Saturday, January 21, 2012

LA Traffic - Design Purity Trumps Common Sense


Mobile construction cranes tower over the I-405 Mulholland Drive Bridge - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

In July 2011, Caltrans contractors demolished the southern half of the Mulholland Highway Bridge, which spans the busy Interstate I-405 Freeway at Sepulveda Pass in Los Angeles, California. The reasons for replacing only one-half of the stately structure at a time are obscure. Suffice to say that local homeowner groups held out for purity of design. Rather than allowing the road to jog at either end of the bridge, those groups forced Caltrans to build the same bridge twice, one-half each time. As they say, “Only in Los Angeles…”

Animal Control and CHP end a traffic break to pick up an injured cat, with untold thousands of vehicles waiting behind - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)People who drive in Los Angeles know that “The 405” is the only freeway route through the Santa Monica Mountains within twelve miles. Connecting the San Fernando Valley with West Los Angeles, the I-405 is an ever-widening ribbon of concrete, and one of the busiest highways in the world. In January 2012, I drove southbound past the construction site to Marina del Rey. My return trip that afternoon took me northbound over the same route.

On that morning, I timed my approach to the Sepulveda Pass for 10:00 AM. With luck, the morning rush would be over, producing a lull before afternoon traffic built to yet another peak. All went well until I neared the intersection of I-405 and U.S. Hwy 101. There, traffic slowed to a crawl and did not regain equilibrium for the next ten miles.

Video of I-405 Mulholland Drive Bridge replacement, showing mobile cranes in place - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As I ascended the Santa Monica Mountain grade, traffic snapped and bucked like a Chinese dragon. In terms of vehicular energy flow, it was equivalent to an acute myocardial infarction. As I approached the crest, I could see why our traffic moved so listlessly. Appearing atop the hill since my last visit, two enormous mobile cranes stood like sentries, one on either side of the freeway. From my viewpoint, the cranes appeared to be twice the height of the 100-foot tall bridge. The scene was so startling that traffic slowed to a crawl and then stayed that way until I was well beyond the construction scene.

Based on traffic delays alone, the current replacement plan makes no economic sense. Once this slow motion economic disaster is complete, Los Angelinos can then look forward to doing it all over again. From the coming Carmageddon II, right through construction and opening, those who drive in LA shall experience traffic jam déjà vu all over again. With the uncountable hours wasted by drivers sitting in traffic below, we hope that the hilltop locals who blocked the single-phase project are happy now.

Mobile construction cranes tower over the Mulholland Drive bridge replacement project - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Thanks to the local “design purity movement”, motorists will experience inconvenience for years to come. I wonder what the late Steve Jobs would think of this version of design purity. Unless he personally owned a house with an unobstructed view of the finished bridge, I doubt that he would have supported this cause.

As traffic loosened up, my vitriol for the Mulholland Drive locals faded from my consciousness. Traffic broke free near Wilshire Blvd. in West Los Angeles, and I sailed along at 65 mph. After crossing under Interstate I-10 (the Santa Monica Freeway), I observed a complete absence of vehicular traffic on northbound I-405. As I approached Venice Blvd., I witnessed the culmination of a California Highway Patrol traffic break on the northbound side of the freeway. Led by an animal control van, two CHP cruisers and several CHP motor officers sped away from a phalanx of stopped traffic that stretched for miles into the distance.

Bridge replacement work at the top of Sepulveda Pass, Los Angeles, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Listening to a later radio traffic report, I learned that someone had called to report an injured cat on the freeway. For the sake of that feline and in honor of the kind soul who reported it, perhaps 25,000 vehicles came to an extended halt on the busiest freeway in Los Angeles. Upon entering an LA freeway, a small animal’s chances of survival are almost nonexistent. I am an animal lover and have a pet cat myself. Still, I hope that iPhone toting animal lovers do not report every small animal that enters the roadway. If they insist on doing so, Los Angeles traffic may never move smoothly again.

On my return trip, later that day, I approached Sepulveda Pass from the south. From there I could see the Mulholland Drive Bridge and its attendant cranes. Silhouetted against the northern sky, the two cranes, new concrete bridge supports and the remaining bridge deck manifested as art. It is a sight so awe-inspiring that despite traveling uphill, many drivers involuntarily slam on their brakes. As traffic-engineers know, if enough motorists hit their brakes, somewhere behind them, traffic will stop. My morning traffic had stopped three or four miles short of the dramatic hilltop scene.

Close-up of the remaining section of Mulholland Drive Bridge over Interstate I-405 in Sepulveda Pass - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As witnessed by their reactions to car crashes and brush fires, LA motorists have a perverse relationship with those who trail behind them. During such events, the collective reaction is predictable. To themselves motorists say, “I’ve been delayed by the unknown and now I can see it, so I am going to slow down and gawk to my heart’s content”. That day, of course, group consciousness among LA motorists was true to form.

My slow trips through Sepulveda Pass that day allowed me to see the sights. If you hope to view this high art sculpture for yourself, come to LA before 2016. If you miss the first round of bridge building, plan your visit for the second round in 2013 or 2014. Perhaps Caltrans can rejoin both halves of the new Mulholland Drive Bridge by 2015. Then, hilltop homeowners can emerge from their survival shelters and enjoy the purity of design that they forced upon us all. Thank you again, local homeowners, for triggering the super slow motion Carmageddon that we now endure.


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