roads globe.jpg

My Way Or The Highway: Why Mega-Roads Rule The City

Posted Mondays, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@losjeremy) Laws That Shaped LA column spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: Collier-Burns Act
Year: 1947
Jurisdiction: California
Nominated by: Brian D. Taylor

To the great and everlasting post-mortem about who or what killed public transportation in Los Angeles -- see James Brasuell's Curbed LA post here -- let's add an entrant to the conversation that has been hiding for sixty-five years in plain, sprawling sight.

That suspect: the Collier-Burns Act. This California state law passed in 1947 and is named for a pair of then-leading politicos. At the time, the legislation was intended in part to relieve urban traffic congestion.

Instead, Collier-Burns wound up sparking a local, regional, and nationwide road-building frenzy that began in the 1940s and `50s and hasn't yet come to a full and complete stop.

For reasons as basic and base as bureaucratic power grabs, expediency, and zero-sum options in lieu of smart and nuanced planning, Los Angeles -- and many other major cities -- wound up smothered with concrete and asphalt goliaths named like Hollywood sequels or Super Bowls -- the 5, the 105, the 605, on and on.

How did this all come to pass? Collier-Burns increased transporation-related taxes and allocated millions and millions of additional dollars for freeways. Collier-Burns raised the fuel tax by 50%, vehicle registration fees by 200%, and in a maneuver with an efficacy that should never go underestimated, centralized bureaucratic power in one agency -- the California Division of Highways (which later became Caltrans).

The Collier-Burns legacy? Within just five years after the Act's passing, the Golden State increased its freeway mileage by four and a half times.
Prior to Collier-Burns, many Californians -- and Los Angelenos in particular -- had worked towards developing a multi-modal highway system with a relatively limited footprint inside cities, left the mega-roads we know today for more spacious rural routes, and incorporated and expanded public transit.

Instead, catalyzed by the Collier-Burns-inspired highway funding spigot, with the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act (more about this in a future Laws That Shaped LA column), cities received a Godfather-style offer they couldn't refuse: money, and lots of it, to build freeways, lots of them.

Story Continues Below
Support KCET

Cities such as L.A. wound up accepting state and federal money for new highways and interstates, but gave up having much say in how the roads would be built, where exactly they would go, and what communities would be bypassed or bisected in the process.
The 110 Harbor Freeway, or the 110 Pasadena Freeway, depending on how you view the picture. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

You've heard of buyer's remorse? How about funder's remorse? The 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act was so immediately and immensely abhorrent in urban areas that President Dwight Eisenhower, the man most (erroneously, as it turns out) associated with pushing this particular law apparently mocked it.

"There is an interesting story," Brian D. Taylor says, "where later Eisenhower was held up in his limousine by all of this traffic and he said, 'What numbskull is building all of these freeways into the city?' His aids told him, 'Well you are, sir.'"

Taylor is an urban planning professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. He's also the director of both the school's Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and its Institute of Transportation Studies.

Collier-Burns, its federal law cousins from the era, and also the 1958 California freeways master plan, did more than just emphasize the role of automobiles and write the eulogy for Los Angeles' once-mighty interurban and light rail systems.

The Act also led to such other actions as the rapid conversions of orange groves into suburban subdivisions; the construction of iconic Southern California infrastructure such as, "The Stack"; and to the eminent domain evictions, with shockingly little notice -- fifteen days, Taylor reports -- of residents of a then-predominantly African American neighborhood in South L.A. Fifteen hundred homes were taken for the 110 Harbor Freeway, writes author Eric Avilla.

Transportation changes leave a tremendous mark -- and record -- on the city fabric. "Cites and their forms are like rings on a tree," Taylor says. "Just like with a tree you can tell a wet year from a dry year, you can discern the main way that people got around by the urban form that you see -- whether by foot, streetcar, or freeway."

A four-level interchange, photographed in 1961. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

That means, Taylor says, that when the primary way people traverse a place is as pedestrians, "You end up with cities that look like Florence and Prague and the southern tip of Manhattan." And when street cars in particular and other forms of public transit dominate, then, "You tend to have this very radial starfish pattern," Taylor says.

But when automobiles started jamming up L.A.'s street-car-lined boulevards back in the 1910s and 1920s, that starfish evolved into a more malignant beast. "Automobiles were just multiplying like mad and the cities weren't really equipped to handle them," Taylor says. He continues:

"The urban development densities of the era were too great; there weren't sufficient road capacity, and there wasn't adequate parking. Soon cities streets jammed with driving and parked cards blocked the streetcars from getting through. So things were slowing down to a crawl. There were a lot of complaints about what it would take to try and tame this monster and make the automobile and the city of Los Angeles more congruent."

Transportation plans from the Roaring `20s and Great Depression tended -- in the manner of the famous Olmsted, Bartholomew, Cheney recommendations, A Major Traffic Street Plan for Los Angeles -- to suggest that highways should serve as more rural partners, or feeders, for urban public transportation options. Various plans, Taylor notes, called for creating special lanes for public transit, for limiting inner-city freeway speeds, for building fewer freeway lanes and for making those freeways more compact. "The problem," Taylor says, "was that it was the 1930s and cities were broke."

Meanwhile, the professor says that nationwide, particularly during the WPA years, engineers and politicians were trying to cope with an overflowing basket full of rural-related issues ranging from rural underdevelopment to poverty to bringing agricultural products to big-city markets.

Hello highways. Au revoir, Red Car. This packed P.E. street car is shown in 1946, not 1953 as this caption originally read, departing the Subway Terminal Building en route to Van Nuys. Photo from the Herald-Examiner Collection, courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library

Federal and state money was prioritized, Taylor says, towards building the mega-roads that would connect regions to one another and rural areas with big cities. Within cities streetcars were almost always run by private firms, so, the government logic went, streetcars should be regulated and not fostered. And cookie-cutter freeway engineering plans dictated that, as Taylor explains, a road going through Montana be built to the same standards as a road going through Downtown Los Angeles.

This meant wider footprints, more sweeping curves, more "displacement" - or surrounding land that needed to be acquired and the land's residents, dispersed, such as in South L.A.

Also, Taylor writes in When Finance Leads Planning: Urban Planning, Highway Planning, and Metropolitan Freeways in California, "Significantly, all public transit and joint development components were eliminated; freeways were to be stand-alone facilities."

So, in the rush to grab all the newly available transportation dollars, cities such as Los Angeles made a Faustian bargain.

"If you are a city and you have a choice between getting no highways and retaining control, or getting highways and giving up that control," Taylor says, "the choice was a pretty obvious one."

Of course, as the professor -- and so many L.A. residents past and present -- know all too well, it's just too bad that those were L.A.'s options.


Top photo: Manipulated image of interchange stretched around the globe. Image courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page. Follow Rosenberg on Twitter @losjeremy

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
RSS icon

Previous

October is for Architecture

Next

Welcome Back, 'América Tropical'

LEAVE A COMMENT Leave Comment  

user-pic

Vote No on Measure J
Don't fund the 710 expansion!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLEP--6BQQY

user-pic

Thank you for this great article. :-)