On September 30, 2022, Metrolink and Amtrak suspended train service on the LOSSAN corridor — the nation’s second busiest rail corridor which connects Los Angeles to San Diego — due to erosion under the train tracks in San Clemente. Suspended “indefinitely,” the corridor is used by more than 8 million people annually; freight trains move $1B worth of goods along it each year.
In January, 2019, part of the Arroyo Seco bike path was washed away during a storm, leading to a full closure of the two mile long path that connects Northeast Los Angeles to Pasadena. The bike path didn’t reopen until February 2020, 13 months after the closure.
In December, 2022, the Orange Line bike path was closed due to storm damage, and it remains closed today, with no reopening date in sight nearly a year later.
None of the closures listed elicited near the armageddon-level response from our political leaders to the fire that subsequently closed two miles of the 10 freeway near Downtown LA.
Mayor Bass likened the situation to how the city prepared for Hurricane Hilary, calling the situation a “crisis” and an “emergency.” Governor Newsom, Transportation Secretary Omishakin, and the Mayor stood on the empty freeway over the weekend, pledging that all stops would be pulled out to repair the freeway as quickly as possible. No one has even said a word about the cost of repairing the 10, it seems like money is no object when it comes to car infrastructure.
The Governor declared a state of emergency. Parents of LAUSD schools — even those far away from Downtown Los Angeles — started getting robocalls from Superintendent Alberto Carvalho on Sunday evening — warning them of the closure. A “Public Safety Alert” to all cell phones in Los Angeles went out early Monday morning, warning residents of “significant traffic.” Headlines screamed panic with phrases like “traffic nightmare.”
In 2014, 10 miles of the 405 freeway was closed for two weekends in a row — 300,000 travelers used this stretch each weekend day (about the same number that use the two mile stretch of 10 Freeway that has closed). Newspapers warned of “Carmageddon!” and said that the City would grind to a halt. Instead, the closure greatly reduced congestion, and cleaned the air; a reporter later said that we should treat every day like ‘Carmageddon’.
There is a huge double standard that our political leaders have when responding to damaged car infrastructure compared to infrastructure for any other mode of transportation. The closure of the 10 freeway presents an opportunity to think creatively about the future of Los Angeles — and if it makes sense to keep doubling down on old, fragile car infrastructure in a region that is currently spending $120B in new rail, bus and bike infrastructure — the most ambitious expansion of public transit in the country.
Metrolink responded to the 10 freeway closure by adding extra cars to its San Bernardino Line and adding six additional round-trips between Union Station and Covina. Metro responded by simply reminding Angelenos that they exist, and touting its expanded system. LADOT responded by sending out a Traffic Management Plan which detailed how motorists could use surface streets to get around the closure.
Yesterday morning, after rush hour, Caltrans Deputy District Director Rafael Molina reported that congestion was “a little bit lighter than normal.” Despite this “crisis” and “emergency” the sky has not fallen.
What if our leaders took this opportunity to instead dramatically decrease headways on Metro’s E Line (which parallels the 10 freeway), quick-build bus and bike lanes (this could be done overnight with Jersey barriers), and dramatically increase service on Metrolink and parallel bus service (like we did after the Northridge Earthquake)? What if we used this as an opportunity to show Angelenos that many can actually get around without using a car? The buses would fly past traffic in their own quick built lanes, and a new generation of transit riders would discover the pleasure of being in a train that’s zipping past traffic.
On October 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake caused severe damage to the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco — the freeway was 1.2 miles long and carried about 60,000 cars per day. Political leaders declared an emergency, but when it was revealed that rebuilding the freeway would cost the same as fixing it, public outrage ultimately led to a contentious 6–5 vote to tear down the freeway. Today, many couldn’t imagine putting a double decker freeway back along San Francisco’s Embarcadero, but at the time, it was unimaginable to not put it back.
We’ll see if yesterday morning’s traffic patterns — showing no serious traffic impacts to the 10 freeway being closed — hold. At a minimum, the closure represents an opportunity for our political leaders to study if the freeway is needed, and how people adapt when freeways are closed. Even better, we can start to have honest conversations about rethinking our car dominated infrastructure, what is needed, and what might be better as a multi modal corridor. One thing is for sure: our knee jerk reaction to car infrastructure being closed says a lot about how our leaders myopically view our transportation system — and that view needs to change if we have a shot at reaching our own sustainability and livability goals in Los Angeles.