Bid for 2024 Olympics brings nostalgia of traffic-free LA during 1984 games

A Southern California Rapid Transit District bus in front of the Coliseum during the 1984 Olympics.
A Southern California Rapid Transit District bus in front of the Coliseum during the 1984 Olympics.
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Forget the gold medal performances from the likes of Carl Lewis and Mary Lou Retton. Talk to longtime Los Angeles residents about the 1984 Olympics and many will say what they remember most is how well the freeways worked.

Officials warned of gridlock, so hoards of residents left town, stayed home or used public transit.

"It was really enjoyable to zip down the freeways since traffic was free-flowing," said Marc Littman, a spokesman for the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority who in 1984 was doing public outreach for its predecessor, the Rapid Transit District.

"Basically what I did was to scare everybody off the road," he joked. "But it worked."

With Los Angeles poised to be the United States' choice for an Olympic bid for 2024, the effect on traffic may not be as good this time around, however, because many of the tactics pioneered during the 1984 Olympics were adopted permanently.

A 4-day/40-hour work schedule was mandated at the state level for government workers - and some agencies kept the schedule.

A program to synchronize traffic lights to better manage car flows that started during the games has expanded from 120 intersections to more than 4,000.

Los Angeles created temporary bus-only lanes by enforcing strict parking restrictions and converting certain streets to one-way in order to shuttle visitors to Olympic venues on 500 new buses. Today, the city has two major commuter bus lines with dedicated lanes and more in the works.

Overall traffic was decreased by about 5 percent during the two weeks of the 1984 Olympics.

But not all of the changes could be permanent so the effects were short-lived. The L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee encouraged people to take vacations or work from home.

A report from the Southern California Regional Association of Governments showed that about 25 percent of workers took some vacation or stayed home during the two week event.

When they came back and other people's schedules returned to normal, traffic came back, too.

During the games, trucking activity dropped by 16 percent as commercial deliveries were switched to night and truck traffic was not allowed during peak hours. Obviously that policy has not remained in place.

Celebrities of 1984 encourage the public to take Olympic shuttle buses instead of driving.

Littman, of Metro, believes if L.A. were to host the games again in 2024 things would be a lot different. 

"We're in much better shape today than we were thirty years ago," he said, pointing to the 80-plus miles of rail lines that have gone in since then and the five new lines under construction.

However the number of cars on the road is much higher now. Back in 1984 the population of L.A. County was about 8 million; it's now 10 million and expected to grow by another two million by 2024.

The traffic drop had other, long-lasting effects on life in Southern Califonira.

Fewer cars resulted in better air quality - providing powerful evidence that steps could be taken to abate the city's smog problem.

The SCAG report showed a 14 percent reduction in ozone in the basin during the period, paving the way and building the political will for the California Clean Air Act signed into law in 1988.