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Critic's Notebook: Fast lane to gridlock

It will hurt to lose the 405 for a weekend not because we love freeways so much but because Los Angeles is so limited in terms of mobility. We've left ourselves with no escape hatches or viable alternatives.

July 12, 2011|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • A sign warns motorists of a two-day closure of Interstate 405 on July 16 and 17 because of construction.
A sign warns motorists of a two-day closure of Interstate 405 on July 16 and… (Jonathan Alcorn / Bloomberg )

Is it just me, or are you sort of glad that "Carmageddon" is happening?

For the small percentage of the population who will be seriously inconvenienced — the waitress, say, who lives in the Valley and is expected at work in Santa Monica at 6 a.m. Saturday — the shutdown this weekend of the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass may bring genuine if temporary hardship.

For the rest of us it has been a lesson in the almost comically central place that the freeway continues to hold in Southern California life in literal and symbolic terms.

In 1981, in a slim, thoughtful book called "L.A. Freeway," which I featured in May as part of my yearlong "Reading L.A." series on Southern California architecture and urbanism, a young writer named David Brodsly described our freeway system as "the city's great synecdoche, one of the few parts capable of standing for the whole."

Three decades later, it's clear that Southern California's great era of highway-building has been over for some time. We are churning out train lines instead of freeways now. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced last week that it's nearing final approval on a $641-million loan from Washington that will markedly accelerate construction of the Purple Line subway to the Westside.

But if Carmaggedon has proved anything it is that Brodsly's argument in "L.A. Freeway" still holds. When was the last time everybody in town was talking about the same thing, that we had this sort of water-cooler moment? O.J.?

There is certainly something to be said in this diffuse, diverse and distractible city for collectivity of any kind. And anything that forces us to imagine a Los Angeles without cars — or less dependent on cars, at any rate — has some civic value.

It's striking, though, that amid all this handwringing we've barely paused to ask the most basic questions about what the widening project means for the city and how we navigate it or how we think about the relationship between architecture and mobility in a city planned for more than half a century around the primacy of the car.

To begin with: Is widening the 405 (to add one solitary carpool lane on the freeway's northbound side) really something that we should be spending $1 billion on? Will it actually make traffic through the pass better? And if so, for how long?

After all, study after study has shown the ineffectiveness of this approach. As soon as you open up new lanes, drivers adjust: A few more decide to take the newly widened route each day, and before long the congestion is just as bad as before.

In this case, because an HOV lane is being added, some of the change in behavior will be virtuous, turning drivers into passengers. It's still tough to think of a less cost-efficient way to spend a billion dollars of public money.

On top of that — and here we begin to approach the real point — doesn't the general freakout over the shutdown suggest, in and of itself, its fundamental folly? It hurts to lose the 405 even for a weekend not because freeways are so valuable or because we love them so much but because we've painted ourselves in a corner in terms of mobility. We have left ourselves no escape hatches or viable alternatives. On that side of town, if you want to cover more than a few miles, particularly going north or south, the freeway is pretty much it.

Still, it's not as though L.A. has not been through this before. When the 10 Freeway was shut down for three months after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, drivers adjusted and life went on. Longtime Angelenos still talk about how light traffic was during the 1984 Summer Olympics, despite predictions of regionwide gridlock.

Another question that has scarcely been raised is why the extreme cynicism that many in the L.A. establishment bring to any debate over mass-transit funding doesn't seem to apply to equally expensive and cumbersome highway projects.

The conclusion that the local NBC affiliate came to about the 405 construction — "short-term pain, long-term gain" — has already hardened into conventional wisdom. It may be a horrific, apocalyptic weekend, in other words, but the benefit on the other side will be an easier daily commute for many thousands of people. Who cares if the evidence suggests that a couple of years from now the freeway will be back to the molasses speeds we've grown used to?

Compare that to the uproar after Metro admitted last year that a new Westside subway line may not actually reduce car traffic. A similar dose of doubt has greeted every announcement about plans for high-speed rail service between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Road projects of all varieties, on the other hand, continue to get the benefit of the doubt from press and public alike, something of which elected officials are keenly aware.

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