How the Westside Became So Crowded

Traffic is snarled, as so often happens, on the westbound Santa Monica Freeway. Photo from 1970, photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Posted Mondays, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@LosJeremy on Twitter) 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: Federal-Aid Highway Act
Year: 1956
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: Kevin Klowden


A pair of recent Laws That Shaped L.A. columns featured locally-based, national transportation experts discussing the massive changes the city -- and state and country -- underwent due to the 20th century proliferation of highways and interstates.

These columns -- which can be read here starring UCLA's Brian D. Taylor; and here starring RAND's Martin Wachs -- take as their starting point two distinct California laws that served as the funding and jurisdictional mechanisms that led directly to the building of a lane after lane after lane urban asphalt assault.

And -- as Los Angeles residents and visitors understand all to well -- the two laws also led to the related dismantling of traditionally strong L.A. public transportation and even to the eminent domain destruction of established neighborhoods.

One law that wasn't the lead in other of those two previous columns was still cited here and hovered in the background here.

That law: The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. That law: One so significant, for better and through bigger cities, for worse, that the World War II hero most publicly associated with the law's passage is rumored to have, while sitting stuck in traffic, called himself a "numbskull" for doing so.

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Today, then, following a re-introduction of this week's expert, the rest of this column will give the spotlight over to the Federal-Aid Highway Act.

The re-introduction: Kevin Klowden is the Managing Economist at the Milken Institute and the Director of the Institute's California Center.

Previously, Laws That Shaped L.A. featured Klowden talking about the ever-controversial California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). That column provoked such a reaction from readers that it led to this follow-up CEQA piece, this time featuring environmental lawyer Douglas Carstens.

Century Boulevard gummed up with traffic to the San Diego Freeway. 1970 photo by E. Bruce Howell from the Herald-Examiner Collection, photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
Century Boulevard gummed up with traffic to the San Diego Freeway. 1970 photo by E. Bruce Howell from the Herald-Examiner Collection, photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

During this column's interview late last year with Klowden, the think tank official discussed laws regarding the environment, entertainment, skyscrapers, subways and intellectual property rights. And, transportation -- including the sub-categories of sprawl, commuting patterns, employment, industry and real estate and development. Here, at long last, are Klowden's comments on the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956:

"The Federal Interstate Highway Act created two huge changes to the city.

"One is that it significantly increased the accessibility of the suburbs. People could now live much further away from Downtown and work in Downtown. It created an inverse, which is that it created the development of alternate centers of employment which were previously not as accessible. So in some ways it initially moved people further out so they were able to come in.

"The second thing the Act did was it created the ability to have alternate centers of particularly white-collar employment, but to a lesser degree, blue-collar employment.

"One of the great statistics is the fact that when the Santa Monica Freeway was built, it wound up becoming, by the 1970s or 1980s, the busiest freeway in the country. The busiest freeway had been the Dan Ryan in Chicago, and the Santa Monica Freeway took over. Right now, the last statistics I saw, the San Diego Freeway is actually number one. [Editor's note: Here's one such list that shows that four of the five -- and nine out of the top fifteen -- most traveled urban highways are in Southern California.]

"In terms of the amount of traffic carried, the Santa Monica Freeway is particularly significant because the Westside of Los Angeles was not an employment center except for certain pockets of heavy industry and it was definitely not as significant as a place where people could live.

"People who lived in Santa Monica, for example, tended to work in Santa Monica or nearby. They might work in the entertainment industry -- and a certain number of people did -- but the big employer up until the mid-1960s was Douglas Aircraft.

"When the freeway arrived, it encouraged development -- housing developments and otherwise -- and Douglas moved down to Long Beach for its bigger planes because it couldn't expand in Santa Monica anymore. It was no longer possible, and the timing is not a coincidence.

"By this decade, the irony is that the Westside has become such an employment center that more people during rush hour are driving into the Westside -- going west in the morning and then driving back out and going east in the evening -- then are going to Downtown."


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

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