They shut down a major freeway in Los Angeles the other day. And the world did not end as predicted. In fact, the world got better.
That highway (Interstate 405) carries 500,000 cars a day. (To give you a sense of that scale, East Washington Avenue carries about 50,000 cars a day.) Predictions were that surface arterials and side streets would be flooded, widespread gridlock would grip the city, and life as Angelenos know it would grind to a halt.
In fact, life as Angelenos knew it did change, but in a good way. The gridlock never happened; residents near the freeway savored the quiet except for the birds they heard chirping for the first time in their neighborhoods, bicyclists enjoyed the freedom of the open road, and a general sense of sanity and civility descended on the city. A few radicals even set up a dinner table, complete with white table cloths, in the middle of the freeway.
Just like San Francisco's Embarcedero Freeway being brought down by an earthquake, nobody planned it this way, but it turns out that removing or shutting down a freeway in the heart of the city is the best thing for the city.
The experience was exactly like something we do plan for here in Madison. Our Ride the Drive events have been spectacularly popular and successful -- so much so that they should happen every Sunday from June to September. Sure, there are grumblers but they're a small minority. Most people love it.
These events are important because they help people to appreciate what a city can be, when it's not just a pass-through route for traffic.
To quote Timothy Egan in Sunday's New York Times, shutting down the highway taught Los Angeles a lesson about "the small salves in life that make a day easier, or even memorable. When millions of Angelenos decided to hold a block party, or go to the park, or ride a bike, or play soccer, or spend half a day at the farmers market, or take advantage of free admission at some museums, they found a city far removed from that awful commuter stress index."
If a city as dedicated to the car as L.A. can learn that lesson, imagine what we can do with it in a place like Madison.