Learning the right lessons from LA’s “Carmageddon”

Carmageddon has come and gone, and the world didn’t end. The catalyst for the predicted disaster was the closure of Interstate 405 in Los Angeles for construction for the weekend of the 16th and 17th of July. Freeway closures aren’t all that unusual, but the 405 is not a regular freeway. It is both the busiest, and most congested road in America. The 405 carries an estimated half million vehicles per weekday. Had traffic been even close to normal volumes—even weekend volumes—the event would have earned the nickname. However, less people drove. Way less people. In fact, the roads were unusually empty.

There are two lessons that one might be tempted to take home from this:

  1. Persuasion can cause people to drive less.
  2. America could do with less freeways.

These are the wrong lessons to take away. Using moral suasion or fear to alter people’s behavior can work under certain circumstances, but it hasn’t helped alter people’s day to day commuting patterns. People drive more now than ever, even though the glamorization of automobiles has diminished, and the appeal of urban living has increased. There are plenty of people who choose urban, auto-free living, but that’s a choice that isn’t made by public interest campaigns. It may be the case that there are compelling arguments for stalling the growth of urban freeways, but using Carmageddon to make that point would be disingenuous.

The two real lessons of Carmageddon are:

  1. Persuasion can convince people to drive less under unusual circumstances–temporarily.
  2. When faced with the right incentives, people will drive less.

The fear stirred up about the closure for months obviously worked. Billboards went up; the media counted down; celebrities Tweeted warnings at the behest of the city; Mayor Villaraigosa advised people to “go on vacation,” and councilor Paul Koretz told people to “stay the Hell away.” But this only works in acute situations, where there is a credible threat. The fact that the apocalyptic term Carmageddon caught on certainly helped permeate the public consciousness. But everyone knows LA traffic is usually incredibly bad, yet they endure it on a daily basis. People in LA are grudgingly willing to tolerate the country’s worst traffic, but they’re not willing to venture into the city with Interstate 405 closed unless they have to. Since it was on a weekend, most of them didn’t. Many radio shows even pre-taped segments to keep their guests from getting stuck in traffic. Several film and television productions were shut down for the weekend. These types of deferrals can be arranged, but rarely, and with sufficient notice. Citing Carmageddon as an example of how we can do with less automobile traffic is like pointing to a blackout as an example of how we can reduce electricity consumption.

The most important lesson, though, is that people respond to incentives. Since the city obviously doesn’t want people to “stay the Hell away” forever, they’re going to have to come up with another way to use incentives if they want to tackle gridlock. LA drivers spend over half a billion hours per year stuck in excess traffic delays, which costs the economy roughly $12 billion dollars. Adding more freeway lanes seems like an obvious solution, except for the fact that it doesn’t work. Studies have shown that every percentage increase in roads leads to an equal percentage increase in driving. In other words, more roads mean more driving. There are certainly exceptions to this, since the optimal level of roads isn’t zero, but it does illustrate the fact that we can’t just build our way out of traffic congestion. Instead, we need to introduce strong incentives other than fear to reduce congestion. That incentive is congestion pricing.

While road tolls aren’t the most appealing thing to drivers, electronic tolls can reduce the amount of discretionary driving, and convince some number of people to take transit rather than driving. Some would describe this approach as a “War on Drivers,” but the reality is that the intention is precisely the opposite. It is an attempt to make sure that drivers can actually get where they need without soul crushing traffic. If that means they’ll have to pay $2 to drive to the store to get bread, maybe they’ll walk to the corner store instead. Incentives are important, and even small incentives can radically shift people’s behavior. Goading people into changing their behavior rarely works. Otherwise no one would drink cola, or eat trans-fats.  On ordinary days, people need to get places, and for most people, driving is more convenient. The number of people for which driving is the most convenient choice will decline if the urban renaissance being predicted does materialize, but we can’t count on the majority of existing drivers to abandon their cars and move to city cores. Acknowledging that cars will be the dominant mode of transportation for the foreseeable future, and that people drive more than they need to when it is free are key to addressing traffic congestion. Otherwise, everybody will continue to sit in traffic.

This piece originally appeared at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy Blog.

Steve Lafleur is a public policy analyst with the Frontier Center for Public Policy.

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