If it doesn’t say everything about Los Angeles and urban Americans that there was city-wide panic in the streets about this supposed carmageddon. Since it turned out to be nothing spectacular in either direction, that is the news story: nothing happened. It was Y2K all over again and it makes you wonder what we’d all do if there was ever a realized catastrophe (be careful what you wish for, I know). What struck me about it was that it was only two days of the 405 (or as we like to call it, the 4-oh-five miles per hour) being shut down – they were on a weekend. The 405 is rarely jammed on the weekend anyway. Try shutting it down during the work week for more than two days – then you’d see people lose their minds. But two measly days? Saturday and Sunday? Really media?
What happened was that it got quiet. Really quiet. Too quiet. It was peaceful. There were no cars on the freeways. Can you imagine the revolutions and evolutions in the biology in and around the freeways on those days? Can you imagine how clean the air must have been?
It was yet one more reason not to trust the chattering media — radio, television, print – they all created unnecessary widespread panic. Even if the reason it was so quiet and calm was in direct response to their hysteria it does give one pause, makes one distrust – the way you would if you saw someone you thought you knew have a crazy person meltdown in front of you.
You would maybe continue to know them but it would never be the same.
And so it was with watching the impossible — empty freeways — that it seemed, for a brief moment, that this wasn’t a city where people stayed in their cars. LA can get to you after a while because it is so unwelcoming. New York City, for all of its imperfections, is a city for people to interact — not in a friendly way, particularly, but still – you are on a subway, on a sidewalk, in a store and everywhere there are other people. Here in LA it’s possible to go a whole day with no personal contact at all. You can go in your car somewhere, windows rolled up, air conditioner on – and then back to your place where you plugin and interact online – a virtual community suits LAers.
The day no one could ride the 405 forced people to think about how they spent their time. Some went to the Farmer’s Market, some just took a walk down the street. Some just thought about it: where can I go without using my car? See, it wasn’t just about staying off the 405, it was about not crowding the streets and alternate routes – either way, we were all forced to think about this. So, for two days it worked. Not designed to last, though nothing is.
I’m going to strongly disagree about the media “creating unnecessary panic.” From my perspective, what the media did was repeat a message from government officials that if people behaved normally while the 405 was shut down, there could be real traffic problems. That message may have been repeated to excess — and certainly there was excessive coverage of what was happening (or not happening) during the shutdown — but ultimately, the reporting convinced people to briefly alter some deeply ingrained behavior, to the benefit of everyone.
My feeling is that everyone did exactly what they should have — officials in issuing the warnings, the media in reporting and the population at large in responding — but because it’s now being viewed as another Y2K, everyone will just behave normally during next year’s shutdown. And then we will have a mess.
It also goes to show how much gas & dirty energy we could save, if we really wanted to…