Carmageddon: how some roadworks could bring LA to a halt

Los Angeles's citizens love their cars and their freeways. How will they cope without access to them

They're calling it Carmageddon. Only in Los Angeles, perhaps, could the prospect of a weekend road closure for improvement works invoke such alarmist warnings of impending doom. The LAPD even recruited some unlikely traffic wardens in the shape of Lady Gaga, Ashton Kutcher and Kim Kardashian - appealing to the celebrities to spread the word on Twitter to their millions of followers. Leave town now. Stay home. On no account venture outside. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Why such a fuss about a few roadworks, you might ask? These aren't any ordinary roadworks. This is LA's 405 freeway, its main west side traffic artery, which is clogged by over half a million cars over the course of an average weekend. In a city that lives, breathes and dies by the car - no wonder the prospect of a 53-hour shutdown is depicted in these apocalytic terms.

So this weekend - officials are warning of gridlock - or a "potential paralysis moment". Fifty mile tailbacks, alternative surface routes completely jammed. They're preparing for the worst: hospitals on standby, fire crews deployed around the 13 most likely flashpoints. And there's more: special apps for smartphones, websites counting down the hours, the promise of free bus rides, though that's hardly likely to tempt the starried ranks of Beverly Hills.

The city has tried to tamper with it's freeways before - to its peril. Back in 1976 the transport authorities decided to impose a carpooling rule, reserving space for cars with one passenger or more. Unfortunately, the measure designed to reduce traffic ended up causing mayhem - deliberately so.

"We are prepared to endure considerable public outcry in order to pry John Q Public out of his car," insisted the head of Caltrans. (Loving that Q, by the way). Carpooling did, in the end, become part of life - but nothing would prise Mr Public from his precious motor vehicle. Entire books have been written to LA's love for its major roads, from the architecture to their soaring views. The essayist Joan Didion found meaning in their physical connectedness across a city with such a sprawling diaspora: freeways, she wrote, are "the only secular communion Los Angeles has." The critic David Brodsly went even further - describing the South California freeway as "the cathedral of its time and place". The car, then, as place of worship: traffic jams as a neccessary catharsis for the soul.

They've even become the stuff of television drama - not the scripted movies of Hollywood but the insta-thrill of the police chase - gleeful local news networks switching live to capture the latest fugitive motorist, with officers in hot pursuit. The all-seeing eye in the sky misses nothing, not your morning commute, nor your snuff-movie-style death-by-speeding-cop.

But this weekend, the giant neon signs are already flashing their warning, from hundreds of miles away: EXPECT BIG DELAYS. You could always walk - or buy a bike. But this is a stubborn place, where people drive two blocks to go spinning at the gym, where cars are left idling outside coffee shops while drivers queue impatiently for their double decaff non-fat soya macchiato. As the Carmaggedon website puts it - it's The Price You Pay to Live in LA. It's going to be a long, hot, couple of days.

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News

Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump's inauguration signals the start of a new and more unstable era

A century in which the world's hegemonic power was a rational actor is about to give way to a more terrifying reality. 

For close to a century, the United States of America has been the world’s paramount superpower, one motivated by, for good and for bad, a rational and predictable series of motivations around its interests and a commitment to a rules-based global order, albeit one caveated by an awareness of the limits of enforcing that against other world powers.

We are now entering a period in which the world’s paramount superpower is neither led by a rational or predictable actor, has no commitment to a rules-based order, and to an extent it has any guiding principle, they are those set forward in Donald Trump’s inaugural: “we will follow two simple rules: hire American and buy American”, “from this day forth, it’s going to be America first, only America first”.

That means that the jousting between Trump and China will only intensify now that he is in office.  The possibility not only of a trade war, but of a hot war, between the two should not be ruled out.

We also have another signal – if it were needed – that he intends to turn a blind eye to the actions of autocrats around the world.

What does that mean for Brexit? It confirms that those who greeted the news that an US-UK trade deal is a “priority” for the incoming administration, including Theresa May, who described Britain as “front of the queue” for a deal with Trump’s America, should prepare themselves for disappointment.

For Europe in general, it confirms what should already been apparent: the nations of Europe are going to have be much, much more self-reliant in terms of their own security. That increases Britain’s leverage as far as the Brexit talks are concerned, in that Britain’s outsized defence spending will allow it acquire goodwill and trade favours in exchange for its role protecting the European Union’s Eastern border.

That might allow May a better deal out of Brexit than she might have got under Hillary Clinton. But there’s a reason why Trump has increased Britain’s heft as far as security and defence are concerned: it’s because his presidency ushers in an era in which we are all much, much less secure. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.