For most of the year our screens were filled with stories and pictures of protesters railing against a mandate. It is said to be unconstitutional. Un-American. A violation of our inalienable rights.
But the year isn’t 2021, and it’s not about mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations. It’s 1976, and Angelenos is arguing over a Caltrans decision to move the left-most lanes (in both directions) of the Santa Monica Freeway (I-10) into high-occupancy (HOV) lanes between downtown Los Angeles and Los Angeles convert to Santa Monica. These alleys have been painted with huge white diamonds to mark their status.
To meet the stricter emissions standards of the Clean Air Act of 1970, the California Department of Transportation began reinventing the highways and came up with the idea of Diamond Lane. On weekdays, during morning and evening rush hour traffic, the lanes would be reserved for cars with three or more passengers or for buses. It was not until 1976 that the plan was implemented on this 12-mile stretch of the 10 Freeway.
On the morning of March 15, commuters were furious when the multipurpose lanes of the Santa Monica Freeway suddenly turned into a parking lot and the new diamond lanes were largely empty.
The resulting chaos produced many of the same reactions that we encounter among anti-Vaxxers. Protesters marched along freeway strips and flyovers when they were not setting up the headquarters of Governor Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign in LA.
I was a 10 year old in West LA at the time. When my parents and I saw the nightly news at 6 p.m., the debacle on Diamond Lane was TV finished. It was the first time I heard the term “socialism” – in this case, an indication that the government is forcing people out of their cars and into other people’s vehicles. Instead of “My Body, My Choice” it was a time of “My Car, My Choice”.
Just as people today fight vaccine mandates with lawsuits, some opponents of Diamantengasse brought their cases to court in 1976. The driver Eric Julber was the first citizen to file a lawsuit against the state. His case argued on two counts, first, that the state had failed to submit an environmental statement for the project. His second argument: Caltrans’ minimum mandate of three people per car is discriminatory – compared to drivers of two-seater cars. (Only in Los Angeles could Porsche and Corvette owners be considered victims.) When that tactic didn’t work, Julber claimed the new law violated “people’s rights” enacted by the 9th Anti-Vaccination Districts today.
Aside from the drama, the protesters had a legitimate beef. The California Highway Patrol reported that 97% of the vehicles on LA freeways had only one or two occupants. By eliminating one of four lanes from Caltrans, 25% of the real estate can be used by motorists, without offering many practical alternatives for single drivers. Ironically, the extra traffic caused by the loss of the lane may have contributed to the pollution the state was trying to alleviate.
As the weather heated up, so did people’s spirits. Saboteurs threw thumbtacks at Diamond Alley and drowned out the diamond badges with paint. During unsafe maneuvers, drivers collided with other cars as they meandered in the empty, restricted lanes. Comments from talk radio hosts, national news correspondents, and politicians have only been added to the circus. Even Tonight Show host Johnny Carson made it the punchline of a joke as the mystic Carnac the Magnificent:
Answer: Diamond Lane.
Question: What does Zsa Zsa Gabor call the center of a church?
After a string of lawsuits and death threats against the head of Caltrans, the state ended the Diamond Lane experiment after a judge ruled in a lawsuit filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation that Caltrans should have conducted an environmental review. The HOV lanes were converted to general lanes on August 13, 1976.
To date, the Santa Monica Freeway is one of the few LA freeways with no ridesharing, as an extension by this could cost well over 1 billion US dollars. HOV lanes set up after the 1976 California debacle involved adding new lanes rather than carpooling the regular lanes, a major reason the first attempt failed.
When I review today’s excitement about vaccine mandates, the boy in me recognizes the echoes from the past. A government agency at the time demanded that people make a collective sacrifice only to find that individual rights – in this case the freedom of the solo driver – almost always trump the greater good, at least in non-war times.
Time and again, Americans pay a price for refusing to look at the bigger picture. In 1976 the cost included a setback to environmentally conscious transport policy and a possible solution to deteriorating traffic. In 2021, if vaccination mandates fail, the effects will be far more dangerous.
Paul Haddad is a Los Angeles-based writer who writes about him. His new book “Freewaytopia: How Freeways Shaped Los Angeles” will be published in October. @la_dorkout