Carmageddon v. telecommuting

As is generally known, the Los Angeles region depends for its economic survival on its cars and freeways. Tomorrow a key section of one of the world’s most traveled freeways, the 405, will shut down for at least 53 hours. This action is to allow demolition of a bridge in Sepulveda Pass as part of the project (costing an estimated $1 billion) to widen the 405. The pass is the principal connection through the Santa Monica mountains between the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles.  The shut-down allegedly is scheduled for the weekend in order to minimize the effect on business-related traffic, i.e., the daily commutes to and from work. Normally, if such a term can be applied to Los Angeles, the to-be-closed section of the 405 handles 500,000 cars per day during the weekends. So something in the order of 1 million cars are about to be blocked from their wonted activities.

Naturally, the local news media have been having a field week over the prospects, calling the impending automotive doom Carmageddon. Also naturally, in accordance with the law of perversity of the human psyche, people who live on one side of the city tend to work on the other side. This is the primary reason for the so-called rush hour; well, it once was called the rush hour, now it tends to be four hours, twice daily. On weekends people, freed from the need to commute to work, still get on the freeways to go shopping or whatever. The word lemmings comes to mind. Why, the imminent disaster might be comparable to that of the 1984 Olympics when similar scenarios were bruited about.

But wait! As I recall, the actual traffic in LA during the 1984 Olympics was much lighter than normal; almost free-flow. What happened was that:

  • Workers shifted work hours or telecommuted during the Olympics;
  • Families moved their shopping and entertainment travel to work around the Olympics;
  • Truck travel was confined to non-Olympic hours.

In short, millions of people quickly adapted to the need not to travel. Could this happen again?

One of my theories is that LA area commuters have so much of their daily time (typically at least an hour) taken up by getting to and from work that they have no time or energy left for shopping other than for immediate necessities. So they group the trips for less critical activities to the weekends. Hence the potentially 1 million travel-frustrated weekend shoppers (or beach-goers) not on the 405 this coming weekend. Most of our neighbors near the 405 plan to spend the weekend huddled at home in order to avoid the certain deluge of traffic jams seeking alternate routes.

Telecommuters, on the other hand, easily can merge shopping chores into their daily work schedules so the need for frantic weekend shopping trips is greatly diminished. In our household we ordinarily shop mid-week and avoid weekend travel so that we can miss the frustration and stress of weekend traffic. Carmagedddon has no effect on our usual routine. It’s possible that the real problem is all those non-telecommuters who feel that they need the freeways. That may also be the reason why the 405 through Sepulveda pass needs to be widened in the first place. Not counting the so-called freeway effect that forecasts that traffic on the 405 will be eased for as much as 6 months before it descends into gridlock once more, needing further widening (likely costing more than $1 billion the next time). Your taxpayer dollars at work.

Maybe Carmageddon will produce a new crop of telecommuters. I’ll report next week.

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