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

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war