Why Doesn't L.A. Do Something About Traffic?


Jan. 27, 1907
Los Angeles

One thing you can say about Angelenos: We love to talk about traffic. The only thing we love more is to commission studies and draft plans to deal with the problem, and then ignore them.

“With the wonderful growth of Los Angeles as a great city has come to it many problems to be solved. The Owens River and the system of storm drains underway are the solutions of two important ones,” The Times says.


A traffic jam in 1907

“But now the city is face to face with another important problem, that of the congestion of its streets in the business section, especially by the electric car traffic, which at certain times of the day causes blockades, loss of time to thousands, loss of business to merchants and discomfort to the public.”

Now this is painful reading:

“This problem of transportation will grow in importance every year during which it is neglected. Swift as has been the extension and shifting of lines of the great electric railway system in and about Los Angeles, the city has grown with still greater rapidity.”

The elevated train proposed for Los Angeles and never built.

The Times says Henry Huntington plans to build an experimental elevated line from the Pacific Electric Building south on Tennessee with the idea of eventually linking to the beach cities.

“To ride on such a railway, above the smells and dust of the streets, will some day be a delight to the citizens of Los Angeles, if ideas now if the mind of the great railroad builder are carried out.”

Sixty years ago, we again failed to address the problem of transportation, from the blog’s archives for September 1947:

Someday an inquisitive person studying the history of transportation and urban planning will tell the world exactly what became of Los Angeles’ 1947 blueprint for dealing with transit problems. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for the knowledge that at least they made a valiant effort. They certainly knew what was coming—without much argument, you could call them futurists.

A committee sponsored by the California Chamber of Commerce spent 19 months studying transportation issues and warned that someday Los Angeles would have a population of 5 million (the 2000 population of Los Angeles County was 9,519,338, with 3,694,820 for the city of L.A.).

“High-speed rail transit arteries plus a system of downtown subways alone can save Los Angeles from disintegration into a hodge-podge of unconnected municipalities,” The Times said in quoting the project’s advocates.

“Crux of this preliminary proposal lies in the immediate revamping of express highway projects (today we call them freeways) to include ‘center strip’ tracks capable of whisking trains at 35 to 50 mph.

“These cars, pouring millions of commuters daily into metropolitan Los Angeles, would unload at special downtown stations whence passengers would be shuttled to local destinations by subways tentatively scheduled under Broadway and Spring Street.

“The master plan envisions center strip tracks on the Hollywood, Santa Monica, Olympic, Inglewood, Harbor and East Bypass Freeways.”

The Times notes: “Eventually the master plan would integrate all forms of mass transportation, including operation of rubber-tired vehicles on certain expressways not immediately requiring trains.”

A quick search through Proquest isn’t helpful in determining the project’s fate. William Jeffers, the former Union Pacific railroad president who was to be a consultant on the project, is quoted in 1948 calling for approval of a rapid transit district.

Of course there was a competing proposal. The 1948 Babcock plan, named for consulting engineer Henry A. Babcock, who envisioned a 650-mile subway system at a cost of $1,100,000,000 ($10,410,604,566.50 USD 2005). While there were arguments between the two factions, in the end, neither plan was adopted, as any Los Angeles driver knows.

The original story reveals some obvious clues as to why: The Inglewood, Olympic and East Bypass Freeways aren’t familiar names these days. One could paper the dining room with Times maps of various freeway routes that were never built. (In simple terms, the Santa Monica Freeway was originally envisioned much farther north. To the south, the Olympic Freeway was to go from the Harbor Freeway to Venice and the Inglewood Freeway was to go from the Harbor Freeway to Sepulveda).

And there are other stories in the same issue that offer more hints: A huge petition drive led by Ted Meltzer, publisher of the South Side Journal, against building the Harbor Freeway between Broadway and Figueroa. “Homeowners in an area bounded by 23rd Street and Imperial Boulevard claim that several thousand homes in the built-up area would be destroyed and ask that the project be either abandoned or postponed,” The Times said. And an adjoining story reports on a seven-month investigation of graft and conspiracy in acquiring property for the Hollywood Freeway.

But it is gratifying when wondering what became of the 1947 plan to remember that the new Gold Line tracks run between lanes of the Foothill Freeway. Some things just take time.

Bonus factoid: The Harbor Freeway was realigned to spare the Auto Club headquarters on South Figueroa and USC’s Fraternity Row.

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