What Happened?

The perfect traffic jam? It didn't happen. All "alternate routes" gridlocked? It didn't happen. Hospitals unstaffed? Travelers stranded at LAX? The economy shattered? That didn't happen either.

The 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass was closed for about 36 hours, and life as we know it didn't end.

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What happened, of course, is that Angeleños acted with a mixture of common sense and fretful anxiety. They mostly stayed close to home when a ten-mile portion of the 405 began closing on Friday evening, just as Zach Behrens predicted in these pages.

The next day, police and state highway officials described traffic throughout the basin as "Saturday lite."

(Ironically, a "high speed pursuit" of fleeing suspects on Saturday evening was a nearly perfect tour of a wide-open freeway system. In the baleful light of circling news helicopters, the 101, the 5, the 605, the 60, the 15, the 210 and the 10 were traffic free.)

Carmageddon, to the relief of everyone, turned out to be a flop. Work on demolition went so well, that the 405 closure ended just after noon on Sunday, nearly 18 hours ahead of today's deadline. Los Angeles had failed to deliver the apocalyptic spectacle for which we - and the rest of the world - have such a sick longing.

We learned - contrary to mythology - that Angeleños are reasonably aware and resilient.

In fact, we learned a lot from this exercise, but not all of it was the right lesson.

We were reminded again how much the public agencies of Los Angeles County have invested in emergency planning and how effective a well-executed public information campaign can be. False panic - created and then dutifully reported by the media - didn't go far.

But we may have immunized ourselves too well, in the opinion of some emergency planners. We're already being warned to be afraid of not being afraid enough of Carmageddon 2, when the other side of the overpass comes down next year.

Saturday also seemed to have a message that life would be better if a kind of permanent Carmageddon were possible, and every day would be like Saturday. Advocates of a less driven L.A. may point to Carmageddon as a model of the future city, where auto-dependent residents cheerfully bike, walk, and take the bus to work because they know what's good for them.

Unfortunately, most drivers tend to believe that someone else - anyone else - should take the bus, ride a bike, stay at home, and accept diminished mobility. Not them, but you. (Or as actor Neil Patrick Harris tweeted in illustration of the effect: "I love having the 405 freeway closed. Traffic is nonexistent. Carmageddon is the best! I'm gonna Carma-get-in my car and run some errands."

Carmageddon put Harris back in a car, where most Americans put themselves on Monday morning. According to the American Community Survey (produced by the Census Bureau), only 5 percent of all American workers use public transit to get to work; just 2.9 percent walk; and 0.6 percent ride a bike to work. (The survey estimated that about 4.3 percent of American are at-home workers.)

There are places - Manhattan, some college towns, Portland - where history, geography, and preference have led to much higher percentages, but the best predictor of what takes you to work is not where you live but the kind of work you do. If you're young, creative, an IT person, or a college professor you're more likely to get to work by means other than a car regardless of the kind of neighborhood you live in.

Until a real catastrophe wipes out all forms of industrial work in Los Angeles - or until being working-class is fully ghettoized - the highways of Los Angeles won't be as free of other people as they were this Saturday . . . another lesson of Carmageddon.

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 image on this page was taken by flickr user calwest. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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