Time to Break Our Bad Transportation Habits

Wednesday, 28 Sep 2011 04:12 PM

By Susan Estrich

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Traffic, again. Or maybe I should say very light traffic.

This is the second time in recent months that we in Southern California have been warned of traffic nightmares because the president is coming to town.

And those warnings are nothing compared to the ones we received during last summer's "Carmageddon," in which the powers that be closed down the major north-south freeway on the west side of Los Angeles for the weekend, prompting predictions of gridlock beyond imagination.

Not.

Carmageddon was a breeze: less traffic on the streets and on the freeways that remained open. For the presidential visit just before this one, knowing I had to be in court south of Los Angeles and might be following a route similar to the president's in coming home, I had elaborate contingency plans as to how I could avoid the freeway and the major cross-streets and get home. Entirely unnecessary.

On Monday, I had no choice about anything in getting home from USC, where I teach, so I just headed into the abyss. All the local radio stations had set up separate websites and were broadcasting special traffic reports updating folks on street closures and the rest. I got home in less time than usual, even though the president was only about a mile or so away.

As a matter of fact, the only ones who have been inconvenienced by the president's recent visits are my dogs — because he lands practically inside of their dog park. No worries. They don't vote.

The president's traffic tie-ups are not going to cost him this very blue state. If he can't win here, he can't win anywhere. If he's going to block traffic somewhere, it might as well be here.

No, this column is not about President Obama's re-election hopes. It's about us — and by us, I mean those of us who drive in very congested, car-oriented cities, a group in which Angelenos must surely occupy a permanent place on the "honor roll."

Here is what I have learned: When we are warned about bad traffic, we somehow manage to drive less.

Businesses don't shut down; there have been no reports of widespread vacancies or sick calls based on traffic. Most people I know who left for work an hour earlier during Carmageddon got to their jobs at least an hour early. Ditto for Monday's commute. There were some problems in the immediate vicinity of the president's fundraisers, but as far as I can tell, that was about it.

The whole purpose of closing the freeway last summer was — yes — to add an extra lane for carpools. I certainly can see the advantages of a carpool lane. But spending hundreds of millions, if not billions, to add an extra lane so that more of us can fit on the freeway? Sadly, such programs aren't even creating many jobs. What they do, most of the time, is cause traffic.

My current commute route has one lane closed every morning for road building (infrastructure programs, I know), and it causes horrible traffic as a couple of guys in hard hats move cones. So do unpredictable lane closings when they aren't closing the whole freeway and there's little or no warning.

But what is most striking is that when we are all told that we should limit our driving, we find a way to do it.

When we are warned, we manage to make do, eat locally, see folks in the neighborhood and even (in car-obsessed Southern California) use public transportation.

There is a lesson in this, and it's not about the efficacy of warnings. It's about our potential to change our habits. We can do it, if we have a good reason. That's why the traffic is light on the days when it should be at its worst. The city can function without all of us driving alone to each of our destinations. We can break this dependency, if only because it will save us time to do so.

Which raises the question: Why are we spending all this money adding new lanes?




© Creators Syndicate Inc.

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