Carmageddon – Change is Hard, Except When It’s Not

The world failed to end over the weekend. In Los Angeles, at least, this was a bit surprising, as there were many dire predictions made about the impact of closing down the 405 Freeway for a weekend of construction.

Many of the key issues are summarised in this remix from Downfall (which is funny, but NSFW, and probably not politically correct). There are also more straightforward discussions of the event dubbed “Carmageddon” on the LA Times website.

Even on weekends, the 405 carries a staggering amount of traffic, so it stands to reason that shutting it completely would have a major cascading effect on traffic throughout the rest of LA.

And yet, it didn’t. Why?

Because people changed their behaviour for the weekend. They stayed home, or walked place, or travelled in the opposite direction of where the traffic was supposed to be.

In the end, Carmageddon was a complete non-event.

This is actually the second time that this has happened in LA. The first time, it was supposed to be even worse. That was during the 1984 Olympic Games. Most of the events took place around the LA Coliseum, which is right next to downtown. Traffic from people going to see the games was supposed to shut down the entire city – this time for two weeks.

The fact that this didn’t happened has been referred to as the “LA Traffic Miracle“.

Why were the Olympic weeks actually one of the smoothest traffic periods in memory? Because people changed their behaviour:

But The Times noted back in 1985 that it wasn’t exactly a miracle: ” [It was] no fluke but resulted to a large degree from employer policies during the Games (23% of major employers surveyed used staggered shifts; 33% permitted flextime).”

In both cases, the prediction that was actually being made was:

This event will be catastrophic, if people act as they normally do.

The problem is that no one ever says the second part out lout – it’s just assumed.

We run into this problem a lot when innovating. We introduce a new idea, and people resist it, because it will only work if they change their behaviour. This is a key innovation challenge – how can we make the behaviour change easier?

Scaring people is one method, as they did with Carmageddon and the 1984 Olympics.

However, this approach often only has short-term success.

The other approach that works is to create clear value for people with your innovation.

Peoples’ capacity to effect large-scale change is often surprising. Major changes in behaviour are often shocking, because we always assume that change is hard. However, if you create value for people with innovation, you can make it easier for them to change.

Once again, change will occur, and it won’t be the end of the world.

(photo from the LA Times)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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