Lawmakers Look to Revive Los Angeles' 1984 Olympic Plan to Reduce Traffic

In 1984, Los Angeles reduced traffic and accidents during the Olympics in part by banning trucks from freeways during peak hours. Some lawmakers think it's a policy worth revisiting.
August 28, 2013
The 5,000 pound Olympic rings used in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles before being taken to a facility to be restored to their original golden luster.
The 5,000 pound Olympic rings used in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles before being taken to a facility to be restored to their original golden luster. AP/Kevork Djansezian

As congestion continues to worsen, policymakers are faced with a dilemma: how to relieve it when there's no money for new roadways and often no room to build them.

A 27-year old plan could hold some of the answers.

In 1984, when  Los Angeles hosted the Olympics, many worried how a city famous for its traffic would move athletes, journalists and spectators -- not to mention everyday Angelinos -- during the two-week games. So city, regional and state officials doubled down on a plan of attack.

As reported in a retrospective by the (now defunct) CityBeat:

Their plan included: More car-pooling and bus-riding. Major incident response teams were on full alert, around the clock. Traffic flows on Figueroa and Flowers streets were switched to one-way. Commercial deliveries were made at night. Telephone hot lines kept the public informed. School buses were used to shuttle attendees, the press, and athletes to different sites. Employers allowed their workers to have flexible shifts or work from home. A specific traffic management plan was put into motion each day. The result: Congestion was reduced by about 60 percent, and truck traffic was down by as much as 16 percent during peak periods.

The good news was the plan worked. The bad news was it only lasted for a couple weeks until the Olympics were over, and Los Angeles gained its place in traffic infamy.

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But one part of the plan, involving trucks, has periodically continued to pique the interest of some lawmakers, who say it could be key to solving congestion in urban areas in California -- and beyond.

During the Olympics, there was a voluntary ban on trucks using freeways during peak hours. The vehicles were accommodated by the temporary suspension of ordinances prohibiting pick-up and delivery of goods before 7 a.m.

Steve Adams, a councilmember in Riverside, Calif. -- about 50 miles east of L.A. -- is not the first politician to say it's worth reviving that concept, but he is the latest. Adams, who's a Republican running for Congress against freshman Rep. Mark Takano, touted the idea during a transportation conference earlier this month.

 "We do not have the money to expand the capacity of freeways and highways," Adams tells Governing. The short- and mid-term solution is taking trucks off the road during the daytime hours and putting them on at night." The idea is a part of a plan for his region he calls "Operation Free Flow."

Adams says the issue is a particularly pressing one in Riverside, which has been impacted by congestion from trucks moving freight to and from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

"The benefits are obvious... you've expanded the capacity instantaneously," Adams adds, noting that such a plan would also improve air quality, since traffic causes more pollution when it travels at the slow speeds drivers experience during heavy congestion.

Adams envisions a scenario in which short-haul delivery vehicles could purchase a permit to make their rounds during the day, while large long haul-trucks would operate at night. The result would be less congestion for everyday motorists, and faster trips for truckers, who could travel further on a single shift during off-peak hours. He says the plan would cost governments less money than building and expanding new roads, and most importantly, it would have an immediate impact.

Would it work? According to a report from the Institution of Transportation Engineers, during peak hours in Los Angeles during the Olympics, truck traffic was down 6 percent overall and down more than 15 percent on some freeways. The result was a 58 percent reduction in truck-related freeway accidents across the region. By most accounts, the plan was a hit.

But part of the reason it worked was because it was always envisioned as temporary. A few years after the Olympics, a study conducted by transportation consultants Cambridge Systematics for the California Department of Transportation found that a ban on truck travel on freeways during peak times was unlikely to be feasible.

One of the biggest impediment would likely be the trucking industry, which wouldn't be happy with seeing its schedule become dramatically less flexible. When then-L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley tried to introduce a version of rush-hour ban in the early 1990s, based on the Olympics plan, the industry criticism was fierce. "We don't call it a truck ban," then-California Trucking Association chairman Robert Crites said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "We call it a business ban."

It's just not trucking companies that would be impacted by such a ban. Businesses and warehouses accepting deliveries would have to adjust their staffing schedules to off-peak hours. That could mean higher costs, according to several studies of the issue, since businesses would likely need to hire extra night-time staff or pay existing employees more to work late hours.

Adams says he believes the policy could be enacted by county and city governments. "You want to keep the state and federal governments out of it altogether," he says. But it's unclear how that could be possible, given that states generally have jurisdiction over big freeways. Furthermore, the Los Angeles Times reports, Bradley's plan died largely because it may have violated interstate commerce laws.

Still, other versions of trucking bans are in place. According to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, possible policies to addressing congestion associated with trucks include restricting deliveries to nighttime, raising tolls on trucks during peak periods, and providing incentives to trucking companies to shift to off-peak hours.

Boston and Cambridge, for example, have instituted policies that limit downtown delivery trucks to certain routes. Bans on day-time deliveries also exist in some other U.S. cities and several European capitals.

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, meanwhile, assess a fee for using container terminals during the day. That fee provides an incentive for freight carriers to use the terminals at night. And those nighttime operations are funded by the daytime fees. About 40 percent of containers cargo traffic shifted to off-peak hours during the first three years, according to the program's administrators.

None of those policies, however, go as far as an outright ban on truck traffic on freeways during rush hour like Los Angeles saw during the Olympics.

Still, while trucking bans haven't been implemented here in the U.S., they're becoming more common in others parts of the world,namely the Middle East and parts of Asia. In just the last few years, heavy trucks have been banned entirely, or during peak hours, in and around Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Manila.

Adams is undaunted in his goal, and he says the work abroad is proof that the concept is feasible. "We don't need to expand (freeways) to eight or 10 lanes," he says. "We need to smartly run them."

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