Bad Karma-geddon? Conjecture, Construction and Congestion in L.A.

Workers demolish the south side of Mulholland overpass on the 405 freeway during the 53-hour total freeway closure resulting in massive traffic disruptions expected throughout the region on July 16, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. The bridge is being demolished as part of a $1 billion project to add carpool lanes and make other improvements along the 405 freeway from Orange County to the city of San Fernando. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

L.A.’s “Carmageddon” is over. For those in the rest of the country, or Angelenos who spent the last two months trekking in Bhutan or in monastic seclusion, Carmageddon was the result of the complete closure of a major Los Angeles freeway over the weekend. The results?

Carmageddon was predicted by almost all journalists and government officials to be a brewing traffic nightmare of unprecedented dimensions. Only a day before the event I was reading predictions by our transportation authorities stating that traffic as much as 50 miles away would reach nightmare-like proportions. Only a very few, including myself, predicted we would see a situation of unusually light traffic reminiscent of the last time a similar situation happened: the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

In fact, Carmageddon saw stunningly low traffic levels, with many who did venture out reporting they had never driven at such speeds in LA in their lifetimes. Moreover, fears that the project (which involved demolishing half of a bridge over the highway) would drag on into Monday’s rush hour proved totally unfounded, as the work was completed and the freeway reopened on Sunday afternoon, many hours ahead of schedule.

Had people attempted to drive as normal there undoubtedly would have been a traffic fiasco, but continual and shrill media warnings worked better than most dreamed, and the city stayed home for the weekend.

If they are to be taken at their word, the pundits have been proven to be extremely poor judges of human nature. One would think that at the very least the politicians, who create campaign ads, would be familiar with the fact that if you repeat something often enough in the media, you can get many people to believe it, no matter how outlandish it is.

But there’s another possibility. I wonder if many of the pundits were more astute than they let on and didn’t actually believe their own hype. Belief that heavy traffic would fail to materialize would raise an interesting moral dilemma. Suppose you believe, as I did, that Carmageddon would be a wet firecracker. Do you dare take to the airwaves, newspaper pages and blogs with that opinion? If not, you join the herd by propagating dire horror stories, you are a bit of a fibber, and, if you work for government, probably a soon-to-be-unemployed fibber.

On the other hand, if you tell the truth as you see it, and predict traffic will be negligible, you are contributing to a sense of complacency on the part of the public that might actually lead to the traffic nightmare you are prognosticating will not happen. If this is the case, by telling the truth you might be helping to make yourself a fibber. Either way, it seems like bad karma has to result from this.

It will be interesting to see what happens a year from now, when we have to go through this entire exercise again as the other half of the bridge comes down. Undoubtedly the Cassandras will prophecy doom and gloom again, but this time they will be on even shakier ground since observed reality from the first experience runs totally counter to the doomsday scenario.

But regardless of what they think to be true, and their personal standards of honesty, jawbone the prognosticators must, and with renewed fervor, because based on the results of Carmageddon:

  1. The public will probably be much more skeptical about entreaties to stay off the road for Carmageddon.
  2. Yet since the public will be less easy to scare because of what they learned the last time, this means that the traffic nightmare may have a better chance of coming to pass next time, actually lending honesty to predictions of catastrophe that might otherwise have little basis in the experience of Carmageddon.
  3. Confused? In addition to the transportation department we may need to get the economics game theorists and the philosophy department involved to sort all of this out.

In any event, truly talented spin will be required to repeat the triumph of last weekend. Will the public be spun? Many times when it comes to transportation policy I wish the electorate was better informed and wiser, but in this case we need to hope that the people of LA are extremely easily swayed by Jedi mind tricks.

Hence, if you live in L.A., please close your browser. I’ll wait. OK, now that they’re gone, for the rest of you I predict our propaganda will work and predictions of Carmageddon 2 will be as inaccurate as Carmageddon 1 and the other end-of-the-world scenarios that get pedaled from time to time. But if anybody from LA asks, tell them I predicted the mother of all traffic jams. By the time Carmageddon 2 fails to happen and they come looking for me demanding satisfaction, I’ll be off enjoying the beach in rare and spectacular seclusion.


As one urbanist put it, "adding more lanes to alleviate traffic is like loosening one's belt to cure obesity." It would be time for the US to realize that cars are the problem.


Although, you could make the same argument about the debt celing, right? :)

That said, I remember the night of the openinc ceremony in Atlanta in 1996. I drove the "top end perimeter" from I85 to I75, about 12 miles, in roughly 10 minutes, at 5PM on a Friday. Any other Friday, and that is anywhere from 30 minutes to 90 minutes.


Shades of Y2K (in a good way). Some were declaring that Y2K would be the end of the world as we knew it, yet for the most part January 1, 2000 was just another day. Why? There was such a shrill warning about the potential disaster that folks made (almost) every needed adjustment to the software that was supposed to take society down.

Had those warnings not been so adamant businesses might have taken Y2K too lightly, leaving us in a world of hurt. Since the warnings were not ignored, disasters were averted.

FWIW - I work with software that had to be update for Y2K. From 1996 through late 1999 the company I work for was busy upgrading the software, and the clients' installations of that software. We ended up with only two clients that had significant issues, and those were corrected relatively quickly.


"Carmageddon was predicted by almost all journalists and government officials to be a brewing traffic nightmare of unprecedented dimensions."

a. most journalists are now idiots unable to understand manufacturing and construction, contract deadlines, etc
b. gov't officials were "cya"ing so if the traffic did get bad they could have not been blamed ie "we told you so".

"as the work was completed and the freeway reopened on Sunday afternoon,"
And this is how it really happens in other parts of the country when a state's contract with the construction company is written correctly.

Mike B

I don't believe that officials were lying, just that what they said was predicated on people not taking any action to mitigate the effect of the Freeway closure. Everybody went in with the assumption that the public would pull a Hurricane Katrina and not bother to take any action to mitigate the impending disaster, in this case reducing their consumption of travel resources. I guess officials could have just asked people to please not drive citing the real possibility of massive traffic problems and it probably would have been effective, but with no prior experience to base their message on they had to simply assume the worst.

Next time I don't believe they will have to assume the worst again. In this case the public stayed off the roads so next time they can just cite how successful staying off the roads was in the past and ask people to do the same. They could even tailor the message and ask people not to travel on the 405 or its alternative routes. Even if people do go out and drive, causing delays, the whole region will still be on notice to expect such delays and IF they begin to form people will be more ready for them because the worst case message caused them to at least think about their options.


Russell Levy

Jewish tradition explains that Jonah had the same dilemma: he had to prophesize to the city of Nineveh that it was going to be destroyed. However, he knew they would repent, which means that it wouldn't be destroyed, and they'd kill him as a false prophet. So, he just fled the city so he wouldn't have to explain this problem to them...


Unless you're implying that (what I would call) the Old Testament Scriptures are themselves nothing more than Jewish tradition, it is misleading to say that Jonah's suspicion that God would relent is merely part of Jewish tradition -- in the text Jonah explicitly says to God that he knew He would relent.

Russell Levy

Maybe I'm mistaken, but I recall that the consequence of the repentance is not mentioned, and the hence the dilemma he faced.


Hmmm, how to use this to our advantage...?

Consider that the military or big business could come up with "nightmare" scenarios that cause people to do exactly what they want.

Oh, wait, that's why we're still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan--because the unthinkable might happen if we didn't. And then there's "Too Big To Fail"--a way of letting us know that if the banks aren't bailed out, the world as we know it will cease to exist.

Bet it wouldn't have mattered nearly so much.

Joshua Northey

Letting Wall Street collapse would have been the single best policy decision the US government could have made. Alas we instead signed up for more of the same...


In 10 years with Carmaggedon stuff sell for as much as Y2K stuff does today? Hey - high schooler who wants a PHD in econ.....take a snap shot of ebay and in 10 years you'll have your doctoral thesis.

Steve Bennett

You make it sound like there are two choices: predict chaos, or predict business-as-usual. What's wrong with a conditional prediction, "There will be chaos unless most people stay home", or even just "I advise everyone to stay home, and make sure chaos doesn't eventuate".

The Regular Joe

that's exactly what we need, more roads to be stuck on


I've lived in Washington, DC and seen the same thing happen multiple times here: warning of dire traffic predictions and telling everybody not to drive actually makes them not drive, resulting in drivers having a better experience than normal. There was even a TV ad campaign before Nationals Ballpark opened in 2008 warning drivers that they would be stuck for hours if they drove to the game instead of taking Metro. Hence, everybody took Metro and drivers got in and out of the garages in minutes.

Similar warnings were given for the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally this past fall. So I squeezed on an overcrowded bus (only after I tried to board three different trains that couldn't fit another person on them) to the mall that actually skipped over passengers waiting to board because there was no room for them. But the roads were completely empty.

As far as Obama's inauguration, well that wasn't underestimated at all.

But overall, it seems like more harm is done by not giving people enough warning rather than giving them too much. Like Eric, I'm interested to see what happens next year when there is actually precedence to counter the inevitable warnings that will be given. I tend to think that people will more heavily weight their previous experience than the doomsdayers and traffic will be significantly worse than it was this past weekend, although probably still not as bad as will be predicted.


jimmy u

Regardless of what the media forecasts, we Angelenos are a pretty traffic savvy bunch....tell us our main freeway artery in the area is closed for a couple of days and we can do the traffic math all by ourselves, thank you. I say to each his own. If you are willing to roll the dice in 2012 on open freeways, go ahead. The bottom line is gridlock is hell and most will do anything to avoid it if possible.....regardless of dire prognostications or not.