Odds are you’ve already heard more than you really want to know by now about Carmageddon in Los Angeles last weekend. It was, after all, possibly the most overhyped local road closure in the history of automotive travel, and it came complete with enough breathless superlatives and portents of calamity to fuel a trailer for a Michael Bay movie.
There’s something to be learned from all that fearfully overblown rhetoric — something about how we, as societies, gauge the usefulness of our tools. Something pretty important, actually, about why we need to learn not to listen to doomsaying every time we suggest modern life be lived for even a weekend without the ready use of cars. But first, let’s get the basics of this Tinseltown tizzy sorted.
In the final days before the construction-mandated 53-hour closure of a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 405 — the busiest highway in America — commentators in America’s most car-obsessed metropolis and far beyond fell over themselves trying to describe the scale of impending disaster. The potential calamity quickly earned the nickname “Carmageddon.” LA’s mayor warned of an “absolute nightmare” about to unfold. In anticipation of what Reuters dubbed “a jam of biblical proportions,” workers at the city’s biggest airport, LAX, holed up in hotels nearby to avoid wrath-of-God commutes; JetBlue launched a handful of gimmicky “emergency” flights from Long Beach to Burbank, which promised to carry refugees over the closed strip of the 405 for four bucks; local resorts offered special “escape” packages for those with sufficient survival instincts to flee the city; and a platoon of motorcycle-riding emergency crews was deployed citywide.
An official at UCLA’s medical center described it as a “planned disaster.” A commentator over at the Huffington Post, apparently driven to delirium by such reserved language, warned of “the traffic equivalent of D-Day.” To those poor Angeleno souls obliged to get behind the wheel last weekend, the Huffington Post's apopleptic poster could only say, “I don’t think even God will be able to help you.”
As is all too often the case with predictions of impending doom, chaos failed to ensue. No Mother of All Gridlocks. No cascading Y2K-buggy collapse of the transport system citywide. No Carmageddon, not even an automotive Pearl Harbor. Michael Bay would’ve ankled this adrenaline-deficient nonstarter faster than you could say "The Rock II: Electric Boogaloo." As a sharp tongue at Forbes put it, the whole production was “more like Ishtar than Avatar.”
For the record, traffic fell to 65 percent below its usual volume on LA’s freeways as many people wisely passed a summer weekend close to home or took advantage of the free transit available in many parts of the city, and the road itself opened 17 hours early. The only remarkable story was the one where a handful of cyclists and transit users raced the JetBlue passengers across the city. The riders of bikes and subway trains won handily, reaching the finish line before the Burbank-to-Long-Beach flight had even touched down and setting the intertubes all a-Twitter with their apocalypse-defying exploits.
The real story here, though, is not what actually happened but what the car drivers, transport engineers and discombobulated Huffington Post bloggers of the auto-philic world believed was a plausible outcome of a single weekend’s road closure. The thing got press worldwide, after all, not just because it was a silly-season story about superficial LA but because the denial of automotive freedom touches such sensitive nerves in so many places. We have all endured traffic snarls on mini-epic scale; we’ve felt that panic, that sense of helpless trapped terror. We’ve wondered: what if it never ended? What if I could no longer commute by car for a week? A month? What if it stretched on forever? And we, the automobilized masses, have found it hard to fathom a life on the other side of such traffic chaos. Would there even be a life worth living at the end of the endless commute?
We empathized with Carmageddon. It wasn’t just frivolous Schadenfreude-rich fun; it was that it struck many of us, I’d wager, as an appropriate scale of response. It was silly, but it was also, you know, understandable. And we deemed it so because of what behavioral economists call the “endowment effect.” In countless ways in our everyday lives, we vastly overvalue what we have, we massively exaggerate the cost of losing our stuff, and we can’t see accurately what we might gain from having something else.
In one notable study of the endowment effect conducted by Dan Ariely (and recounted in his Predictably Irrational), he tried to find buyers and sellers for tickets to Duke University playoff basketball games; the tickets had been won by lottery and had no face value. Not only was there not a single buyer willing to pay what a single seller was willing to accept in exchange for parting with such a precious item, but the average gap in price between potential buyer and potential seller was more than $2,200. Such was the scale of the endowment effect for those who won the tickets.
Our car-centered commuter culture is a case of the endowment effect writ large, at metropolis scale, across a century of transportation convenience. There is, without question, some real value in owning a car. There’s true freedom in being able to hop behind the wheel and just go. But the costs are at least as huge — fuel bills, pollution, sprawl, oil addiction, traffic fatalaties at a routine pace that would amount to an actual catastrophe if we treated them as anything other than the necessary cost of keeping us motoring. And our sense of the scale of our loss, should anything challenge our car-centered world order or change its priorities, is far beyond what actually occurs.
Another case in point: Times Square in New York City. Starting in May 2009, Broadway was closed to cars forever from 42nd Street to 47th in Midtown Manhattan. Commentators predicted traffic chaos, merchants feared for lost business, Broadway theater operators fretted over the likelihood of shrinking audiences. A New York Post columnist, with typical Murdoch-rag restraint, declared the pedestrianization of Times Square quite simply the worst idea “in the annals of stupid ideas.” Again, though, chaos failed to ensue. Not only did the new public space prove popular with tourists and locals alike, but northbound cabs could actually cross Midtown faster due to the restructuring of their routes.
The endowment effect predicts that we will react with intense fear to any threat to our commute. Experience, however, has demonstrated time and again that life not only goes on beyond the road closure, it often gets better. Carmageddon wasn’t the end of LA, and just maybe it could be the beginning of a more constructive discussion about how we move around our cities.
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