exuberant traffic officials said the feared congestion still never materialized.
"It was a little heavier in the 4 to 5 a.m. area than it normally is, but there were no major problems," said Frank Lehr, a traffic operations manager for the state Department of Transportation.
"The (northbound) Santa Ana Freeway was very busy and as early as 5 this morning was really crowded, not stop and go, not even slow and go . . . just a full freeway, but there were no problems," said California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Jill Angel. Other major freeway routes into the downtown area experienced similar traffic flow.
And a spokesman for the Southern California Rapid Transit District, which added 100 buses on its 120 downtown lines, said overall morning ridership was at normal levels.
"It looked like a Sunday afternoon," said Al Greenstein, a spokesman for Atlantic-Richfield of the area around the oil company's headquarters at 5th and Flower streets. "People were absolutely scared away from downtown today," he said.
In anticipation of traffic preventing some of its 225 employees from getting to work, Bullock's put on some extra staffers at its 7th Market Place store, half a block from the parade route. "But the crowd just didn't materialize," said Kathryn McConville, the store's general manager.
Wells Fargo Bank granted the day off to most of its 200 to 300 workers in its headquarters building at 3rd Street and Grand Avenue. A spokesman for Bank of America, meanwhile, said the decision whether to close for the day was left to individual bank branch officials.
Officials attributed the rosy traffic picture to a steady stream of warnings that street and freeway ramp closures could combine with a million-plus parade crowd to produce heavier-than-normal rush-hour traffic or even gridlock. The closures, however, appeared to present only a mild inconvenience to drivers, as police estimated the parade crowd to be only a fraction of the 2 million hoped for by the Los Angeles archdiocese.
Afternoon commuter traffic, a mirror-image of the morning commute, also was trouble free. Traffic was reported heavy in the Coliseum area as people headed toward the Tuesday night papal Mass, but officials said it was not unusual for a Coliseum event.
Comparisons to the Olympic traffic situation were inevitable, although officials had cautioned that the regionwide 1984 Summer Games and Tuesday's downtown papal events differed in many respects.
In one respect, however, they are alike. Just as when the Olympics ended, now that Tuesday's papal events are over, officials expect the freeways to return to their normal congested state today.
But for many, it was fun while it lasted. Commented Donna Smith, 26, of Pasadena as she walked down the middle of empty Figueroa Street after the parade:
"This is fun. They ought to close off these streets more often," Smith said. "It's great. No cars. Let's have a street party."