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In the greater L.A. area, people have a habit of referring to the individual highways by name, rather than by number. One hears phrases like "the Fifteen" or "the Four-oh-five" rather than, as they say in San Francisco, "One-oh-one South", or in Nebraska, "Eye-eighty".

One might be persuaded that this reverential mode is a verbal relic of the days before the Interstate Highway System was numbered, and that the numbers are standing in for the destinations of the highways, such as Santa Monica Freeway. However, since the average age of inhabitants of Los Angeles is much younger than those who grew up driving in the era of Raymond Chandler, this cannot be the explanation for the reverence accorded highways, as reasonable as it sounds.

In the L.A. regional dialect, one also hears a certain tone of disdain in the phrase "surface streets". It is in this phrase, which may be defined as connoting "those streets along which people might ride bicycles", that the automobile-worshiping nature of the drivers of Los Angeles is apparent. One need only look to the movie Grease to find the deep-seated cultural worship of the automobile and its effects on the collective mind of Los Angeles, including the confusion of aqueducts with raceways.

A Brief History of the Los Angeles Freeway System

The LA Freeway system began humbly enough with the completion of the Arroyo Seco Parkway in 1940. Transportation engineers saw freeways as a wonder, a near magical invention which would eliminate much of LA's growing traffic problem. Over the years, the Los Angeles area freeway master plan was updated several times, as engineers modified their assumptions as to what portions of LA needed to be given freeways. Many of these roads were simply pipe dreams, but this grandiose plan became the basis for the part monstrosity, part work of art called the LA freeway system.

Throughout the forties and fifties, public sentiment was with the freeway designers. People saw freeways as a liberating alternative to the mismanaged trolley system, and were willing to pay for the construction in the form of higher taxes and bonds. As time went on, however, people became more and more frustrated with the fact that freeways weren't providing the benefits the engineers said they were going to provide. Lawsuits started to be filed, and freeway construction ground to a halt. As it currently stands, there is to be little to no new freeway construction in the LA area for the forseeable future. The only construction projects are the extension of Interstate 210 to the San Bernardino area, and a proposed extension of the Marina Freeway. It could be said that the LA freeway system failed to meet its goals, but it certainly is a wonderful failure.

What makes up the Los Angeles Freeway System?

Currently, the Los Angeles Freeway system consists of ten Interstate Highways, twenty California State Highways, and one Federal Highway. These are:

Interstate Highways:

California State Highways:

Federal Highways

  • US Highway 101 - Ventura Freeway
  • Additionally, there are several surface streets which have many freeway characteristics. Most of these are due to freeway projects which were later cancelled, but portions of at least two roads, Colorado Boulevard and Woodbury Road are former freeways. Later freeway expansion and realignment projects caused these right of ways to be converted to surface streets. Other freeway level surface streets include Sepulveda and Lincoln Boulevards near LAX, La Cienega Boulevard through the Baldwin Hills, and Imperial Highway near Yorba Linda.

    Unconstructed Freeways

    The early freeway engineers thought big. As freeways were supposed to be the magic bullet for all traffic ills, they planned several freeways which were never built due to logistical concerns and the increasing number of lawsuits brought up because of freeway construction. Two of the more notable examples of these unconstructed freeways, both of which probably would have helped alleviate traffic problems are the Whitnall Freeway, and the Laurel Canyon Freeway.

    Of all the unconstructed freeways, the Whitnall Freeway is probably the most interesting. It was to start in the western end of the San Fernando Valley, running eastwards, intersect with several freeways, including the unbuilt Decker Freeway, Interstate 405 and Highway 101 before heading southward, parallelling Interstate 110, before finally ending at another interchange with Interstate 405. As anyone who has driven in Los Angeles can tell you, the proposed route of this freeway would have probably helped alleviate some of the worst bottlenecks in the LA Freeway system. The San Fernando Valley, the Hollywood Hills, LAX, and the Downtown area all cause infamous traffic jams, and this freeway bypasses nearly all of these problems. Would this freeway have helped solve the traffic problems? Perhaps. It was definately routed through areas which have notorious traffic problems.

    The Laurel Canyon Freeway was to have run from Interstate 405 near LAX through downtown, cross over the Hollywood Hills at Laurel Canyon, before finally meeting up with Highway 170 in Hollywood. This freeway probably would have opened up a great pathway from the LA Basin to the San Fernando Valley, as the current road through Laurel Canyon is a winding two-lane road clogged with people who wish to avoid the Sepulveda Pass. This proposed freeway route also closely parallels La Cienega Boulevard, leading many to speculate that the controlled access portions of La Cienega Boulevard were early forays into a project which was later abandoned.

    LA's Freeway Love Affair

    Like a rocky romance, Los Angelenos have a love-hate relationship with their freeways. People love the speeds which freeways promise, and occasionally deliver, hate the freeways when a pileup causes traffic to crawl at 15 miles per hour for hours on end. There are set routines which revolve around the freeways; people will occasionally go several miles out of their way so that they can save a minute or two by avoiding a notoriously bad stretch of freeway. There are routines for the people who loathe driving on the freeways; people who look at the surface streets of LA with joy. To them, they're a way to avoid the madness of the freeways at rush hour. There is the much loved, and much hated urban sprawl caused by the freeways, as most people love the fact that the sprawl means that they own their own house, but hate the fact that this means that there are always friends and family who live too far away for frequent visitation. There are neighborhoods torn apart by the freeways, creating near permanent rifts in communities. People live and die by the freeways, they plan a large amount of their lives around the freeways. For better or for worse, LA is married to the freeways.

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