Carmageddon Begins: Why Is One Freeway Closure So Apocalyptic?

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With all the commotion, you'd think the 405 was the only road in town.

With all the commotion, you’d think it was the only road in town.

“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” Car-loving Angelenos will try to take Doc Brown’s wisdom to heart – and practice – this weekend. L.A. residents are staring into the face of sure gridlock as the city shutters a 10-mile stretch of the 405 freeway starting Friday at midnight. Here’s the clincher: the closure is scheduled to last a mere 53 hours. What’s the problem, you might ask? Well, the span of the 405 is one of the city’s most crucial freeways, connecting the San Fernando Valley with Los Angeles’ Westside.

The stretch of precious freeway is shut down from midnight Friday until 5 a.m. Monday – or so the plan goes. The two-day closure of the essential link through the L.A. is expected to cause gear-grinding grief throughout the city, even on a weekend in July. The giant warning signs telling drivers in no hazy terms to “EXPECT BIG DELAYS” this weekend span from Bakersfield to San Diego. How did one stretch of road get to be so important?

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The part of the 405 that’s now impassable stretches precariously across the Sepulveda Pass, a particularly mountainous and geographically challenging area, the the only main road to cut north and south through the Santa Monica Mountains. And it’s a crucial piece of roadway: the freeway handles as many as 374,000 cars on the average day. While it’s tricky to carve roads through the area’s hills and valleys, a quick glance at a map proves that side roads indeed exist. In fact, Sepulveda Boulevard snakes along mountains below the freeway, mirroring the 405’s route. But the four-lane road is no match for the capacity of the ten-lane freeway. Numerous other canyon roads cut through the mountains, too – but they’re slow, winding, and congested even on a normal day when the 405 is open, UCLA Urban Planning Professor Brian D. Taylor tells TIME.

Putting a stretch of roadway through the area is costly and limited by geography. “In San Francisco, replace the mountains with the bay, or in New York, the Hudson River,” Taylor says. The span of the 405 carries at least 280,000 cars on an average weekend day. And it’s just not possible to redirect all those cars onto other roads without causing almost certain gridlock. While Taylor is optimistic that the weekend won’t see traffic jams in every corner of the city (as has been predicted), he notes the benefit of Caltrans being “chicken little” about the closure. “Not a lot of people have to make behavioral changes in order to have a drastic effect,” he says. By encouraging even a few Angelenos to stay home or try the free public transportation concessions on offer this weekend, the potential for calamity is reduced exponentially.

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It’s no secret that the Sepulveda section of the 405 is one of the most congested roadways in the nation. And the irony of this weekend’s situation is that by closing the span for what’s really a short stretch of time will hopefully help prolong the life and flow of the 405. “The goal here is to move many more people through the pass with the same or lower level of delays and emissions, and that will counter any short-term disruption,” Taylor says. The California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans, has a full schedule for their 53-hour-straight agenda: they will be widening lanes, adding a high-occupancy vehicle lane for carpoolers, upgrading sound walls, conforming the freeway to the latest seismic standards, and demolishing the Mulholland Bridge that crosses above the freeway (a project that would be impossible with cars driving below it).

And by the Monday morning rush, the project will be complete – or else the construction company will owe the city $6,000 for every 10 minutes they’re late to open the freeway. But without a doubt many Angelenos wish they had a time-traveling Delorean this weekend to fast-forward past the Carmageddon.

Nick Carbone is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @nickcarbone. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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