ELEMENTAL: THE TSUNAMI RELIEF ANTHOLOGY
Report from the Near Future:
BY DAVID GERROLD
David Gerrold started writing professionally in 1967. His first sale was the "Trouble with Tribbles" episode of Star Trek. Within five years, he had published seven novels, two books about television production, three anthologies, and a short story collection. He was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards six times in four years. Since 1967, he has published more than forty books. Several of his novels are considered classics, including The Man Who Folded Himself, When HARLIE Was One, and the four books in The War Against the Chtorr.
Gerrold has written episodes for more than a dozen different television series, including Star Trek, Star Trek Animated, Twilight Zone, Land of the Lost, Babylon 5, Sliders, Logan's Run, and Tales from the Darkside. He has had columns in six different magazines and two Web sites, including Starlog, Galileo, Profiles, PC-Techniques, Visual Developer, Yahoo, and GalaxyOnline. In 1995, he won the Hugo and Nebula awards for "The Martian Child," an autobiographical tale of his son's adoption.
David Gerrold lives with his son in Northridge, California. Learn more about Gerrold at his Web site: www.gerrold.com.
It's that moment when a liquid solidifies, when the temperature drops or the pressure rises and the substance finally stops flowing, it slows down, it turns to slushto mud, it hardens, it finally becomes impenetrable ... .
For the first few hours after the Los Angeles freeway system crystallized, most people believed the problem was temporary and that traffic would eventually start flowing again. Even for the first few days, they believed they could eventually chip their way out of the concretized arteries.
The slush of Los Angeles traffic had been slower than sluggish for years, churning through looped spaghetti concrete channels in a lumpy stream of metal and plastic peristalsis, in a persistent state of uncertainhesitation, punctuated only occasionally by forward-jerking movements and uneven painful surges, a textbook demonstration of socio-technical constipation and definitely no place for a stick shift.
The city engineers had been aware of the potential for crystallization for nearly two decades, but no one had ever taken the warnings seriously, and eventually even they began to assume that their own projections of crystallization were situational artifacts occurring whenever the simulators reached the limits of their ability to process the rapid flows of data.
Unfortunately, only the data was flowing rapidly. One desperate afternoon, even that stopped. The air-conditioning broke down in the central monitoring station. The temperature rose uncomfortably. Fans didn't help. The computers began shutting down in self-defense. The screens went blank, or declared, "No signal." Blind and deaf, the traffic engineers could neither monitor nor prescribe.
The rest was inevitable.
Outside, in the place where the facts didn't care about simulation, events took on a terrifying momentum of their own. It was Friday, early afternoon on a three-day holiday weekend. Temperatures in the basin had peaked at 106 degrees shortly after one p.m. Add to that a localized gas shortage acerbated by higher than usual oil prices, a high degree of situational stress about the staggering economy, a disturbing series of terrorist bombings in the mideast, and three days of overheated shock-jock nattering about a particularly scandalous high-profile murder trial, and crystallization was no longer a question of if or when, but where.
Surprisingly, it did not begin on the freeway. Not exactly. Although a freeway was involved. The first hardening in the traffic flow began in the San Fernando Valley where Burbank Blvd. intersected with Sepulveda. Always a sluggish intersection, today it revealed its true capacity for horror. An overweight, overstressed soccer mom with two screaming children in the backseat of her SUV and a cell phone pressed to her ear, her attention everywhere but on the road in front of her, abruptly became aware of a motorcyclist coming up out of the blind spot on herright. Startled, she swerved left, forcing two teenagers in a dropped Honda Civic (don't ask) to brake suddenly. The empty tanker truck that shouldn't have been in the same lane behind them braked, swerved, and jackknifed sideways into a city bus, effectively blocking all three northbound lanes of Sepulveda and the middle two lanes of Burbank.
Almost immediately traffic stopped on both boulevards, backing up on Burbank as far east as Van Nuys Blvd. and as far west as Woodley. Sepulveda froze all the way north to Sherman Way and as far south as Ventura Blvd. When the traffic at the intersection of Ventura and Sepulveda froze, the crystallization of the surface streets began to spread east and west on Ventura Blvd. as well. In the horror about to happen, there would be no alternative routes.
The 405 freeway stretches north across the San Fernando Valley; the heaviest used access ramps are at Burbank Blvd., just slightly east of the fatal intersection and up a slight incline. The northbound and southbound access ramps represent two additional intersections to interrupt Burbank's westward flowit's a wasps' nest of lanes, contradictory traffic signals, and intermittent left-turn arrows. Even at three in the morning, it takes ninety seconds to negotiate this ganglionic nightmare in any direction. During crush hour, wise drivers bring a book or a magazine. Teenage boys change the radio station and readjust themselves in their jeans. Grown men pick their noses and think about business. Teenage girls turn their rearview mirrors and fix their makeup. Everyone else is on the phone, their attention two or ten or a thousand miles away. Watching the road is optional, something that only sissies and old ladies ever do.
On any ordinary afternoon, traffic feeding into the northbound Burbank offramp would start backing up by two p.m. By five, it would be backed up two miles south, all the way to the 405/101 interchange. This day, however, traffic was even more manic than usual. As soon as the critical intersection of Burbank and Sepulveda hardened, the crystallization of the 405 began spreading southward as fast as new cars arrived and joined the creeping boundaries of the linear parking lot.
Imagine the intersection of the 405 and the 101 as a cross. The entire northwest quadrant is the Sepulveda dam basin. For two miles west, there are only two surface avenues that go north through the basin to the neighborhoods beyond, Haskell and Balboa. For two miles north, there is only one westward accessBurbank. But there are over a million residents northwest of the intersection and their only access from the south or east is through this interchangeor through the intersections of Ventura and Sepulveda, or Burbank and Sepulveda. As quickly as Sepulveda clogged, all of the intersections and all of the surrounding surface avenues began to solidify as well. Within forty minutes, an area ten miles square had crystallized.
The 405 and the 101 freeways only exacerbated the situation, feeding more cars into this black hole of traffic from all four compass points. With no place to go, the traffic ground to a halt both north and south on the 405 and very quickly after east and west on the 101 as well.
With the computers down, Cal-Trans was unable to post warning bulletins on the freeway alert signs. Instead, an Amber Alert was posted to look out for a suspected kidnapper driving a black Ford Explorer, license number, etc. It was this particular (alleged) kidnapper's bad luck to be caught on the 101 westbound at Vineland. Traffic came to a halt with the SUV pocketed between a stretch limo on the left and a battered Plymouth pickup on the right, piled high with tree branches and driven by three Mexican gardeners whose command of English was limited. Behind the pickup truck, however, was a distracted mother, whose eleven-year-old son had read the Amber Alert only a few moments before and who was now intently watching all of the traffic around on the promise of a ten-dollar bill from his mother if he spotted the suspect Explorerbut only if he kept absolutely quiet while he did, so his mother could listen to her deadbeat ex-husband (who apparently operated out of the bizarre belief that a good excuse is always an acceptable substitute for a tangible result) explain why his child-support check would be late again.
In the middle of this conversation, the eleven-year-old suddenly beganshouting and pointing. Despite his mother's annoyed refusal to accept the obviousthat she now owed her son ten dollars that she did not haveshe eventually accepted that indeed, the suspect's vehicle was only a few yards ahead in the next lane over. By then, owing to a repeat of the same Amber Alert news bulletin on static-riven KFWB, the inhabitants of two other vehicles had also spotted the Explorer. One driver was already calling 911. The other driver and his two passengers (all of them new enlistees on leave from the marine base at El Toro and on their way to visit the Tarzana-based fiancée of the driver) exited their own SUV, two of them carrying baseball bats kept in the vehicle for occasional trips into West Hollywood for gay-bashing. With traffic temporarily haltedor so they believed (that it was temporary)they approached the Explorer on foot. The suspected kidnapper panicked, tried to hit the gas, tried to force his way between a lime-green Volkswagen Beetle and a 1988 Honda Civic driven by a harried college student whose car insurance had just been canceled, and the result was a three-way crunch, with three soon-to-be-ex-marines banging on the hood and fenders of the locked Explorer with baseball bats. They had just escalated to smashing windows when the first officers arrived on scene and ordered them to stand down.
From there, the situation metamorphosed into a police standoff as even more motorcycle officers came racing up the still empty shoulders of the freeway, followed by the warbling and flashing cruisers of the California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles Police Department. Very quickly, this nexus of confusion and rage was surrounded by armed officers, all of them crouching behind automobile fenders with guns drawn, while two police helicopters and three news choppers circled overhead and terrified drivers in all directions evacuated their vehicles, crawling quickly away through the lanes on their hands and kneesincluding the harried mother, still on her cell phone, and her eleven-year-old son who whined loudly that he wanted to stay and see the kidnapper get shot. The suspected kidnapper, his vehicle permanentlyjammed between the Volkswagen and the Honda, was unable to extricate himself from the vehicle and sat there helplessly while police ordered him to get out with his hands up.
The irony of the situation was that the Amber Alert had been posted with the wrong license number. The driver was not a kidnapper; his only relationship to the kidnapping was that he drove a black Ford Explorer. He had only tried to flee because he had seen three angry men coming toward his vehicle with baseball bats.
Nevertheless, innocent or guilty, this particular blood clot in the arterial flow of urban commerce effectively shut down the 101 in both directions, trapping even more drivers in their cars. Some of them turned off their engines and got out to smoke, leaning against their fenders or lifting themselves up to sit on the still-warm hoods of their rapidly depreciating vehicles.
Meanwhile, the clotting of the freeway system spread south and east with pernicious speed. East along the 134 toward the 5, and southward down the 101, which was already terminal. It took less than an hour for the crystallization of the system to hit the nexus of the Pasadena, Harbor, and Hollywood freeways. The four-level interchange, one of the first in the nation, was in easy view of the mayor's office in the nearby city hall, a building that, contrary to popular belief, had not been destroyed in the 1953 attack of George Pal's Martians and their manta-ray-shaped war machines.
With the news media now reporting that the 101 and 405 freeways were impassable and that drivers were advised to seek alternate routesof which there were either few or none, the best thing to do was find a movie theater or a motel and wait for the weekend. Starting at city-center, the northward crush of traffic tried to force its way up the 5, an overstressed artery that crawled along the east side of Griffith Park; the results were predictable and immediateanother nexus of crystallization. Nothing moved. The clotting of the Los Angeles freeway system was now irreversible. Within another hour, the 10, most of the 110, anda large part of the 210 were equally out of commission as were most of the surrounding surface streets. Too many cars, not enough road.
Unable to feed their traffic flows into the northward and westward traffic channels, the 710 and the 605 also began to solidify. Crystallization spread like ice across the surface of a lake, creeping steadily and inevitably toward a frozen stillness. As fast as new cars arrived at the outward edges of the solidification, that's how fast it spread.
And there were still four hours until sunset.
Most drivers, unaware of the scale of the growing catastrophe, unable to comprehend or believe that their trusted freeway system had finally, utterly, and completely failed them, remained in their cars, existing in a state of quiet desperationor quiet domesticationmost of them still believed that it was just a matter of time until traffic began easing forward again.
The Zen master Solomon Short is quoted as saying, "No pebble ever takes responsibility for the whole avalanche." Nowhere was this as evident as it was when the disaster escalated to its next stage.
Start with the sweltering heat. It's the fifth day of a heat wave with no end in sight. There's no wind; the air is stagnant and brown. People are tired, uncomfortable, cranky, and selfish. Unwilling to be uncomfortable, every driver in a vehicle with air-conditioning has rolled up his windows and has his air conditioner turned on full blast. To power his air conditioner, he's running his engine. Half a million vehicles. All those engines create a furnace of additional heat at ground level, encouraging even more drivers to keep their engines running and their air conditioners blasting.
Frozen in time, as inert as the dead air above them, a million and a half cars and trucks and buses, idling impatiently, every second burning tens of thousands of gallons of gasoline into hot exhaust; as the sun's rays bake the day, various chemical transformations occur. The exhaust becomes a rising cloud of air pollution. All those restless waiting vehicles spew a cumulative soup of toxic fumes into the brown smoky air ofthe basin, aggregating into an already deadly miasma that lays across the inert afternoon like a smothering blanketand triggering the next stage of the catastrophe.
Sitting alone, stuck and frustrated, desperate and angry, people begin to demonstrate irrational behavior. Some people begin honking incessantly, triggering even more stress in the people around them. Some drivers turn up their musictoo loud. The hyperamplified subwoofers broadcast rhythmic pulses that feel like body punches to people in vehicles many lengths ahead and behind. Arguments begin. Fights break out. Windows get smashed with golf clubs. Ramming incidents occur. Even individuals uninvolved experience increased levels of stress. A few have panic attacks. Others suffer respiratory distress. Others go into full-blown asthma attacks. Then it gets worse. Kosh's corollary to Short's observation: The avalanche has already started; it is too late for the pebbles to vote.
Despite the efforts of social historians, an accurate account of the events of the day remains impossible; too many events, too many scattered and confused accounts. What is certain, however, is that once the cascade of failures began, each breakdown triggered the next; but the most catastrophic of all was the failure of the telephone system.
Stuck on the freeways, with relief from the sun still hours away, people began flipping open their cell phones and calling home, calling for help, calling ambulances and fire trucks and police, even calling Cal-Trans and the city councilmen and the Governor's office to complain. As the channels overloaded, the system began dumping calls to clear bandwidth; people began calling their service providers to complain. In self-defense, the network went into emergency procedures and shut itself down. The resultincreased feelings of alienation and isolation among those trapped in the crystallized traffic. The arteries became linear madhouses of desperate frustration. Increasing numbers of people lost control of their bladders and bowels, adding to their individual discomfort, both physical and emotional.
As the afternoon wore on, two pregnant women went into labor anda third miscarried. Two people enroute to hospitals died in the ambulances that could not get through. A burly farmworker, one of several crammed into the back of a pickup truck, experienced debilitating food poisoning, a combination of projectile vomiting and near-projectile diarrhea that expelled more than two liters of fluid out of his body in less than thirty minutes. A fifty-six-year-old type-A studio executive experienced crushing chest pains that left him gasping for breath and too weak to cry for help. No help was available anyway. Even where calls for help could still be made from emergency call boxes, impatient drivers had already filled both shoulders of the highway in their desperate attempts to escape. The rescue vehicles couldn't get in and the medevac choppers had no place to land.
By mid-afternoon, a significant number of vehicles had run out of gas. Even under the best of circumstances, a single stalled automobile in a middle lane could back up traffic in all four lanes for miles. Under these circumstances, with hundreds of dead vehicles scattered throughout the system and more dying every minute, the crystallization had become complete. The vehicular arteries were solid and terminally impassible. The patient was dead, although it would be several days before any of the specialists would admit it.
But on some unconscious level, some people were already getting a visceral sense of what had happened. Maybe their survival instincts were kicking in, or maybe they were simply overcome by frustrationbut it was the final moment of breakdown, the recognition that the system had failed and could not repair itself. Drivers started getting out of their cars. They locked them up, out of some optimistic belief that they would eventually have the chance to come back and retrieve them, then they left them where they were. They gathered what belongings they could carry and abandoned their metal sanctuaries. First one or two, then a few more, and finally a veritable flood of refugees, they hiked between the sweltering lanes toward the nearest off-ramp and their separate illusions of relief.
Not all drivers were that easily persuaded. They sat and waited indesperate hope, afraid to leave, afraid to let go of their attachment to their vehicles, afraid to disconnect from pernicious false identityI am my carthat pervades Los Angeles culture. Still believing that this was only temporary, they sat in their cars, their engines still running, their air conditioners still blasting. (Even today, all these years later, archaeologists are still finding mummified bodies in some vehicles, including many varieties of small animals.)
Some engineers argue that even up to this point, the Los Angeles freeway system might have been saved, if only the next phase of the disaster could have been prevented. Others argue that the next moments were inevitable from the first beginnings of the crystallization process. Computer simulations have given us no clear answer.
It was this simple. All of those automobiles, all of those desperate drivers too attached to their metal and plastic personalities, unwilling to leave the technological illusion of identity, security, and safety, they sat in their wombs of music, unaware that their engine temperatures were steadily, inexorably rising. The automobile engine is designed to cool itself while in motion; it needs a steady flow of air through its radiator so it can dissipate excess heat. But now, immobilized, all of those engines running without any chance of cooling, the temperatures around them rising, overheating was inevitable. The first vehicle caught fire at 3:31. Like a good idea occurring to many people simultaneously, within the next half hour, thirteen more vehicles began to smolder, and soon, flames were licking out from under the hoods of seven of them.
But the fire trucks couldn't get to them. The shoulders were jammed. Cars with plastic gas tanks exploded with surprising fury, and the fires began to spread, leaping from vehicle to vehicle with alarming speed. Drivers who only moments before had been completely resistant to leaving the comfort of their sedans panicked and fled. Soon, there were firestorms. The biggest raged on the 405 where it intersected with the 101, at the heart of the first big clot in the system. Another firestorm flickered to life further south on the 405 where it intersected with the 10. A third fire exploded just west of where the 10 intersected with the110 and also where it fed into the 5. In a very short time, the two fires met in the middle and expanded into a terrifying wall of flame that cut across the heart of the city.
Aerial tanker drops helped to slow down the flames, but it wasn't enough. Before the end of the 7:00 news broadcast, the governor had declared the city a disaster area. All across the world, people clustered around television screens, mesmerized by an event that was both incomprehensible and horrific. Los Angeles was choking to death on its own vomit. Like a great beast shuddering to a halt, the city of the angels was collapsing and shutting down.
Even after the fires were contained, even after the last smoldering embers were extinguished, most of the inhabitants of the city continued to believe that normalcy could be restored, that someday traffic would flow again. Maybe they believed this because there were still pockets of mobility scattered throughout the urban sprawl, quiet neighborhoods where housewives could still drive to the corner market for milk and bread and eggs; but by the fourth day, as the stores began to run out of perishables, the problem of resupply became critical. How could the city feed its stranded millions?
Despite promises from local, state, and federal authorities that the freeways could be restored and working again within a few days, well, maybe two weeks at the mostall right, full recovery was probably at least a month or two away, but the city could function and survive, just a little more time, that's all we needdespite all the promises and reassurances, by the middle of the week many Angelenos were beginning to experience growing fear, frustration, and skepticism.
The city hadn't yet succumbed to panic, but the seeds were growing. Many of those who lived on the edges of the city, especially those who had access to uncongested avenues, began evacuating themselves voluntarily to other communities. In the first week alone, Orange County took in over 40,000 refugees, San Bernardino accepted 50,000; many went to the homes of friends and relatives, others went to hotels, the most desperate camped out in tent cities erected on the grounds of localhigh schools, colleges, and the parking lots of several major malls. But there were still over five million people within the affected areas of the city.
At least twenty thousand came out on motorcycles or motor scooters; while the trip through the surface streets was slow, it wasn't impossible. Many more rode out of the disaster area by train. Metro-Link borrowed trains from as far away as Seattle to ferry passengers from Union Station to refugee camps in Santa Barbara, San Diego, and Palmdale.
Even more came out of the frozen zone by subway and light rail. The Green Line and the Gold Line and the Blue Line were major arteries. The Red Line funneled people from the mid-San Fernando Valley down to Union Station, where they could transfer to the other colors of the rainbow, or to other trains that would take them even farther out.
A few people, not a significant number, escaped by helicopter. Van Nuys Airport and LAX became hubs of activity for those who could reach them, with planes landing and taking off as fast as the overstressed controllers could open flight paths in the sky. The lack of aviation fuel deliveries to the airports meant that planes had to fly in carrying enough fuel for their outward journeys. All of the airports in the zone were given double-black stars, an unprecedented new classification which meant that travel to or from was at-your-own-risk. It meant limited-to-zero availability of rescue and emergency vehicles and facilities.
But the refugees from deeper inside the disaster zone, where there was no access to rail or air, had the most difficulty extricating themselves. Some refugees walked as far as ten miles to reach a subway station, or a Metro-Link access. Amtrak brought in emergency trains on freight lines, putting up awnings and tents and benches to create makeshift stations at convenient street-crossings and overpasses. The crowds gathered and waited. Many arrived with bicycles, overloaded with their belongings. Red Cross helicopters lowered food and water to the waiting masses.
The disaster maps showed that almost every neighborhood within an area bounded by the 5 on the east, the 405 on the west, the 118 on thenorth, and the 105 on the south was pretty much immobilized to some degree or other, with tendrils of crystallization extending linearly outward from all of these routes.
While surface streets provided some relief, the spillover from the network of hardened freeways had choked most of the city's major thoroughfares. The streets were full of cars; the only reason the city had functioned before was that not every car was on the road at the same time. Now that the city was immobilized, a panic-stricken populace rushed to their automobiles to make their escape. Evacuation didn't solve the problem, it exacerbated it. Broadcasting information on viable routes out of the city was self-defeating. As soon as a route was cleared and announced, it clogged up within minutes.
On Thursday, seven days after crystallization, as part of a larger disaster-relief package, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the Insurance Emergency Relief bill, declaring the disaster an act of God, thereby freeing automobile insurers from billions of dollars of exposure. This allowed the state to declare all abandoned vehicles a public nuisance and begin the wholesale removal of freeway blockages. The outrage that followed was not limited to the survivors of the disaster.
Leaders of the Democratic party were quick to point out that the Republicans had abandoned the protection of property rights in favor of the rights of big government. While not exactly a wedge issue, it did open the door for further political divisions. The Democrats portrayed themselves as the Party of Opportunity and painted the Republicans as the Party of Opportunists. The destruction of a million automobiles was seen as a gift to an automobile industry that would clearly benefit from the need to replace those lost vehicles. The bottom line, the Democrats insisted, was that the Greedy Old Party had no heart, they had abandoned the people of Southern California in favor of protecting the interests of their corporate sponsors. The Republican Congress tried to backpedal, but the damage had already been done.
Meanwhile, estimates of the time to full recovery now varied from six months to three years. The cranes and tow trucks necessary to clear thestreets would have to work their way slowly to the center of the disaster and there were no computer simulations capable of the necessary extrapolations. Where to put the extracted vehicles and how to get them there complicated the issue.
The cars couldn't be removed from the freeways, because there was no place to put them. Trying to save all these autos for their owners' eventual return meant finding storage space for them and logging their locations in a master database. Perhaps the surviving cars could be transported out to some wide-empty space out in the desert, from which owners could reclaim them. For a fee. Maybe. But did anyone really want to risk putting all these vehicles back into circulation where they could just clog the system again? The arguments were just beginning. (Some people advocated that this disaster represented an opportunity to remodel Los Angeles's dependency on automobiles and replace or augment the freeways with more light rail systems. But that particular alternative was not only an expensive proposition, it was not an immediate solution to anything.)
Even though the Vehicle Reclamation teams were now authorized to pile up cars in great towering pyramids of metal and glass and plastic wherever they found a big enough parking lot, there was enormous reluctance to do so. All those automobiles represented billions of dollars that nobody wanted to discard casually, especially not the far-removed owners. On the other hand, by the time the reclamation teams reached the majority of affected vehicles most of them would have rusted into near-total uselessness.
On the brighter side, the Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District announced that air pollution levels for the basin had dropped dramatically. The air was cleaner than it had been since 1955 when the county finally outlawed backyard incinerators. An awkward spokesman embarrassedly announced that this was the direct result of taking a million and a half vehicles off the road, except that of course, those million and a half vehicles were still on the road. Just not moving anymore. But this was the good news. It was now safe to breathe in Los Angeles again.
Despite that incentive, the flood of refugees streaming out of the city continued, straining the resources of surrounding counties beyond the breaking point. By now, the first waves of escapees from the zone were spreading out across the continent, bringing with them sordid tales of nonvehicular terror and enough digital camera photos, phone-camera photos, and handycam videos to keep the news agencies happy for weeks. Even after the continuing live coverage abated and regular programming resumed, the networks still scheduled ongoing special reports. This was as much an opportunity as a necessity. Universal, Warner Bros., Fox, Disney, and Paramount all had their lots within the frozen zone. The production of at least sixteen major television seriesincluding, ironically, The O.C., were shut down. Although there were finished episodes of all prime-time series in the pipeline, once those were aired, new episodes would not be available until new production facilities were established, or until transportation to existing facilities could be resumed.
Every news and current events show from 60 Minutes to Nova began multipart examinations of the collapse of an entire city, with alarming speculations about the possibility of similar crystallizations occurring elsewhere. Real estate values in small towns and rural areas began to climb.
The days stretched into weeks as refugees continued to stream out of the zone, sometimes as many as a hundred thousand a day. The nightly news kept a running tally on the numbers; the flood showed no signs of abating; but each succeeding day, those who had successfully escaped from L.A. seemed more and more despairing and desperate. While not quite ragged, they looked hungry and haggard, thin and wan. Many had gone for a week or more without fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh milk and other perishables. They had exchanged their tan healthy presence for more sallow dispirited complexions. The surrounding counties continued to absorb as many as they could, exporting the overflow to the rest of the nation as fast as transportation could be arranged. Amtrak borrowed Pullman cars from Canada and Mexico, and converted over ahundred freight cars into makeshift passenger units. A number of Jewish families refused to board anything that looked like a boxcar.
Entering the fourth week of the disaster, as it became apparent that this was the new normal, disaster recovery teams entering the frozen zone discovered a startling factsome people had created ways to survive their transformed circumstances. The most amazing finding was that some Angelenos had given up their dependency on their cars and learned how to walk. (No, that is not a misprint. The word is walk.) Computer analysis of urban residential zones revealed that more than 35 percent of all residential dwellings in Los Angeles had access to supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, and other essential services within a radius of ten blocks or less. For these people, walking might be an inconvenience, but it was easier than giving up their homes. Reports from the zone suggested that in some places, neighborhoods were reinventing themselves as actual communities.
Satellite maps revealed that fully 10 percent of those who were refusing to leave their homes were planting gardens in their backyards or on their front lawns. Others were creating a new economy using bicycles and motorcycles to transship goods from subway and light rail stations into the otherwise unreachable interior of the zone. Simulations projected that 20 percent of the city's population could survive without automobile access, possibly more if enough streets could be cleared so that trucks could deliver goods to local communitiesbut if enough streets could be cleared, the automobiles would return.
Surprisinglyor maybe not so surprisinglya small but growing number of people liked the new normal, and were starting to voice the opinion that they did not want the automobiles to return. They actually liked being able to see the Hollywood Hills clearly. They liked the way the air smelled in the morning. They liked working in the garden, walking to the corner store, actually talking to their neighbors, and living at a less frenetic pace.
Teams of sociologists who studied the phenomenonnow called disvehiclizationobserved that it was not simply a rejection of the automobile,but of the entire technological cocoon that had enveloped daily life. The disvehiclized person was also more likely to leave his or her cell phone off, turning it on only for limited periods each day; the disvehiclized person rarely watched television; he or she also cut back on computer time, accessing the Internet only for essential news or shopping services.
But not everybody could afford disvehiclization; it was a luxury of the retired, and of those who could work from their homes. Those who still depended on day jobs could not survive without transportation. While the subway, light rail, and emergency bus lines were able to provide some measure of service, they were simply not designed to handle the traffic load, nor did they provide the degree of coverage necessary to the entire basin. In the first month alone, over a million people emigrated from Los Angeles to surrounding counties.
In Orange County, rents soared first, demand far exceeded supply. Real estate values followed quickly. Automobile sales took off as well, both new and used; individuals who felt their lives were dependent on their mobility were quick to replace their lost cars. For the first few weeks, car dealers all across the nation were shipping as many vehicles as they could into Ventura, San Bernardino, Santa Clarita, and Orange counties.
Commentators have called this influx of additional vehicles onto the avenues and highways of the counties surrounding Los Angeles the "squeezed mud" effect. Squeeze a handful of mud, it oozes out between your fingers; squeeze Los Angeles, and the traffic oozes out in all directions across the state. Cal-Trans projects that the post-crystallization era will see at least an additional million vehicles on the highways of the four counties surrounding Los Angeles.
Cal-Trans officials are also quick to point out that the recent stoppages on the 22, the 55, and the 91 are only localized anomalies, and not representative of any larger process. There is absolutely no reason to fear crystallization in Orange County. Absolutely no reason at all.
Copyright © 2006 by Steven Savile and Alethea Kontis