Here's a Great Idea. Let's Create a Massive Traffic Jam on Purpose!

LOS ANGELES

GELFAND’S WORLD--I'll start with the more serious side of this story, but then we'll get into a little MTA bashing which, I assure you, they well deserve. Let's start by imagining that there is an emergency in the harbor (maybe a fire on a ship is creating toxic fumes) that would require an evacuation. There are basically three northbound streets connecting San Pedro to the rest of the city -- Pacific Ave, Gaffey, and Western. There are a couple of roads leading across the Palos Verdes peninsula to the west, but they are minor elements in the transportation network. The bulk of traffic into and out of the area is along the north-south axis. 

 

We've been asking about evacuation routes as part of our neighborhood council exercise in emergency preparedness, but we've gotten precious little information from the authorities. In particular, the residents of the harbor area have not been told what they should do in the event of a real life emergency such as a toxic spill in the harbor or the emission of toxic vapors from any of the local refineries or storage tanks. The authorities haven't attempted exercises that would engage the people of the harbor area in some sort of simulated emergency. 

Well, this weekend we got a real life lesson -- thanks to the MTA and an organization called Ciclavia -- and it wasn't pretty. As a result, a few tens of thousands of San Pedro dwellers are now annoyed with the idea of bicycles in general, or at least bicycles as an organized invasion. Thoughtful observers also learned that the idea of a mass emergency evacuation is not credible as things now stand. 

Sunday, the Ciclavia came to San Pedro and Wilmington. This is an occasional event in which city streets are closed off from automotive traffic and opened to bicycles, hikers, and roller skaters. 

The event was advertised as running from 9 am to 4 pm on Sunday, August 13. What with setup and take-down time, that basically tied up this end of town for the whole day. A large part of Pacific Ave was closed to cars. The northern end of Harbor Blvd was also closed off. This is analogous to closing the 405 for the west side. 

The result of closing one-third of the north-south lanes in and out of San Pedro was that people who ordinarily would be traveling up Pacific were forced to detour onto Gaffey or Western. Both of those streets thereby (and predictably) became long traffic jams. There was also a collection of jams on side streets and along the east-west streets feeding the main streets. 

And yes, I understand that traffic jams are an occupational hazard of living in L.A., but that's the unavoidable result of real life conditions which involve people getting to work on time. It's different when a government agency creates the conditions that result in massive traffic jams for thousands of people in order to host a recreational (and largely symbolic) event. 

Our roads looked like a scene from one of those 1950s movies in which the whole population is trying to flee from an expected nuclear strike or flame-breathing reptilians i.e: lots of cars not going anywhere. The only part of the movie scenario that was missing was the roadside fist fights. For some reason, those 50s movies had to have a couple of guys duking it out over a lane change. And they all seemed to be wearing hats in those movies. Other than the hats and the fist fights, San Pedro 2017 might as well have been The War of the Worlds or Them! 

I would like to point out that whoever thought up this San Pedro Ciclavia thing was either a really shallow thinker or unconscionably rude. Here is one example: 

The Vincent Thomas Bridge allows people to cross the harbor's main shipping channel towards Terminal Island and Long Beach. On Sunday, cars approaching the bridge and cars heading towards the waterfront met in a giant mass of unmoving metal. The Ciclavia planners apparently did not think about the effects of closing Harbor Blvd, the road that runs along the waterfront -- in other words, that this traffic jam would be the inevitable result -- and they obviously did not think to prepare ways to deal with the problem. What would ordinarily be the journey of a few seconds was instead an endless wait. At any one time, there were hundreds of cars extending up onto the 110 freeway and stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on Gaffey. Apparently these cars had nowhere to go and just sat there. 

Worse yet, there was no way for the motorists to anticipate this problem. 

I guess I thought that the MTA had some traffic experts among the staff, but either the experts were not consulted or more likely, the Ciclavia planners are utterly contemptuous of people trying to go about their daily lives using automobiles. 

I'm going to take a guess that contempt is the problem. There seems to be precious little sympathy for the reality of Los Angeles -- that we are short on high speed public transportation (ie: none here in the harbor area) and that we are stuck with either waiting for long periods in the hot sun to take the bus or stuck with getting places in our cars. Writers from other states like to dust off that stupid old cliche about our "love affair with the car" but you and I know that it's anything but. We live in a big place and our destinations are widely spaced. 

So why would the MTA sponsor an event which would, predictably, inconvenience many thousands of people? 

Just as an aside, I'm not anti-bicycle. I used to do a lot of riding, including a memorable trip through Manhattan on Thanksgiving day, tours of the Revolutionary War sites in Massachusetts, and of course trips all over my native city of Los Angeles. 

But bicycles are not the replacement for the freeway commute. They are beneficial to health (unless you are prone to skin cancer or dehydration) but they have their limits. I like the idea of electrically assisted bikes for long journeys, but making this a practical alternative to the car is an immensely complicated undertaking that will require a huge amount of political and social capital. 

And by the way, if the MTA decides to do this kind of stunt again, it ought to do some predictive studies in advance about the effects on traffic, and then undertake remedial measures to minimize the difficulties that their event creates. It's analogous to the idea behind requiring an environmental impact study before doing some environmentally damaging project. At the very least, the Ciclavia planners should have considered more effective traffic control by the use of traffic officers. For example, the Vincent Thomas Bridge problem could and should have been dealt with through the judicious use of the police or the Highway Patrol. 

If you look at Ciclavia's online site you will get quite a different story. To hear them tell it, this is all about health, fun, and civic involvement. As they put it, "Ciclavia has impacted local and regional transportation policy related to pedestrians and bikes. Ciclavia improves air quality by reducing ultrafine particles in the air by over 20 percent." 

Well sure, if you remove all the diesel trucks from the road, you are going to reduce the level of ultrafines in the immediate area for a few hours. Of course the next day the pollution will be back. If Ciclavia is relying on the temporary reduction of ultrafine particle pollution to justify its existence, it is making a very weak case for itself. For example, the total level of pollution emitted by cars and trucks in the area was raised substantially due to the traffic jams that this event caused. The trucks sitting on Gaffey alone raised the air pollution significantly. Everyone who was stuck in those traffic jams got an increased dose of toxic air contaminants, including those ultrafine particles. 

What this event showed more than anything else is that event planners and the city agencies they answer to were not considerate of the people who live in the surrounding community. Had the reality of Sunday's event been discussed honestly and openly at the local neighborhood council, I doubt that there would have been a rousing vote of support. 

Hey, we're going to make it impossible for you to get from one side of Pacific Ave to the other for all of Sunday. If you want to go anywhere else in L.A., you'll have to sit on Gaffey or Western for at least half an hour, and we won't supply any traffic control to help the situation. If you want to get over to Long Beach, you better have a boat. What say you? 

It may be that doing a Ciclavia in another part of town that has abundant alternative routes would work better. Closing Wilshire Blvd would create a mess locally, but there are dozens of parallel routes within a short distance. (The problem for the motorist comes when he discovers that he is heading into a road block and has to detour to the east or west in order to get around the event. He is going to find himself in a traffic jam due to all the other cars and trucks looking for the detour.) 

In brief, the city should demand that such events do an impact study in advance and propose mitigation measures. This is also a topic that neighborhood councils ought to consider when their territory is the target. The default condition ought to be that neighborhood council consent is a requirement for the street closures to occur. 

Coming back to the more serious issue of emergency evacuation: Over the years, many of us have been asking the authorities about evacuation planning. As I've mentioned in these pages previously, we are told in rather vague terms that there is a plan, but the details would depend on the specifics, blah blah blah. And we are not told any specifics. Maybe I'm not asking the right person, but after a dozen years, you get a little tired of getting the runaround. I think that what Sunday showed is that absent a publicly known plan and some advance exercises, moving people out of the area would be akin to those 1950s horror films. As in other aspects of city life, if the crunch comes, its YOYO, as in You're On Your Own. We better get used to the idea of sheltering in place.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net.)

-cw

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