LA Freeway: Heart of a City

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5 Freeway just north of Downtown Los Angeles.

On the night of June 23, 1997, champion boxer Oscar De La Hoya was driving his brother’s Mercedes on the 605 Freeway near Whittier. He was in the fast lane when the car stalled. He maneuvered the car to the left shoulder but couldn’t find his cell phone. Common wisdom dictates you stay in your vehicle and call for help if your car stalls on the freeway. De La Hoya felt differently. He opened the car door, waited for a gap in traffic and sprinted across five lanes to the other side of the freeway. Moments later a massive truck smashed into the Mercedes, totaling the car.

All Angelenos have stories of witnessing horrific accidents or getting stuck in nightmare traffic jams. To live in Los Angeles one must make peace with the freeway. You learn to accept the gridlock, reckless drivers, ramshackle cars and ever-prowling highway patrol. In a city that delineates the haves from the have-nots, freeways are the last bastion of egalitarianism. Whether you drive a Rolls Royce or a broken-down Chevy, all drivers are equal on the freeway.

Charles Bukowski wrote, “When I drive the freeways, I see the soul of humanity of my city and it’s ugly, ugly, ugly.” The unwritten rule of freeway driving is to drive aggressively. Defensive driving is not enough. To signal before a lane change guarantees the car behind you will not let you in. The trick is to quickly change lanes and then hit the turn signal as if to say, “That’s right man, I just cut you off.”

Observing the speed limit is an unforgivable sin. Posted speed limits are merely suggestions and most people drive 10–15 miles over the limit when traffic is flowing. Tailgating is like a religion on LA freeways. It’s not uncommon to see drivers riding each other’s bumpers at 75 mph even while knowing a sudden stop would be fatal. Driving LA freeways is like swimming in the ocean. Everybody does it despite the riptides and sharks and huge waves that occasionally claim lives.

Locals refer to the freeways by their route numbers as in “take the 405 to the 101.” Each freeway has a distinct character and flavor. The 405 is the busiest freeway in the world, known for its unrelenting traffic jams. This was the route OJ took in his famous White Bronco chase. Driving the 101 is like taking a trek through old Los Angeles. You pass the Hollywood Bowl, the Capitol Records Building, the iconic Western Exterminator offices and City Hall. The 5 links Los Angeles to Orange County and is known for its battered roads, narrow lanes, and monster traffic jams.

The LA freeway system spans 528 miles. They are the defining architecture of Los Angeles. As Joan Didion wrote in her novel Play It As It Lays, the freeway is “the only secular communion Los Angeles has.”

The history of freeways in the United States is tied to Los Angeles. In 1901, the Pacific Electric Railroad created a public transit system known as “the Red Car.” The Red Car Line, with its bright red streetcars, was the primary means of transport around Los Angeles. It covered 25 percent more mileage than New York City’s current subway line. As automobiles became cheap and plentiful, the Red Car Line lost ridership. Vehicle congestion on local streets soared and urban planners spoke about “magic motorways” soaring above and through Los Angeles. Fearing a loss of control over local commerce, the Southern Pacific Railroad (who owned the Pacific Electric Railroad) lobbied against freeway construction.

When the Automobile Club released the 1937 Traffic Survey, public opinion swayed. The Survey recommended extensive motorways with cloverleaf interchanges, on-ramps, off-ramps and elevated highways. Initial plans called for light rail tracks in center lanes. The roads would be called freeways (“free of charge”) to distinguish them from toll ways that cost money.

The first Los Angeles freeway, the Arroyo Seco Parkway opened in 1940. The six-lane, eight-mile long road linked Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles. The route reduced travel time between LA and Pasadena from 27 to 12 minutes. The original speed limit was 45 mph and the road was designed to carry 27,000 cars a day. Today, it carries more than 125,000 cars daily.

LA’s second freeway, the Hollywood Freeway (the 101) also opened in 1940. Connecting the San Fernando Valley to Hollywood and downtown, the 101 made it easier for people to live in the suburbs and work in the city. Construction required the acquisition and demolition of thousands of homes and buildings via eminent domain. Among the structures destroyed were Rudolph Valentino’s home in Whitley Heights and Los Angeles High School near downtown. Rubble and debris were dumped in Chavez Ravine, the future home of Dodger Stadium.

After World War II, pro-freeway sentiment gained momentum. In 1947, California passed the Collier-Burns Highway Act that included a 1.5-cent statewide fuel tax for freeway construction. By 1950, the Red Car Line was formally disbanded.

In 1953, a four-level interchange was completed where the 101 connects to the 110 (Harbor Freeway). This was the first stack freeway in the world. Los Angeles became the model for freeway development and the “stack” became a symbol of local pride.

In 1956, President Eisenhower enacted the Federal Aid Highway Act. The law authorized $25 billion for construction of a nationwide interstate highway system. LA Freeway construction took off and soon the city had the 405 (1960), the 134 (1960) and the 605 (1964). Plans also called for a Beverly Hills Freeway linking the 10 to the 101 via La Cienega and Laurel Canyon. Wealthy residents protested and killed the idea. In contrast, freeway construction through Latino neighborhoods in Boyle Heights, East LA and Lincoln Heights displaced more than a quarter-million people.

The 1973 oil crisis raised fuel prices and increased interest in mass transit. Popular opinion turned against new freeway construction. Proposition 13, enacted in 1978, further reduced available funds. The last new freeway built in Los Angeles was the 105 (the Century Freeway) opening in 1993.

In 1997, The Los Angeles Times wrote about strange items found on local freeways. These included $7,000 in quarters on the 101 in 1982; thousands of pounds of M&M’s on the 57 (Orange Freeway) in 1986; 14,000 pounds of salsa on the 5 in 1987; and a body from the back of a coroner’s van on the 101 in 1989.

In 1969, chickens began appearing on the side of the Hollywood Freeway near Universal Studios. Apparently, a poultry truck overturned and freed thousands of chickens. Passing motorists killed many of the birds but a colony survived and made homes in the roadside shrubbery. In the late-70s, the Department of Animal Regulation corralled more than 100 chickens and shipped them to a Simi Valley ranch. A few chickens eluded capture. The so-called “Hollywood freeway chickens” can still be seen on the 101 today.

Written by

Loren is a writer and woodcut artist based in Los Angeles. He teaches printmaking and creative writing to kids and adults.

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