la freeway system

The Unfinished Los Angeles Freeway System

the Stack four level interchange in los angeles

One of the first things that comes to mind when one thinks of Los Angeles is its massive freeway system. So I’m sure it will come to a shock to many to hear me say that it was never completed… and that is part of the reason for so many of our traffic jams.

Pictured: “The Stack” LA’s iconic concrete ribbon that binds the 101 and 110 freeways seen from Sunset Blvd. The Stack was the first interchange of it’s kind and has been copied around the world.  The four level stack replaces the cloverleaf type interchanges that were so notorious for bottlenecking traffic and causing hazzards.

LA freeways
Famous “Stack” Interchange . The Unfinished Los Angeles Freeway System

I know many will think that another freeway won’t solve anything.  I’ve thought so too.  But after seeing the original plan for the freeway system, what freeways didn’t get built at all and what freeways didn’t make it to their original destinations it all makes sense.

Traffic congestion in Los Angeles seems to date back to the birth of the automobile  As early as the 30s plans for a freeway system were being considered.  The first freeway ever completed in the Western United States was the Arroyo Seco Parkway (now the northern section of the 110 Freeway).

It was followed with a comprehensive freeway plan in 1947 with construction beginning in the 1950s. As of 2004, only 61 percent of the original highway plan was built with a number of key freeways left incomplete or unbuilt. This places much heavier traffic loads on the ones that were constructed than they were built to  handle and also on the surface streets where major freeways terminate abruptly.

Four level freeway interchange
The Stack seen from Sunset Blvd.

Some examples.  The 2 freeway going southbound from Glendale ends abruptly near Silverlake without connecting to another freeway.  Traffic bottlenecks right there on the surface streets.  It was intended to connect to the 101.  The 710 or the Long Beach Freeway was intended to continue through to the 210.  The “Beverly Hills Freeway” was never constructed.  It was to run along the path of Santa Monica Blvd from Downtown LA to the Pacific Coast Highway.  The absence of this freeway is seen in the heavy traffic burden placed on the three major east/west Boulevards (Santa Monica, Sunset and Hollywood) around the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Rodeo Drive or the Original Farmers Market areas in Beverly Hills and on out to the coast. It also puts a heavy burden on the Downtown Interchange when Google Maps directs traffic that would have ended up on the Beverly Hills freeway to go southeast on the 101 several miles to the 10 west where you double back and then double back again to go north when you get to your western destination.

Another proposed freeway would have run a path near La Cienega from LAX to the Rose Bowl or the 101.  Both of these freeways would have served areas conspicuously lacking freeways today.  I can’t say I want to see a freeway in either of those neighborhoods but I can’t say I love driving many miles southeast on the 101 only to have to double back when I get to the 10 freeway, and then double back again when I get to the Pacific Coast Highway if I want to go to Malibu.

LA Freeways
Freeway on ramps leading to Downtown LA

It’s also interesting to note that the original LA Freeway plan drafted back in the 40s included space for light rail tracks in the center margins of each freeway.  Imagine how much easier the lives of our city planners and commuters would be today had that brilliant forethought not been abandoned.

I really don’t see more freeways solving LA’s traffic problems in our current times and neither do our city planners.  But it is remarkable to see the amount of foresight city planners had clear back in the 40s in a city as sprawling as Los Angeles.

Complete or not, Los Angeles has one of the most remarkable freeway systems in the world, if not THE most remarkable.  And like the system or not, getting around Los Angeles simply would not be possible today without it.

Note: There is an oddity in how freeways are referred to in LA compared to the rest of the US. We refer to them as THE 605, THE 10, or THE Harbor Freeway.  Elsewhere they are called Interstate 605 or shortened to I-605.  Yet people visiting LA fall right into this lingo without even noticing it until pointed out.  I suppose that like so many things which begin in California, we will soon see the rest of the United States referring to their freeways as “the ____” instead of calling it “I-_____”


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