Carmageddon brought out the 'very best' in people. What about next time?

Carmageddon that wasn't: Los Angeles rose to the occasion and avoided apocalyptic traffic jams. What led to the weekend of highway harmony, and will it happen again in 11 months?

Reed Saxon / AP
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (l.) and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky hold souvenir concrete chips as they celebrate I-405 reopening ahead of schedule, on July 17 in Los Angeles. The event that many feared would be the 'Carmageddon' of epic traffic jams cruised calmly toward a finish Sunday as bridge work on the Los Angeles roadway was completed 16 hours ahead of schedule and officials reopened a 10-mile stretch of one of the nation's busiest freeways.

Now that this entire city is smiling over the great traffic jam that wasn’t, during the three-day closure of its biggest traffic artery, homeowners, newspapers, and traffic experts are huddling to assess what lessons should – and shouldn’t – be taken away from the so-called Carmageddon.

Such lessons will be important when the city faces the exact same exercise in 11 months, as engineers demolish the other side of the Mulholland Bridge –all part of a massive engineering project to create a carpool lane for I-405.

Alternate routes did not jam up. Adjacent neighborhoods did not turn into parking lots. Hospitals and emergency rooms remained fully staffed and no stranded motorists abandoned their cars.

“I wish it was this way every weekend,” said Kathy Sublette, a life-long San Fernando Valley resident. “It reminded me of the good ol’ days when stores used to be closed on Sundays and everyone took it down a notch.”

So why can't this kind of slowdown happen more regularly, or even permanently?

That's like asking people why they can’t behave as kindly all year long as they do during the winter holiday season, say psychologists.

Such episodes rely on dozens of interrelated factors that range from the time of year to the perceived seriousness of the event – and and how media and city officials treat it, say traffic and behavioral experts.

“The 1984 Olympics here were a good example of how this city heeded all the warnings and schedules suggested by city officials,” says Martin Wachs, a UCLA professor of urban planning. “But after about 10 days, drivers stopped changing their behavior and the traffic immediately began to revert to its usual snarls."

He warns, "That could happen again, if people think they’ve already been through this and thus don’t need to change what they do anymore.”

“Human behavior follows very clear patterns ... in times of natural disasters and when warnings are issued,” says Dennis Mileti, a University of Colorado sociologist who analyzes human behavior close to natural and man-made disasters.

“Research shows the patterns transcend time, space and even culture," says Professor Mileti. "Interestingly, they bring out the very best in humanity as opposed to the worst.”

Professor Wachs says, “It’s very interesting to me that the public was willing to walk and ride their bikes and take public transportation for one weekend but can’t seem to sustain that without a specific special set of conditions.” He adds that the motivating carrot of a financial bonus drove the engineers to finish their work 18 hours ahead of schedule. By finishing close to noon on Sunday, engineers got a reported $300,000 bonus and avoided $700,000 in further shifts and salaries.

Some public officials and newspapers have made light of the anticipatory hoopla. “Carmageddon, Schmarmageddon” said L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, at a Monday-morning press conference. Wachs thinks this after-the-fact nonchalance is unfortunate, saying that a more appropriate response would be to appreciate and recognize the cooperation of the public in hope that they can, and will do it again.

Mileti agrees. “What people should be doing is congratulating themselves for a job well done, for heeding the information and making clear decisions to do what was called for in the moment,” he says.

This past weekend's harmony has a 5-10 percent chance of reappearing next summer, predicts Mileti, depending on the social, economic, weather, and other conditions existing then. “All the external variables are likely to be different next time around.”

At Monday morning's press conference, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa noted, “Everybody has seen we can get out of our cars every once in a while – and survive.”

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