First, there were President Obama's visits. Traffic got snarled everywhere he went. And it was bad.
Then, over the weekend, Prince William and his new wife visited Los Angeles. Again, clogged traffic accompanied their every move. And it, too, was bad.
But what's happening this weekend is unprecedented.
In case you've only been following real news (wherever that exists nowadays), the 405 freeway will be closed over the Santa Monica Mountains this weekend for bridge repair. It is not just our busiest freeway. It is the busiest freeway in the entire country. It is so vital for our ability to get up and down L.A. merely slowly that news of its temporary closure is being broadcast to international travelers who are planning to visit Los Angeles -- even in countries where they do have real news.
The last time the 405 was closed entirely for this long was never. When it opened 50 years ago, we had far fewer cars and people here. Four-lane -- two-lane in some parts -- Sepulveda Boulevard, which parallels the 405 over the mountain pass, had no doubt gotten too clogged for the daily commute. A giant, many-laned freeway was just what we needed.
Naturally, we responded the way we've done before -- and since -- every time we get a new freeway or freeway extension: We overpopulate the shit out of the areas adjacent to it, then use the shit out of it until we complain that it sucks. What makes the 405 different is that is the main artery that connects the two "halves" of Los Angeles: The Valley and The Westside.
For those of you not familiar with Los Angeles, there are other ways to get from The Valley to The Westside. There are also plenty of things to do on a weekend entirely in The Valley and entirely in The Westside without having to visit the other one. There are also other parts of Los Angeles entirely that have nothing to do with The Valley or The Westside. In other words, with a handful of exceptions (emergency response workers and Mountaingate residents have already expressed outrage), many people spend their weekends doing things that have nothing to do with the 405.
Since inaccessibility to the 405 hasn't happened to us since baby boomers got driver's licenses, we don't know how to react. Naturally, the majority of us cooler-than-cool showbiz hipsters have decided that the best course of action is to shit our pants. The term "Carmageddon" quickly entered everyone's lexicon. People are stocking up on supplies, planning to stay home the entire weekend. Some are already announcing they'll stay indoors the whole time, as if the sunshine itself will be tainted.
The whole thing has gotten so sensationalized that, among other things:
• At least one local TV station will provide live coverage throughout the weekend
• JetBlue offered flights between Burbank and Long Beach, which may be the shortest commercial flight in American aviation history. (The two available round-trips, which cost $8 per ticket plus taxes and fees, sold out within two hours.)
• To inform drivers in advance, CalTrans has posted electronic highway signs over 500 miles away
Many people, not realizing that you can be just as unaffected at home without going to the trouble of leaving town, will go to the trouble of leaving town. People north of the closure will head north on their available freeways; people south of it will head south on theirs. All of them are detached from the irony that by avoiding one freeway en masse, they'll be hitting others en masse, thus... getting stuck in... gridlock -- which they're ostensibly leaving town to avoid.
Based on all this, it seems like the safest place to be in Los Angeles during Carmageddon is...
Inordinate numbers of us will not go outside and inordinate numbers more will leave town. The relative few of us not in those categories have only this to say:
While the 405 closure is unprecedented, the panic it has incited is not. The same irrationality gripped us in 1984 when The Olympics came to town. Rumors of inconceivable overcrowding and 20-mile-radius parking jams flew freely.
They flew as freely as some of us are going to fly around town this weekend.
So go out and enjoy the sales and specials that retailers and restaurateurs are offering because they're afraid no one's going outside. You'll have them to yourself because, well, no one's going outside.
If you stay home all weekend, be sure to check back here for closure-related news as it breaks. In fact, let me save you the suspense and share the news with you now: There isn't any.
And if you misjudge the congestion or lack thereof, fret not. You'll have another chance. The city's going to shut down the same stretch of freeway again in 2012 for the rest of the construction project.
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