When the Wheels Slow

Go or stop.

Momentum - that's the meaning of this city. Forward movement is what defines the Angeleño experience. We're not who we wish to be unless we're in control of some vehicle - skateboard or Maserati - and the thing with wheels is in motion. (Watch the bicyclist making slow figure-eights while waiting at a red light. He doesn't want to lose momentum, doesn't want to be stopped.)

This is a city where wheels must turn. And when wheels begin to turn more slowly, when momentum is lost, Angeleños begin to experience an existential dead. What are we, if we're not drivers? If the wheels cease turning altogether, and momentum drains away, it's an intimation of our own mortality.

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Westside drivers feel entropy daily on the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass. And this month - from Friday evening, July 15 to Monday morning, July 18 - they've been told to expect final entropic chaos. For 53 hours, the 11-mile stretch of the northbound 405 from the 10 freeway to the 101 will be shut down to demolish half of a bridge that must be replaced to widen the freeway for a new "high occupancy vehicle" lane. (A four-mile length of the southbound 405 also will be closed. And since only half the bridge will be taken down in July, another week-end closure will be needed to remove the other half.)

Angeleños, tutored by years of dystopian commentary, have a sick fondness for local apocalypses. (Or is it carpocalypses?) We like to watch as things we value are taken from us (perhaps because we don't believe we deserve them). To our wheeled imaginations, the last humiliation is to be pedestrian.

Closure of the 405 is the sum of those fears. But we've overcome them before.

In 1984, even worse nightmares were predicted for the two weeks of the Los Angeles Olympic Games. Then - with competition sites spread over the county - we were made afraid that the entire freeway system would fail. It didn't. Some Angeleños left town. Some drove less. Some became better drivers temporarily. Some big employers staggered work hours or flexed their employees' time. Something worked, through good planning and good luck, to keep the momentum going. For drivers who remember those weeks, the experience of traffic-free freeways was almost exhilarating.

The scale is far smaller for July's 405 closure, but the impact point is more concentrated. An estimated 500,000 cars travel through the Sepulveda Pass on a typical summer weekend. And because Los Angeles is, geographically, a cluster of "islands on the land" fragmented by mountains and foothills, there are few alternatives. The fear has been building for weeks.

The reality is going to be bearable, just as it was in 1984. The warnings from city and county officials and Caltrans may be over the top, but the degree of planning is reassuring. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Officials have been working for months to develop emergency procedures during the closure, which is expected to jam freeways and many streets around the affected stretch. Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Andrew Smith said officials plan to set up mini police and emergency service stations in several areas around the closed freeway, provide airlift sites for paramedic helicopters and deploy hundreds of extra public safety personnel. . . . Authorities said they are also preparing a small army of motorcycle officers who can cut through traffic and respond to emergency calls. And they are stationing tow trucks throughout the area to remove cars that may be blocking traffic. . . . Los Angeles International Airport is going to increase the number of airport police and traffic officers, and the California Highway Patrol and area police are coordinating a local traffic management plan for major intersections leading to the airport.

As in 1984, some businesses are planning to close. Some are changing their operating hours. Some - like the area's hospitals - plan to house their staff members on site or nearby. And some drivers will stay home to watch news helicopters hover over the 405 and "carmageddon."

What they are likely to see is nothing much at all.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The images on this page were taken by flickr users drburtoni (top) and biofriendly (bottom). They are used under a Creative Commons License.

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1984: The Year of Catastrophic Traffic that Never Was

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Word. Unfortunately most of the transplants who live here either weren't born, weren't even here in '84 or refuse to believe that Los Angeles is worthy of hosting the Olympic games because we are, in their words, "Not a sports town."