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Joan Didion on Traffic

And the pathetic origin of the HOV lane.

11:30 AM, Mar 7, 2011 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Last week Fred Barnes, Robert Poole, and I all wrote about how highways work and how government planning types often try to “improve” them. None of this, however, is new. A friend sends along Joan Didion’s wonderful 1976 essay “Bureaucrats,” concerning the imposition of car-pool (or High-Occupancy Vehicle, HOV) lanes on the Los Angeles freeway system. (You can find the essay in the evil Google Machine, but it’s collected in her book The White Album, which is full of fantastic stuff. If you don’t already have it, you’ll thank me.) As Didion reports, here’s what happened in 1976:

Joan Didion on Traffic

L.A. traffic.

The California Department of Transportation—Caltrans—decided that it wanted to change the way people drive, in the name of the environment. Or something. So it introduced a pilot program on the Santa Monica Freeway: the “Diamond Lane.” The Diamond Lane was an HOV prototype, reserved for buses and cars with more than three riders. At the time of the Diamond Lane’s inception, the Santa Monica Freeway carried 240,000 cars per day, conveying a total of 260,000 people.

Caltrans decided that it would prefer to eliminate 7,800 of those vehicles—that was, literally, their precisely-stated goal—by forcing people to carpool. Thus the Diamond Lanes reserved 25 percent of the available highway space for 3 percent of the vehicles. As you might imagine, pandemonium ensued.

Traffic on the Santa Monica ground to a halt. The number of accidents increased by about 400 percent. The public flipped out. Lawsuits were filed; people scattered nails in the Diamond Lanes in protest. Apparently, people thought that Caltrans was trying to surreptitiously make their lives harder to achieve some statist social-engineering target. Why would they have ever gotten that idea?

Well, for starters, Caltrans leaned on the municipal engineer of L.A.’s surface streets. They didn’t have jurisdiction over these local roads, so they wanted him to create a “confused and congested situation” (their words) on the surface roads so that drivers would be forced onto the gridlocked freeways. And Caltrans knew that the freeways would be gridlocked, because that’s the way they wanted them.

At a transit conference prior to the Diamond Lanes’ debut, here’s what the Caltrans director told the audience:

We are beginning a process of deliberately making it harder for drivers to use freeways. . . . We are prepared to endure considerable public outcry in order to pry John Q. Public out of his car. . . . I would emphasize that this is a political decision, and one that can be reversed if the public gets sufficiently enraged to throw us rascals out.

That last bit was really just a flourish—it’s incredibly difficult to reverse transportation programs once enacted, even if a sizeable majority of the public hates them. Practically speaking, you can’t un-build things. And besides, the director of Caltrans is an appointed bureaucrat—not an elected representative answerable to voters.

Indeed, Didion closes her essay just a few weeks after the Diamond Lanes debuted on the Santa Monica Freeway. Despite the results, despite the outcry, despite everything, Caltrans decided to expand the Diamond Lanes to the other LA freeways.

As with so much of transportation, the political decision of the Diamond Lane was made at a great remove from politics.

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