Joe Mathews: COVID-19 has wiped out LA traffic. That’s not a good thing.

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Coronavirus has taken away a lot of what Los Angeles has to offer...but at least it’s taken traffic jams with it. Photo credit: Tony Webster/CC 2.0, / CC BY-SA

Coronavirus has taken away a lot of what Los Angeles has to offer...but at least it’s taken traffic jams with it.

Even during rush hour, it’s not unusual to clock 65 and still have other drivers flying past.

That's made commentator Joe Mathews do some thinking about the role congestion plays in our lives here in the Golden State.  In this edition of Zocalo’s “Connecting California”, he said he’s actually starting to miss the breaklights. 

Read Mathews’ column below:

By CALIFORNIA TRAFFIC, as told to JOE MATHEWS

Admit it. You miss me, don’t you?

I know you’ve never liked me, and for that I’ve never blamed you. You Californians like to live your lives fast, and I’m all about slowing you down. So I try not to take it personally that you complain about me more than drought or Donald Trump.

Yes,  I make you late to school and to work. I lengthen your brutal commutes. And I contribute to pollution that causes everything from asthma to climate change. 

But give me this much: When COVID-19 came, and I took a vacation, California suddenly didn’t feel like California anymore.

Truth be told, under normal circumstances, California isn’t the most congested place in the U.S. Much of our giant state is empty, while Hawai‘i’s small island roads are packed. My fearsome reputation is really based on awful traffic in California’s giant urban regions. 

At first, you celebrated my disappearance. The highways were wide open. Even when businesses reopened, traffic was less than 80 percent of normal statewide. 

You were happy because you dwell  on my costs—in gas, vehicle maintenance, air quality, and lives—without appreciating my benefits. Now that those benefits have vanished, I wonder if you might give me more respect.

For starters, I’m the best excuse you have for your flakiness. When you’re ludicrously late to school or work, or when you miss your brother’s wedding, all you need is to invoke me, traffic, and Californians will absolve you of your tardiness. Now if you’re late, you’ve got no excuse!

I also hope COVID has given you a more forgiving perspective on time. Transportation agencies routinely issue studies accusing me, traffic, of stealing 60-plus hours annually that you could spend with your families. But now that so many of you are stuck with your families all the time, I detect a new appreciation for all the quality time you used to spend stuck with me. I let you listen to whatever music you like, without ever complaining. Can your kids say the same?

That may seem trivial, but the carnage on our roads—more than 3,500 traffic deaths annually—is serious. And the pandemic suggests that my talent for congestion actually keeps you safer. In the early weeks of the lockdown, traffic accidents, injuries and deaths dropped. But since then, without me slowing people down, speeding drivers have made the roads much deadlier. Even with much less traffic, we’re on track to have just as many deaths on the roads as in 2019.

Controlling speeding is just one of the many social goods for which I, traffic, deserve more credit. Research shows that, despite conventional wisdom that traffic slows commerce, congestion is good for the economy and jobs. You won’t escape economic depression without me.

I support millions of jobs directly, from car dealerships to car repair shops and car washes. I’m also a force for innovation, encouraging the concentration of high-tech and other industries. And gas taxes on drivers pay for our transportation infrastructure, and the construction jobs that come with it. Contrary to popular belief, I’m also a huge proponent of public transportation. People board trains and buses to avoid me. Collapsing transit systems will require bailouts until I can resume my  essential artery-clogging work.

My environmental work extends beyond transit. Fear of my congestion also creates incentives for infill development in dense urban areas, and for people to live closer to work, and to walk and bike more. Best of all, congestion forces people to congregate in unexpected places, where they can talk, plan a rally, or meet a significant other. 

You may hate me, but I help you fall in love!

That’s why I’m asking you to wear those masks. The sooner California beats the pandemic, the sooner you and I can be together again.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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