By on July 13, 2011

As a product of the Golden State, there’s a lot that I appreciate about California: the weather, the immigrant diversity, the entrepreneurial spirit, and the fact that people drive fast just to name a few examples. But, having lived for years among fellow California refugees here in Oregon, there’s a lot of things I don’t look forward to when I find myself headed South, and chief among these is the traffic. But there’s traffic and then there’s traffic, and Southern California is currently gearing up for what promises to be the worst weekend of traffic in memory. A crucial portion LA’s infamous 405 freeway is shutting down for repairs on Friday and it will be closed all weekend. To someone who has never been to, or driven in Los Angeles, the reconstruction of a major intra-urban bridge and the addition of a new commuter lane in a single weekend might seem like impressively brisk work and cause for huzzahs. But in Los Angeles, where they don’t know Detroit claimed the tagline years ago, locals are hunkering down for “Carmageddon”… and their reactions form a fascinating comment on our national ambivalence towards driving.

If you don’t live in the LA area, this may be the first you’re hearing about this… but La-La land is transfixed. The LA Times gushes

In case you recently left a cult, returned from the moon or have just been blissfully ignoring Los Angeles news, consider the following a public service especially for you.  The southern half of the Mulholland Drive Bridge is about to be destroyed.

Right down to the choice of possible excuses for missing important LA news, the Times captures the spirit of the most fad-driven city in the world. As the LA Weekly puts it

Only in Los Angeles (hate that saying, but it’s true) would an empty freeway be considered a major sightseeing attraction. But on Day 4 of the countdown to Carmageddon, it’s just the kind of apocalyptic municipal madness we crave:

Madness you say? But what madness could the closure of 10 miles of freeway inspire in the level-headed citizens of Los Angeles? Where to start? 70 digital billboards are being turned over to warnings about the closure, the space donated by media giant Clear Channel. Not bizarre enough for you? How about the $400 helicopter tours (champagne included), or the $4 Jet Blue flights from Long Beach to Burbank (Saturday only)? Still too humdrum and everyday? How about the sinister threats of street action by the Midnight Ridazz bicycle club, which seems to want to “bomb” the 405 over the weekend? Metro officials are warning

… I recognize that there’s going to be a lot of interest in bicyclers and skateboarders … But … we are going to be working very closely with our friends at the California Highway Patrol … Keep ‘em well away unless your looking for a free ride home in the back of a police cruiser.

And public leaders seem to be getting in on the frenzy with as much gusto as the Ridazz:

“‘Carmageddon’ is not a phrase that I invented, but it’s certainly one I’ve exploited,” said County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes the closure area. The supervisor dedicated a page on his website to the closure, complete with a countdown ticker created by Metro.

And with the ball in their court, elected leaders are turning to the people Los Angeleans always turn to in times of trouble: Celebrities. With, it must be added, predictable results:

The LAPD contacted hundreds of celebrities, many who have already begun tweeting news of the closure to give their followers a “heads-up” on the upcoming traffic nightmare…

Access to 30 million followers with celebrity Twitter does have a downside, though. One of the Kardashians promptly complied with the LAPD’s request, but got the information wrong — twice.

Newly engaged sister Kim Kardashian jumped the gun, advising her 8 million followers of the wrong weekend. When notified of her mistake, she referred to the weekend before the planned closure, getting it wrong yet again. Kardashian proved the third time is indeed a charm, and her persistence in the getting the word out was appreciated by officials.

But what do the real Angelenos, the Joe Eightballs think of all the madness? Just another day, says writer/producer Rob Long in an LAT guest Op-Ed

Chaos on the 405 is anytime between 7 in the morning and 9 at night. Chaos on the 405 is weekday afternoons, summer evenings, rainy days and anytime a gallon of gas is slightly less than $4. Chaos on the 405 is a Type A guy in a BMW pounding furiously on his steering wheel as the traffic snakes slowly over the hill, a gigantic truck rumbling to his left and a Latino gardener in a rattling pickup truck on his right, with another guy in the back who stares at the raging BMW driver with expressionless eyes and an imperceptible smile.

Chaos, in other words, is situation normal for Los Angeles freeway traffic…

The freeways — all of them, not just the 405 — are a lie that we tell ourselves every day: Twenty minutes door to door; it’s just over the hill. Every day we approach the onramp with high expectations and hearts full of hope, and every day the 405 betrays us with unexplained delays and an unpredictable rush hour. Now, finally, we’ll know the truth: Freeways lie. Only surface streets tell the truth.

It may make a bigger impact on the one thing that unites all Angelenos than anything else in recent history, but at the end of the day “Carmageddon” is just another spectacle in a city that runs on spectacle. And, as usual, the sideshow helps cover up the painful truth: driving anywhere at almost any time in LA sucks. At least this way everyone can tell themselves it will all be better on Monday.

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39 Comments on “Carmageddon Dreamin’...”


  • avatar
    Advance_92

    Just take the red car (for a nickel).

  • avatar
    morbo

    Meh. Or as we call it on 395 in the DC Metro Area, Monday morning.

  • avatar
    kenzter

    I almost booked the JetBlue flights, just for kicks. But with nothing to do in Burbank for 4 hours, I thought better of it. Great PR stunt though!

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I was in Anahiem, CA last week and the “freak out” on local TV was quite humorous. My favorite was one of the stations that had a talking head on it discussing the alternate routes in great detail. They were treating it with the seriousness of thermo-nuclear war.

    • 0 avatar
      natebrau

      Heh- I spent about 7 years driving over the Mulholland bridge every work day as part of my commute.

      That said, it’s pretty much hyperbole to believe that L.A. traffic is really the worst- it’s bad, awful some days, but “the worst” only comes about because L.A. is great at self-promotion. Everything good is better here, and everything bad is worse here.

      The local news is even “local newsier” here, because, well, they cater to the lowest common denominator, and like everything else, there’s just more of the lowest common denominator here.

      So is it really (nation-wide, even international) news that “Carmageddon” is news here in L.A.?

      While I was planning on making it a low-key, stay-at-home weekend, my wife is probably going to make us all get out of town. So that’s the one group of people “Carmageddon” will really affect, those who want to get in and out of town. The stay-at-home locals? It’s just another weekend.

      • 0 avatar
        andrewpmk

        Try driving in Toronto traffic. We have the 401 which is about 18 lanes wide at its widest point, divided into “collector and “express” lanes and congested all the time, often even in the middle of the day and on weekends. The Gardiner and the DVP are notorious too. Mostly this has to do with the fact that Toronto has far fewer expressways than LA because many were cancelled in the 1970s e.g. the Spadina expressway which was cancelled south of Eglinton Avenue. Toronto’s traffic is much worse than LA.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      I don’t see the hyperbole. With 405 shut down, all the alternate routes will be bumper to bumper, which will slow down the freeways that feed those routes, etc….

      If I still lived there, I’d get out of town before the chaos begins or plan on sticking real close to home.

      The only time I really enjoyed driving in LA was blasting around downtown on a 1000cc Kawasaki on Sunday mornings. That was a long time ago, don’t know if downtown is still a ghost town on weekends.

  • avatar

    It’s not surprising. Angelinos can’t get to many of the places they need to go in their daily lives on foot or bicycle or transit (unlike several major east coast cities I can think of). The state has grown from 29.7 million in 1990 to 37-plus million in 2010, a third world growth rate that makes it extremely hard for infrastructure to keep up. I think the number of people helping to get the word out shows the level of dependence of Angelinos on their cars.

    (I love California Dreaming; it was the soundtrack for my own youthful California Dreaming, and the irony, here, is deep.)

    • 0 avatar
      mikey

      @David.. Me too it was world I could ONLY dream off. Mama Cass, and Canadisn boy, Denny Doherty, had the vocals. John Philips the musical talent. Michelle with the classic California girl looks.

      Yeah, now thats dreaming.

      • 0 avatar

        I recently learned Barry McGuire (“Eve Of Destruction”) originally sang “California Dreamin’”, over the very instrumental track you hear above.

        When Lou Adler signed The Mamas & The Papas to his Dunhill Records label…Barry’s vocal was erased off the track and The Mamas & The Papas sang over it…and the rest, as they say, is history.

        Reading this article again…I’m SO glad I live in Pittsburgh and NOT California!

      • 0 avatar
        The Wedding DJ

        Absolutely correct, budda-boom. In fact, they say that if you listen to the song with headphones, you can hear traces of McGuire’s vocals that weren’t completely erased.

        “California Dreamin’ ” is one of the greatest songs ever done by anybody, ever. Anyone who disagrees is WRONG!

  • avatar
    mikey

    I thought I heard on the news that the contractor will get fined for every 10 minute increment that they miss deadline?

    Is this true?

    • 0 avatar
      Alex French

      Could be. That’s how it works for contractors working at paper mills here in Maine. The mill accounts for the cost of the job and the cost of shutting down production, but if the job takes longer, the money has to come from somewhere.

    • 0 avatar
      CraigSu

      You heard right. $6000 for every ten minutes past deadline.

  • avatar
    V572625694

    One possible outcome is that everything will be fine, with no epic traffic jams. People are beginning to realize that removing freeways, or not building planned ones, sometimes makes things better, not worse.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2278883/entry/2278875/

    Should be interesting.

  • avatar

    I’m actually in LA this week on vacation having driven down from the Great White North.
    The local news reaction is almost surreal, like they’re expecting a Tsunami, and the coverage is wall to wall.
    There are other things happening in the world, but I’m not aware of it.
    Actually this is my first time driving some distance in LA and one thing you quickly realize is the stay right except to pass rule simply does not apply here. They pass to the left, the right, they cut across three lanes without a glance, and riding the middle lane doesn’t seem to be frowned upon.
    Concerns about gas mileage doesn’t seem to be a problem either since they speed everywhere always ready to hammer the brakes.
    It really is every man for himself out there but I’ve gotten used to it, and my out of country plates are an endless source of amusement for the locals (What’s an Alberta?)
    I’m enjoying my time here but I’m looking forward for the return trip through northern California, Oregon and Washington.
    Any travel tips through these states are always appreciated.

    • 0 avatar
      jbltg

      Touche TW. You are quite correct on all points. As a frequent user of this bridge, I will just avoid the whole west side this weekend and venture elsewhere in town, and not far. Which I think is the point of all the hype and drama.
      JB
      Hollywood

    • 0 avatar
      Sinistermisterman

      Hey TW – I just did a pretty big road trip down to California from BC just last month. My advice as follows:
      California – Ignore the speed limits, the rules… everything.
      Oregon – Probably the best state I drove through. Drivers are generally courteous and polite and usually obey the local traffic laws.
      Washington – Drivers are a bit more aggressive than Oregon, but are OK. The state troopers will pull you over for doing 3mph over the limit, then claim you were doing 20mph over the limit. Basically they see Canadian plates and smell blood!
      Oh, and if you do happen to come back via BC, I’m sure you know how to deal with them – assume they’re all asleep behind the wheel.
      Enjoy the trip.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      Don’t forget that you can’t pump your own gas in Oregon. And as sinister noted, drivers here are very polite. As far as speed goes, 5 over the limit is as far as I’d push it.

    • 0 avatar
      carlisimo

      If you drive through the SF Bay Area, don’t take 880 if you can help it. It’s rough, narrow, the scenery’s ugly, and 80mph is definitely a ticket which isn’t necessarily the case on some of the alternatives. You don’t need to drive as aggressively as you do in LA, but lane discipline is nearly as bad (it can be pretty good during commute hours, but non-commuters are terrible). In the cities SUV drivers are the worst; in the countryside SUV drivers are the best. San Francisco’s awesome to drive through if it isn’t rush hour, but it’s easy to get lost. Try the hills. Maybe avoid the Presidio right now because of all the construction work. My wife’s doing some of the design work out there but even she couldn’t find her way through all the detours.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      In the same sense that all politics is local, all calamities are local as well. Years back, I was in Orlando for training. As a life-long Midwesterner, I was flabbergasted to hear local reaction to the forecast of an overnight freeze. Local news went into full “team” coverage, complete with stern newscasters turning to reporters in the field with live updates. What will this mean for your home, your pets, your plants? I don’t think that an imminent hurricane could have gotten more concerned coverage. I’m thinking “put on a coat, for chrissakes, and suck it up”. Of course, in FL, uninsulated water pipes run thru the exposed, open area under the house, animals have minimal shelter and yards are full of extensive and expensive tropical plants that don’t even deal well with cool weather, much less a freeze. But I smirked to myself when the sun rose the next day and everyone pretty much managed to get on with their lives. Except, however, mid-morning when the instructor, who used to work for NASA, took us out to the parking lot so that we could watch the Space Shuttle launch (which is visible and audible even from Orlando), and I saw how much the freeze affected the O-rings on the Challenger. All calamities are local until they become tragedies.

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        “…I saw how much the freeze affected the O-rings on the Challenger…”

        You’re kidding, right?…You were there and saw that? My goodness, that had to be awful. I mean, it was bad enough watching the Columbia breaking up on live TV in 2003…sigh…

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    Back in 2002, I lived in Culver City, a suburban city adjacent to LA and sits RIGHT on the 405. I went down in search of work from Seattle and drove down via I-5 all the way and took the 405 to Slausen Ave to get off as the apt where we were living was just off that in the area known as Fox Hills. Actually, we lived just off of Slausen and Sepulvida Ave’s.

    Needless to say, I got familiar with the 405 and to a lesser extent the 10 and the 101 and of course, the 5 freeways.

    I did notice that from mid morning to mid afternoon (roughly 9AM to about 2PM, the 405 wasn’t bad at all and by 8PM, traffic decreases so it’s not so bad but dayum, it’s rush hour otherwise and you’re doing well to get above 30mph some days.

    One of the guys I was staying with worked up in Van Nuys and it’s normally about a 15-20 minute commute for him and it was when he left at something like 5:30AM to get to work but got off at 2pm and it took him over an hour to as much as 2 hours to go the same distance home.

    So for 6 months, I got fairly familiar with the city. :-)

    • 0 avatar
      cfclark

      Having driven in both Seattle and LA, I generally find driving on the 5 in Seattle just as frustrating if not more so. Why? So many routes in Seattle end up getting funneled onto a bridge with no alternative. At least in LA I can take alternate freeways or surface streets.

      I won’t argue that traffic in LA isn’t bad, but my current commute in LA runs an hour each way, give or take 20 minutes. When I lived in Nashville, my commute took an hour each way, give or take 20 minutes.

      My wife has an eye doc appointment in LA (though not on the west side) on Saturday afternoon, and we’re planning to go. I have my route planned out, no freeways involved–we’ll just go early and make an outing of it.

  • avatar
    Sinistermisterman

    My one and only experience of driving in and around LA lasted 3 days. I won’t ever be going back there. I’d rather shove sharp kitchen implements in my various orifices.

  • avatar

    The first time that I spent on the LA freeway system was in the late 80s. All I could think about was an early 70s song by Jerry Jeff Walker called “LA Freeway”. It made a lot of sense on that road for this Canucklehead.

  • avatar
    sushytom

    It’s been a few years since I lived in LA, but the 405 was always pretty bad even under normal conditions.

    I expect Los Angelenos will cope with this weekend crisis pretty well, just like we did in the Bay Area after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake shut down all the bridges for a few weeks. Not to mention NYC after 9/11. When people have to get serious about coping with a problem, that’s when they actually get serious and change their behavior. It’s a perfect excuse to stay close to home for a change and avoid unneeded trips. If it were a permanent shutdown, that would be a different story…

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    One thing to remember about the 405 that may explain why it’s such a big deal when it gets shut down and that’s because it’s a major freeway that interconnects up with I-5 at the San Fernando Valley, going south past places like Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, Hollywood and Culver City before dropping south past Long Beach, Signal Hill and ultimately meeting back up with the 5 freeway at Irvine before one continues on down south via the 5 to San Diego.

    It is a well traveled highway and passes LAX along the way so when it shuts down for major road work, I can imagine it causing major backups on other freeways such as the 101 and the 10 as well as the 5 through the heart of LA itself.

    • 0 avatar
      BigFire

      For the people in San Fernando Valley, 405 is pretty much the only way to get to LAX.

      I live West of 101/405 and work in Glendale, and I’m working from home tomorrow, since my commute is likely to be shot as a result of this. Hell, I’m avoiding the free this entire weekend.

  • avatar
    rocketrodeo

    The only times I’ve ever been on the 405 (what IS it about west coasters that they require a definite article in front of the highway number?), I was on a motorcycle. Lane sharing rocks. There’s no way I’d commute with anything other than a motorcycle there.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      “what IS it about west coasters that they require a definite article in front of the highway number?”

      Kind of like people in the Kansas City area using the terminology like “40 highway”, “70 highway”, etc. Same thing, different area. It’s a regional thing, one of the last things to distinguish an area.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      what IS it about west coasters that they require a definite article in front of the highway number?

      The Brits do the same thing. (“The” M25, “The” A4, etc.)

  • avatar

    I live in Detroit, so…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WL1lfSzgcAw

    I would take your place without any hesitation :)

  • avatar
    Zackman

    My wife and I have been paying attention to this for quite a while now. We’ve been to SoCal a few times and are going back this fall and are very familiar with the 405. If I lived there and just had to go over the hill for any reason that weekend, I’d seriously consider getting a hotel room for a few days near my destination – spend a bit of money to preserve my sanity. I think the other direction will be closed a month later for the same reason. We’ll be there late September, I know some of the surface streets and those I don’t, my GPS and map will.

    Can’t wait to see what kind of rental car we’ll get!

  • avatar
    priapism

    I live down the street from the Mulholland bridge, so I took this as an opportunity to take a vacation. I think it’s not going to be that bad–everyone I talk to is petrified of the situation and making plans to stay away. I think the traffic will be awful come Monday, but I’m betting the weekend will be pretty open.

    I’m pretty bummed I’m missing it now, actually. I’d love to see the chaos unfold from the lane-splitting ease of my motorcycle. Braap braap muthafunkas!

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      We must live fairly close. The big difference is, I had to drop off a visiting family from Europe children at LAX Saturday morning.

      The news, to him, of the closing had him decide (in time) to book a hotel by the airport the last night here, rather than spend it sleepless and biting nails over not making it on time.

      Those Ridazz guys are on to something, as when traffic gets really tight here, even motorcycles tend to get stuck trying to land split. For those with the legs and lungs, bicycles are the way to go during any rush hour around here.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    Well, as a 27 year alumni of Caltrans, the agency doing the work, I can tell you I-405 is a special animal. When maintenance is needed, engineers have to ask the traffic department for windows when there is least traffic for lane closures. For I-405 the usual window is something like 2:25 AM to 3:45 AM. The usual lane closure is two hours minimum, and that includes the 20 minutes needed to put down cones and 20 minutes to pick them back up again.

    On I-405, workers get 40 minutes to repair guardrail, restripe lanes and replace reflectors. Nothing can be done with the pavement itself, since that requires 4-5 hours to replace a slab, even with quick-setting concrete. About 10 years ago, the worst 2 mile stretch was closed for 8 hours and involved 4 contractors and about 200 workers. They still couldn’t get all the work done.

    I’m sure Caltrans has intricate detours and a detailed plan for this much larger closure. They’ve probably got a handout for the press but when it’s all over, expect detailed analysis of the operation both from Caltrans and the Feds. The extent of the planning will seem like it rivals the D-Day invasion.

    I-405 is about 100 miles long and the heart of it is about 60 miles long. The concrete pavement is nearing the end of its useful life and needs extensive replacement. This operation is working on only a 10 mile segment. Los Angelinos should expect this to happen at least five more times over the next several years.


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