Any reader of the book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says about Us) by Tom Vanderbilt would be unsurprised that the of "" never really materialized. The highly researched book explains such paradoxes like cases where closing a route or reducing capacity actually improved traffic flow.
One of the flaws in a lot of conventional thinking on traffic is believing that the same number of drivers and vehicles that travel normally will seek alternative routes during a closure and jam up everywhere else. However, people do respond to changes in circumstances when they are aware in advance.
In the case of the 405 closure, many people re-prioritized where they needed to go. Some trips simply vanished, or people found alternatives like walking or biking somewhere closer, taking public transit, or making use of regional train services like Metrolink (which experienced it’s all-time ridership record during "Carmageddon") and Amtrak.
Speaking of Tom Vanderbilt, a friendly chat online with the author and journalist via Twitter brings me to how I spent my "Carmageddon." For those unaware, JetBlue offered between Burbank and Long Beach, capitalizing on the hype and media attention generated by the 405 closure, and fears that cars would have trouble getting across Los Angeles.
JetBlue’s tongue-in-cheek marketing associated with the flight indicated they were self-aware it was a bit silly to offer such a short journey. A couple of days before the flight, Vanderbilt speculated on Twitter that a good cyclist might be able to make the trip from Burbank to Long Beach faster than the flight, when considering door to door travel time and the airport process.
Especially considering how ideal the L.A. River bike path is for cycling speed, with miles of no traffic lights or cars between downtown L.A. and Long Beach, I thought it was totally doable.
That’s where I looped in my friend Don Ward (known as "Roadblock") of Wolfpack Hustle, a fast-paced urban cycling group that has also hosted quite a few epic races in Los Angeles. He was all over the idea, and before I knew it, with the help of others who jumped on board—like Joe Anthony of Bike Commute News—we had ourselves a race.
Joe got in touch with the JetBlue marketing department, also via Twitter, and was able to secure a seat on the flight free of charge. Joe, Don and I started spreading the word online; and my wife, Meghan Kavanagh, pitched in to help write a press release and contact various mainstream media outlets. Hype built up fast, and before I knew it, we were getting calls for local TV interviews. Rachel Maddow was talking all about our little "Flight vs. Bike" race on her MSNBC show.
Come race day, six fast riders selected from the Wolfpack crew were warming up. Then I decided to throw in another twist before our 10:50 a.m. departure time: I was going to travel between the same start and finish points we decided upon, a home in North Hollywood near the airport, and the light house adjacent the Long Beach Aquarium as a recognizable landmark for the finish—but I would be on foot and take public transit.
I thought it would be a great way to make the event about every kind of alternative transportation in L.A. and highlight the public-transit system here, which is often under-appreciated by those not already taking part in the 1 million-plus boardings on L.A. Metro buses and trains every day (plus ridership on local services like ).
The idea to introduce transit into the mix was appropriately hatched while traveling out to the starting point to help document the race, making a transfer from the Santa Monica #10 BBB to get to the Red Line subway.
In the end, it was really no contest. The cyclists were approaching Compton already when I caught the news while on the Blue Line train that the flight takeoff had been delayed 10 minutes and still hadn’t left the ground yet. Wolfpack ended up finishing first at 12:24 p.m., and I came in second at 12:44 p.m., losing out in the end due to the walking distance from my stop.
It was not the air travelers that came in third, though. It was Jenni Armstrong, an inline skater who jumped into the race and followed the same route as the cyclists, surprising us all by arriving at 1:24 p.m. Finally, the air travelers in the race, Joe Anthony and Ezra Horne, arrived at 1:42 p.m. after having one final delay with a taxi driver that mistook the light house finish line for a restaurant in the area that was light house-themed.
The whole "Flight vs. Bike" thing was all in good fun (and inadvertently for bike advocacy in L.A. County). But I think there are some serious lessons to be learned from it. Certainly, if a group of people on bikes can beat jet travelers across Los Angles, then bicycling deserves more respect in the discussion of transportation than it has received in the past.
Bikes can be much more than some toy for recreational purpose, as those who malign allocating space for bikes in the city often like to bemoan. While a 40-mile ride may be out of the cards for many, most trips made in the city are under 5 miles, and many are under 2 miles, very easily bikeable distances. Clearly, public transit—where direct and frequent service is available—is a fast, efficient and economical way to get places. So let’s invest in more of it.
Perhaps it wouldn't be so hard to find money to improve our regional transit services if we weren’t also spending billions on projects such as the 405 widening itself. Such freeway projects diminish in value for the cash invested with each gasping effort to squeeze in a few more cars.
The solid green lines that spanned across L.A. County freeways on traffic maps for most of the weekend, a rare sight to behold, also pointed out the benefit for drivers in encouraging more transportation options that aren’t driving.
For those who really needed to drive or simply wanted to, the freeway system actually worked as it was meant to for a change, offering fast and direct routes for automobiles without stoppage or congestion throughout the day. Even converting a small percentage of trips to other modes of travels can have a profound impact on traffic flow for those continuing to drive.
So even for a hardcore, “you can pry the steering wheel from my cold dead fingers” driver who never intends to get around by other means, it’s in their own interest as well to make alternatives to driving more attractive and viable for more people.
Do you think "Carmageddon" was overhyped? Share your thoughts . Also, don't miss Santa Monica Patch columnist Robbie Pickard's of "Carmageddon."