Los Angeles is not a media market known for understatement. Just ask anyone who’s visited from less temperate climes and discovered that a light drizzle inspires breathless “Storm Watch” coverage on the evening news. But if there’s one area where Angelenos’ flair for the dramatic can be justified, it’s traffic. The greater L.A. area has nearly 18 million people spread over almost 5,000 square miles; its five counties are connected by a sprawling network of freeways, and public transportation plays a relatively minor role, thanks to the area’s size and car culture. So the open road is the nerve center of the Southland’s commerce and lifestyle. The problem is that the open road isn’t very open. Los Angeles is perennially ranked as having the worst traffic in the nation, and that automotive sluggishness costs nearly $12 billion a year, according to estimates from the Texas Transportation Institute.
So when the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority announced that it would close a ten-mile stretch of Interstate 405 to tear down a bridge over the freeway, local pundits dubbed the weekend of July 15–17 “Carmageddon.” A ten-mile shutdown may seem like small change in less car-conscious markets, but in Los Angeles it’s potentially crippling. Especially when the artery in question is the Sepulveda Pass, linking the suburban communities of the San Fernando Valley (where summer temperatures routinely break triple digits) with the posh, substantially cooler neighborhoods of West Los Angeles and their adjacent beaches. On an average summer weekend, this stretch of road accommodates roughly half a million vehicles. Closing it represented an automotive amputation.
Jeremiads ensued from the local news media. Radio and TV stations promised around-the-clock coverage. Travelers were warned that traffic could back up for nearly 65 miles and that it would take triple the normal time to get to Los Angeles International Airport. Civic officials took to the airwaves to tell locals to stay off the roads. In three hours, JetBlue Airways sold 600 seats on flights between Burbank and Long Beach—two airports approximately 35 miles from one another.
And then . . . nothing happened. The public deterrence campaign was so effective that most locals either stayed off the road or left town for the weekend. Local television personality Sam Rubin cited the event as proof that Los Angeles would be better off with fewer cars. “This weekend . . . proved something that I hope transportation planners, city leaders, and local citizens will keep in mind,” Rubin blogged. “It is as simple as it is true. Fewer cars on the road equal less traffic. Less traffic means better quality of life. So what is the real way to put fewer cars on the road, wider freeways and more HOV lanes? Of course not. We keep trying that solution and it fails again and again. . . . We should select one weekend a month . . . and give people the exact same message. Stay home.”
Rubin learned the wrong lesson from Carmageddon. The solution to Southern California’s traffic woes isn’t to take a region that’s already reeling economically and to close it for business on a monthly basis. Rather, it’s to embrace market principles like those that averted catastrophe last weekend. While most media coverage focused on the absence of the predicted traffic jams, another fact went underreported. The demolition—scheduled to last through Monday morning—actually wrapped up by noon the day before, 17 hours ahead of schedule. Financial incentives for a timely completion made the project’s engineers an extra $300,000, while taxpayers saved an estimated $400,000.
This wasn’t the first time that this sort of win-win performance contracting has worked in the Golden State. In the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, which destroyed a substantial chunk of the heavily trafficked Interstate 10, Governor Pete Wilson employed contracting incentives that delivered a $200,000-per-day bonus for early completion of the rebuilding project and a $200,000-per-day penalty for late completion. The result? A project originally estimated to take 26 months was completed in 66 days.
As Southern California officials consider future efforts to combat the region’s gridlock, they should take these examples to heart. Rubin and others think that the area’s transportation crisis can be remedied by suppressing demand through some combination of moral suasion, manufactured inconvenience, and increased reliance on mass transit. There’s a better way: stop treating Californians’ car fetish as pernicious and respond to the demand with increased supply. That would mean not only constructing more freeway capacity via performance incentives, but also better managing existing space through proven market mechanisms like toll roads. Such an approach could ease the crushing burden that the current traffic morass imposes in terms of both money and time (the average Angeleno loses 80 hours a year to gridlock). And it could let Southern Californians get back to focusing on the important things in life. Like “Storm Watch.”