Could LA survive without its freeways? My six-hour vision of a carless future

January 27, 2015
Nate Berg reports direct from the middle lane of Route 101, one of America’s busiest freeways, as it undergoes a rare session of ‘swarm maintenance’

Sitting on a Los Angeles freeway – not in a traffic jam but, literally, sitting cross-legged in the middle lane of one of the busiest freeways in the United States – is a contrary infrastructural experience.

This is a space passed over by more than 125,000 cars a day, most speeding through at 60, 70 or 80 miles an hour. At a speed of zero, there’s a cognitive dissonance created by the frozen freeway’s stillness. It feels like visiting the moon, a place you know is real but never thought you’d see firsthand.

The freeway – a two-mile section of the southbound side of US Route 101, east of downtown Los Angeles – has been completely shut down for six hours this Sunday morning. It’s a rare opportunity for the State Department of Transportation to perform an intensive maintenance job on what otherwise is a constantly flowing river of traffic in three lanes. For these few hours, the river is dry.

It’s called “swarm maintenance”, after the crew of more than a hundred workers who are scattered along this stretch of freeway, trimming trees, cleaning debris, repairing lights and making inspections. Entire sections of freeway aren’t often closed down like this, mainly because of the disruption it can cause to the regional transportation system. At a time when cities across the country are considering plans to tear down old freeways and proactively turning over the car-space of streets to pedestrians, six hours without three lanes of freeway in Los Angeles still seems like a lot to ask.