When Los Angeles traffic experts get depressed at the sorry state of the freeways, their minds sometimes drift to the improbable days of 1984, when the Olympic torch blazed through town and the city’s sea of cars parted.
For more than a week, downtown and Westside freeways worked as their creators had intended, whisking drivers from place to place.
The respite from congestion was flickeringly brief, but many still ask: Can the experiment be repeated?
For the 16-day event, transportation agencies put aside turf wars. Employees carpooled or worked staggered hours or took vacations. Truckers shifted deliveries to off-hours. Construction projects were rescheduled. Arterial lanes were reserved for buses. Two-way streets became one-way streets.
Actually? Despite all the measures, the entire city was braced for the worst traffic in memory. The staggered hours, shifted truck deliveries, etc. were implemented to keep the already crowded freeways from congealing into a gridlocked meltdown, among other things delaying athletes and media from reaching event venues. It was assumed that the traffic would still be terrible. It was a shock, a thrilling surprise, that traffic jams disappeared almost entirely.
But that’s not how young Times reporters and their sources remember it:
“We had essentially no congestion,” said David Roper, retired operations chief for the California Department of Transportation’s Los Angeles division. “What was behind all this was the feeling ‘I don’t want to be the guy who screws up the Olympics.’ “
You cannot be serious. This wasn’t altruism, it was fear! So many people I knew left town entirely. Everyone remembers that the 1984 Games made a profit. What’s often forgotten is that it made a profit from a brilliant sponsorship campaign, and not from ticket sales. Most Olympic events were not sold out. Few wanted to brave the traffic.
The reporters’ point is, it only takes a small percentage of drivers to stay off the freeways for the commute to go smoothly for everyone else. Today was proof. I had to go downtown for the first time on a weekday since gas prices zoomed past $4 a gallon. My route is basically the entire Harbor Freeway. I didn’t go at the traditional peak, but even at 10 a.m., it’s usually blocked from somewhere north of the 105 through downtown.
Not today. It was clear all the way, even through that crazy stretch where cars try pick their way to the correct lanes for the 5, 101, 110 and the exits. And I’m sure it’s because of the gas prices. I hear anecdotally that companies are shortening the work week, instituting telecommuting and making other arrangements to keep their employees from searching for work closer to home.
This is a big, fat, prize-bait series the Times is running. Obviously, it was conceived before gasoline got so expensive. The writers might not have expected it, but summer 2008 is going to be another Traffic Miracle, thanks to whatever you blame for high oil prices. Maybe by the end of the week, they’ll have figured it out.