The name 'Los Angeles' has become shorthand for a whole condition of modern civilization, a state of unplanned, disordered, sprawling, polluted, congested chaos. The great mega-city of Los Angeles seems to embody the problems of the modern world on a mega-scale. But how and why did we come to see Los Angeles this way? In particular, what role has the imagery and reality of transport - above all freeways and motor transport - played in shaping perceptions of this vast and extraordinary modern metropolis?
Los Angeles is not a new city: founded in 1781 and incorporated in 1850, it is the second-oldest city in California and one of the longest-established urban centres in the United States. Yet a recent writer on Los Angeles transport has asserted that it 'is known throughout the world as the prototype of the late twentieth-century city'. Elsewhere Los Angeles has been described as 'a harbinger of the modern American city... A prototype for the American metropolis of the late twentieth century'. This perception of Los Angeles, for all its relative antiquity, as (for good and ill) a city of modernity and futurity reflects the overwhelmingly twentieth-century nature of its growth. The form that growth has taken has been seen (again, for good and ill) as embodying the fundamental qualities of a pattern of development 'typical of twentieth century urbanization'. This pattern of urbanism is identified particularly with North America but, partly by virtue of being American, has exercised great influence across the world: a decentralized, dispersed, suburbanized, consumerized, motorized urbanism that we now find adopted in almost every part of the globe where people have congregated in towns and cities.
Transport has been described as the greatest shaper of Los Angeles after land and water, and any study of the development of the city has to take into account its character and influence. Los Angeles has been shaped by topography, location, climate, resources, population; it could be argued that transport, and particularly urban transport, has been the factor that has brought all these influences together and exerted a powerful influence of its own over the ways in which they have operated and interacted.
Motor transport began to make an impact in southern California at an early date and on a large scale. The low-density, dispersed nature of Los Angeles accommodated itself well to the automobile, but such were the numbers of cars in the region and so much were they used by their owners that in central areas traffic congestion became an early problem. The more cars were used, the worse the problem of congestion became, and of course cars were not the only users of road space; both interurban and streetcar lines inflexibly occupied large areas of the street plan.
During the 1920s a range of potential solutions to the problem of congestion were investigated: the improvement of existing roads and the creation of new ones, bans and restrictions on-street parking, the construction of elevated railways or subways, the creation of a rapid transit system. The issue was not simply one of facilitating the easier movement of traffic, it was what kind of city its citizens wanted Los Angeles to be, centralized or decentralized, concentrated or dispersed. The dominant explanation of the city by the mid-1920s was that it was decentralized and dispersed, and that planning and traffic engineering solutions should recognize that fact and even celebrate and further its development as representative of a new kind of modern city. Overall, this interpretation led to rail-based forms of transport losing out to the provision of facilities for motor vehicles. It was during this period that the pattern of the city's transport infrastructure took a form dictated by the car and the way it was used: the widening, straightening and improving of existing roads, the construction of new highways and the development of the high-speed limited-access freeway, the decline of public transit generally and the effective disappearance of rail-based urban transit altogether.
When people think of the effects the car has wrought on L.A. they tend to think first of the vast grandeur of the freeways, 'one of the greater works of man' according to Rayner Banham. Freeways were proposed on a large scale during the 1920s and 1930s, but economic depression and the demands of American participation in the world war meant that such projects were slow in coming to fruition. The concept of the 'parkway' - a limited-access, relatively high-speed, landscaped road - was brought from the east and caught the imagination of downtown business interests, who wanted to encourage traffic into a centre free of jams and congestion; subdividers and real estate developers, who wanted to open up access to new suburban areas; and the automobile lobbies, who wanted people to buy and use cars even more than they already did. In 1937 the Automobile Club of Southern California proposed a system of 'motorways' in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and the first of these routes - through Cahuenga Pass, and the Arroyo Seco Parkway (later the Pasadena Freeway) - were in operation by the 1930s, but it was not until the 1950s and 60s that freeway construction went into high gear. Post-war, the money for the new system was found through increasing state taxation on fuel and road licences, and the resulting investment produced a fourfold increase in California's freeway mileage between 1950 and 1955 including such important routes in the Los Angeles area as the Santa Ana and San Bernadino freeways. The freeway became an icon of Los Angeles, summarizing in its epic vistas, its association with rapid circulation and mobility, its effects on the cityscape, a certain idea of large-scale technological modernity. By the 1970s Los Angeles as 'the city as freeway' had essentially arrived. It was Reyner Banham who described the 'local language' of Los Angeles as 'the language of movement' and called the city 'the uniquely mobile metropolis'.
Perhaps the most immediately striking characteristic of Los Angeles is that it is big. To quote Mike Davis, 'with a built-up surface area nearly the size of Ireland and a GNP bigger than India's - the urban galaxy dominated by Los Angeles is the fastest growing metropolis in the advanced industrial world'. The City of Los Angeles itself (ignoring the other jurisdictions that cluster around it) covers an area of over 440 square miles; the entire built-up area of greater Los Angeles is perhaps ten times that in area and stretches 70 miles along the coast of southern California and 70 miles inland. In 2000, fifteen million people lived in greater Los Angeles, 75% of the population of southern California. This, then, is 'one of the world's largest metropolitan agglomerations'. Most of that growth has taken place during the twentieth century, and transport has played a key role both in facilitating and in shaping that process of growth. Many people are still convinced that when they look at sprawling Los Angeles they see a city shaped above all by the automobile, but Los Angeles was already spreading at low densities across a large area before the car was a significant factor in its development.
Today, when sprawling, car-dependent Los Angeles is seen as an illustration of everything that is wrong with the twentieth-century city and its transport, it is important to remember that the development of the suburbanised, dispersed city form was widely perceived as a positive phenomenon. The highly centralized, densely-packed city exemplified by New York, Chicago, London or Berlin, was viewed as ugly, unhealthy, congested and squalid. The motor car and the infrastructure it required formed an integral part of the vision of L.A. As a new kind of low-density garden-city. In 1930 the Chicago-based urban planning consultant Frederick Olmsted described Los Angeles 'grow[ing] as a metropolis of automobile users, living pleasantly in detached houses with plenty of room' but went on to observe that this could only happen if the city 'provides motorways... On a truly modern scale undreamed of.' New roads, new suburbs, new cars and trucks, were the symbols of the future; antiquated fixed rail lines and slow streetcars were 'symbols of urban blight, too primitive for the new image of Los Angeles.' For Reyner Banham, writing in 1971, 'autopia' was one of Los Angeles's fundamental 'four ecologies': 'the freeway system in its totality is now a single comprehensible place, a coherent state of mind, a complete way of life, the fourth ecology of the Angeleno.' In addition to 'working uncommonly well' the 'private car and the public freeway together provide an ideal - not to say idealized - version of democratic urban transportation: door-to-door movement on demand at high average speeds over a very large area.'
Such views reflect the degree to which Los Angeles has come to be viewed as the city of the freeway - a city in which the idea of mobility does not merely serve the city, but shapes it and dictates the form it takes in the mind. In a city…