Observations on “Carmageddon”

Most folks outside of Los Angeles probably don’t care—or are enjoying a delicious moment of schadenfreude—about the story of the imminent closure for four days of a 10-mile stretch of The 405 freeway (otherwise known for some reason as the “San Diego Freeway,” even though it runs from the San Fernando Valley to Orange County—the LA area named their freeways way back when and were obviously stuck for a name that night) for extensive road repairs and widening a few days from now.  Even the national media is playing up this story, with the expectation that it will throw west LA into chaos and gridlock.  There’s even a Facebook page for “Carmageddon.”

This is a great case study in conventional thinking, especially the kind of thinking that supposes human being are utterly incapable of adapting to any adverse circumstances, or incapable of any spontaneous reordering of their lives without the massive benevolence of social engineers like Stephen Chu helping us to save money on our light bulbs.

It reminds me of the 1984 LA Olympics.  I was still living in the LA area at the time, as an impecunious graduate student.  (Is there any other kind?)  For at least two years before the Olympics, the common cliché was that it was going to be a traffic nightmare, and a smog-choked debacle.  Who could have thought this was a good idea?  Everyone said, “I’m just going to leave town, work from home, go on vacation, work irregular hours, etc.”   And that’s exactly what everybody did.

I had tickets to several events, sometimes more than one a day, at separate venues, since everything was scattered widely around the LA area.  One day I went from track and field at the Coliseum to Dodger stadium (to cheer against the Nicaraguan team and summon ushers whenever some American lefty tried to unfurl a Sandinista flag—political flags are not allowed at the Olympics) and then back to the Coliseum for the 10,000-meter finals after the ball game.  Traffic was a breeze.  And that’s the notable thing about the whole first week of the LA Olympics—there was no traffic, anywhere.  The Los Angeles Times ran an astonished front-page story after the first week about how the freeways were free-flowing at almost all times of the day and night.  Of course, with the cat out of the bag, so to speak, the second week of the Olympics saw traffic patterns steadily returning to normal congestion levels as people who had changed plans and habits decided they could go back to their old habits.  After all, it was as though everyone else was suddenly riding mass transit so I can drive to work on a free-flowing road (the typical paradox of the mass transit fetish).

The real kicker to this story were the traffic stats that came out after the Olympics.  It turned out that overall 24-hour average traffic volume in LA’s freeways was actually up by about 11 percent during the Olympics.  But between the wide dispersal of traffic both by area and time of day (an argument in favor of sprawl when you think about it), and the spontaneous adjustments people made according to their expectations of conditions caused overall congestion to fall.

There are several broader lessons from this.  First, why don’t people in LA change their behavior to get this result all of the time?  Simple: the ordinary range of congestion is not intolerable, despite what people say.  (This is what economists call “revealed preference.”)  In other words, LA probably has on average the optimal amount of congestion.  Second, it means all the dreams and schemes of planners and do-good social engineer/interveners are irrelevant, when they aren’t counterproductive (which is most of the time).  Third, humans aren’t as stupid as our elite minders like to think.  Which leads to this prediction: the disruption from the 405 closure will be minimal; people will adapt just fine, and the media will run a spate of surprised stories about how it wasn’t so bad.

There’s lots of lessons here for other issues, too.  I’ll just name one from the climate change domain.  I’m always amazed at the folks who wring their hands that climate change will inundate Bangladesh, and cause chaos, disaster, ruin, etc.  Assuming for the sake of argument the sea level rise prediction comes true, do the warmenists really think the people of Bangladesh are stupid?  Poverty shouldn’t equate with stupidity.  Are Bangladeshis really going to stand in an inch of slowly rising water (as in decades to rise) and say, “Oh, look, the water rose an inch over the last five years.  I guess I’ll just stand here until I drown in it in my dotage.”  Really?

I guess it makes sense if you are a warmenist.  But not if you are a sensible human being.  Yes, the paradox here is obvious.