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Carmageddon brought out the 'very best' in people. What about next time?

Carmageddon that wasn't: Los Angeles rose to the occasion and avoided apocalyptic traffic jams. What led to the weekend of highway harmony, and will it happen again in 11 months?

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (l.) and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky hold souvenir concrete chips as they celebrate I-405 reopening ahead of schedule, on July 17 in Los Angeles. The event that many feared would be the 'Carmageddon' of epic traffic jams cruised calmly toward a finish Sunday as bridge work on the Los Angeles roadway was completed 16 hours ahead of schedule and officials reopened a 10-mile stretch of one of the nation's busiest freeways.

Reed Saxon / AP

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Now that this entire city is smiling over the great traffic jam that wasn’t, during the three-day closure of its biggest traffic artery, homeowners, newspapers, and traffic experts are huddling to assess what lessons should – and shouldn’t – be taken away from the so-called Carmageddon.

Such lessons will be important when the city faces the exact same exercise in 11 months, as engineers demolish the other side of the Mulholland Bridge –all part of a massive engineering project to create a carpool lane for I-405.

Alternate routes did not jam up. Adjacent neighborhoods did not turn into parking lots. Hospitals and emergency rooms remained fully staffed and no stranded motorists abandoned their cars.

“I wish it was this way every weekend,” said Kathy Sublette, a life-long San Fernando Valley resident. “It reminded me of the good ol’ days when stores used to be closed on Sundays and everyone took it down a notch.”

So why can't this kind of slowdown happen more regularly, or even permanently?

That's like asking people why they can’t behave as kindly all year long as they do during the winter holiday season, say psychologists.

Such episodes rely on dozens of interrelated factors that range from the time of year to the perceived seriousness of the event – and and how media and city officials treat it, say traffic and behavioral experts.

“The 1984 Olympics here were a good example of how this city heeded all the warnings and schedules suggested by city officials,” says Martin Wachs, a UCLA professor of urban planning. “But after about 10 days, drivers stopped changing their behavior and the traffic immediately began to revert to its usual snarls."

He warns, "That could happen again, if people think they’ve already been through this and thus don’t need to change what they do anymore.”


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