Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Carmageddon in Repose

Los Angeles survived Carmageddon. People stayed off the roads, did other things than drive around, and construction workers did their jobs. It all went well. That has created a cottage industry of chattering about how Los Angeles is ready to abandon their cars, shift to transit and generally change their way of life based on the events of one weekend. (See here, here, here, here, and plenty of other places for posts along the line of "Carmageddon will change the way we think about transportation.) To be clear, that's one weekend where everyone was told to stay off the roads or even think about driving.If you had to absolutely, positively exert your mobility rights the best possible alternative was to race airplanes on bicycles. (I'm happy the bikes won.)

All of the talk about changing transportation forever is nonsense. Weekend travel is often discretionary, and often the demand for discretionary travel is elastic. People have lots of options for occasional short term shifts in their travel. It is often the case that when a non-recurring event, such as a road closure, Super Bowl, or, I dunno, maybe the Olympics, comes around that people are warned away from driving and the traffic nightmares never materialize. The warnings are often so effective that the roads are completely empty. Even in Los Angeles, which had the Olympics in 1984. Dire warnings of clogged freeways worked so well that the Kenyan marathoners trained on the deserted 10 freeway. Here is a short story from the LA Times comparing Carmageddon to the "traffic miracle" of 1984. From the Times in 1984:
Years of warnings and intense preparations apparently paid off Friday as a predicted paralyzing combination of Olympic and commuter traffic failed to develop on the busiest day yet of the Games. Instead, drivers enjoyed another day of free-flowing freeway traffic across Southern California.

“Black Friday,” transportation officials smugly pointed out to reporters, had become “Good Friday.” Then, for the first time in more than a year, the experts uncrossed their fingers.

The driving public had apparently listened to the traffic congestion warnings and predictions. And the locals were not the only ones who noticed.

“Los Angeles hasn’t lived up to its reputation for traffic,” summed up Martha Orr of San Jose, who took a shuttle bus from Century City to the Coliseum Friday morning to watch the first day of Olympic track and field events ….

Traffic to Friday’s long slate of Olympic events at 19 venues had been expected to combine with normally heavy commuter traffic to produce freeway headaches. However, drivers cruised along nearly congestion-free freeways for the fifth consecutive day….

Here is a KCET story about the traffic miracle as well.

In 1984 it wasn't just motorists who changed their ways for a couple of weeks as employers shifted work schedules:
But The Times noted back in 1985 that it wasn't exactly a miracle: " [It was] no fluke but resulted to a large degree from employer policies during the Games (23% of major employers surveyed used staggered shifts; 33% permitted flextime)."

So how did the 1984 Olympics change LA's approach to transportation? Here is a 1985 LA Times story describing the lessons learned, and they sound an awful lot like the chattering going on right now about Carmageddon:
"The success of Southern California's transportation system during the 1984 Olympic Games was unprecedented. The free-flowing traffic was a sharp contrast to the expected massive gridlock on the highway system. The coordinated efforts of the public and private sectors facilitated implementation of many (traffic management) techniques that proved instrumental in reducing traffic problems," said the report, commissioned at the request of county Supervisor Harriett Wieder.

"Although the success was short-lived, there are some lessons to be learned from the Olympic traffic success. It was a demonstration that transportation systems management can significantly reduce congestion on our roads," the report said, noting that a number of such techniques are already being use or are under study in Orange County.

Among them:

- Shifting trips to and from work to off-peak hours. Allowing employees to come to work either earlier or later than usual, or scheduling four-day work weeks, helped reduce rush-hour traffic. The Orange County Transit District is conducting a "flex-time" study to determine how more flexible working hours can reduce freeway congestion.

Transportation officials found that 97% of the companies they surveyed offered staggered work hours during the Olympics, compared to 19% before the Games.

ITT Cannon temporarily shut down plants in Santa Ana and Fountain Valley, removing 2,800 commuters from the road, an option which is not available year-round.

- Encouraging car-pooling and van-pooling. County officials have calculated that even a small increase in ridesharing--for example, increasing car occupancy from 1.2 to 1.3 riders--could eliminate most stop-and-go traffic during rush hours. The study found that despite extensive marketing of the car-pooling approach during the Olympics, the level of ridesharing increased very little during the Games.

The study added: "Where possible, employers should minimize work-related travel. Besides supporting shared transportation, companies can promote fewer field trips, plan meeting schedules that do not contribute to peak hour traffic, reduce shipping and deliveries and provide shuttle services where appropriate."

- Promoting bus travel. The Los Angeles Games were the first events since the Olympics at Melbourne in 1956 not to have a rail system for transit use, but ridership on Orange County Transit District buses was up 12% during the Olympics, in part because of extensive information distributed about bus service and free rides to event sites from park-and-ride facilities.

"The Olympic experience proved that when motivated to do so, the public will park their vehicles and ride buses to their destinations," the study suggested.

The report recommended three courses of action for the Transportation Commission to help implement its suggestions: provide the public with information on Olympics-style traffic management, support OCTD's employer "flex-time" studies and continue to promote "alternative solutions improving the traffic situation."

I'd like to highlight the suggestion that bus travel should be promoted. This was in 1985, just about the time that LA started a decades long rail building spree. Transit ridership has only just recovered to the level of the mid-1980s. From the LA Times article from last summer:

L.A. officials to mark 20th anniversary of Metro Rail system
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority says there have been more than a billion boardings on its rail and bus lines since the Blue Line opened. But critics say ridership has been reduced.
July 23, 2010|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles officials will hold a major event Friday near Staples Center to mark the 20-year expansion of urban rail service in the county and what they see as a dynamic shift that will transform the nation's car capital into a model for mass transit.

But although the region now has a gleaming system of subways and light-rail trains, some transportation experts say the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's $8-billion effort — less operating costs — has done little to reduce traffic congestion or increase the use of mass transit much beyond the level in 1985, when planning for the Metro Blue Line began.

Rather than bolster ridership, these experts say, the emphasis on rail has come at the expense of the MTA's vast network of buses and may have cost the agency at least 1.5 billion passenger boardings from 1986 to 2006.

"Overall, the push for rail has forced transit ridership down," said Tom Rubin, a veteran transit consultant and former chief financial officer for the MTA's predecessor. "Had they run a lot of buses at low fares, they could have doubled the number of riders."

So beware of lessons learned, and really beware of using a short-term adjustments in elastic travel demand for making the case for preferred projects (such as an expensive rail system). Carmageddon only demonstrated that people are capable of staying off the road for a couple of days. Essentially the good people of LA cooperated with the state to help build a new car pool lane (which won't do anything to solve congestion, but nevermind). Considering how much people complain about traffic, it was the least they could do. Just don't expect them to do it every day.
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