Sure, those endless miles of concrete and thick tangles of overpass interchanges were beloved by early planners, politicians and bureaucrats, who pushed their proliferation in the name of progress and profit.
But everyone else, the many millions whose cars inched along atop them and the countless neighborhoods crushed to make way for them? Not so much.
This love-hate dynamic is so ingrained in daily life in Los Angeles that it’s usually barely worth noting. But late last week, the devil’s bargain that underwrote the transportation culture here broke down.
A fast-moving industrial fire — reportedly sparked by an arsonist — charred Interstate 10 in downtown L.A., forcing a mile-long closure of one of the busiest freeways in the car capital of the world. In a city already famous for its traffic, the episode has caused cascading challenges, gridlocking side streets and polluting communities that have become casualties of GPS detours for more than 300,000 drivers looking for alternate routes.
Still, like past predictions of a “carmageddon,” the shutdown has not paralyzed the entire city. The repairs, once expected to take more than a month, are now scheduled to be completed by Tuesday. Instead of creating a long-running traffic nightmare, the closed freeway’s most lasting impact might be more philosophical.
After the 1994 earthquake destroyed a different section of the 10, known in the city as the Santa Monica Freeway, the chorus was quick and unanimous: Rebuild, as fast as possible. But this time, at least in some circles, the disaster has inspired calls to rethink the region’s car-centric approach to transportation, further fueling an aspirational movement to wean Los Angeles off the automobile.
“This time around, it seems like the freeway is emblematic of the struggle for L.A.’s identity,” said Paul Haddad, a native Angeleno and author of the book “Freewaytopia.” “This is an opportunity for people to reimagine what kind of future we want for Los Angeles transportation.”
In this great reimagining, mobility advocates may in theory have public support on their side — nobody is having fun on the freeway here — but they are up against many years of history and habit.
‘The soul of Los Angeles’
Los Angeles and its freeways grew up symbiotically. The wide, fast roads helped the city spread; and the more it spread, the more roads it needed.
The city’s earliest industrial titans set out to build a car-dependent metropolis, one that would court the nascent auto and aerospace industries.
By the 1920s, Los Angeles had more automobiles per capita than any other city, and the Arroyo Seco Parkway, the country’s first freeway, opened in 1940, linking downtown and Pasadena. Today, a dozen freeways snake across about 527 miles of L.A., and many more crisscross the county.
“Freeways are part of the soul of Los Angeles, there’s no way around it,” said Haddad, who estimates he’s driven just about every mile of the city’s freeway network.
Joan Didion, who lived in the city for more than two decades, once wrote of navigating freeways as “the only secular communion Los Angeles has,” one that requires “total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway.”
For others, driving them can be unnerving, a reason to stay away from the city altogether. Guy Clark, a musician from Texas, spoke for fed-up visitors like him when he sang, “If I can just get off this L.A. freeway, without getting killed or caught.”
If nothing else, an Angeleno’s relationship to the freeway is personal, as Steve Martin demonstrated in the film “L.A. Story” when he took life advice from a sentient roadside sign.
“Each freeway has its own personality,” Haddad said. “It could be a workhorse like the 5, or the Arroyo Seco, which is dainty like a grandmother.”
When the Santa Monica Freeway first opened, in 1966, it was a splashy expressway to the beach, connecting the east and west sides of Los Angeles. These days, it has a more utilitarian reputation, especially the downtown portion that is now temporarily closed. It is the westernmost part of transcontinental Interstate 10, which runs to Florida.
The shuttered strip, which runs from Alameda Street to the East L.A. interchange, is a key economic corridor. This part of the freeway was built atop more than 2,100 concrete stilts, which allowed it to pass over important nodes of industrial activity.
But this architecture left the artery vulnerable, as demonstrated in recent days. The fire that shut down the mile-long stretch began on state-owned land leased out to a private company and used to store highly flammable materials, state government officials said, a little-known but common practice that is under scrutiny.
The blaze, which is still under investigation, burned through wooden pallets, vats of hand sanitizer and abandoned cars, scorching about 100 support columns.
News of the fire immediately conjured memories of the catastrophic Northridge earthquake, which destroyed portions of the freeway farther west in 1994, setting off a desperate political scramble. In a nod to the dominance of the car here, the speed of reconstruction — the freeway was repaired within less than three months — was credited with helping boost the reelection later that year of Gov. Pete Wilson (R).
This year, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared a state of emergency the day of the fire and made multiple trips to Los Angeles to hold news conferences with Mayor Karen Bass (D). On Thursday, the pair made the triumphant announcement that the freeway would reopen weeks earlier than planned.
“It’s a good day in L.A.,” Bass said, smiling broadly.
‘An opportunity for change’
Even as a long-term crisis seems to have been avoided, some Angelenos are reexamining the city’s embrace of freeways for reasons other than the bumper-to-bumper slogs.
The feverish construction of the highway system during the 20th century disproportionately displaced low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, just as it did in cities across the country.
About 15,000 people were pushed out of their homes when the Santa Monica Freeway was built, many of them Black families who lived in Crenshaw and Sugar Hill, a historic neighborhood where many of the city’s most prominent African Americans resided.
One particularly profound example of this pattern played out at the eastern terminus of the Santa Monica Freeway, in Boyle Heights, where thousands of Latinos were displaced and the neighborhood was remade with the construction of the East L.A. Interchange.
The massive spaghetti bowl structure, where a handful of freeways converge, is now a crucial part of the city’s transportation map. But it stands on land that was cleared of homes, churches and bars in thriving communities of Mexican and Central American immigrants. The neighborhoods that now surround the interchange are exposed to high levels of noise and air pollution.
“All evidence clearly points to communities of color bearing an unfair burden of the progress of freeways, and East L.A. is a prototypical example,” said Gilbert Estrada, a history professor at Long Beach City College who has studied freeways and racism for more than two decades. “The freeways just manhandle communities. They are surrounded.”
According to Estrada’s research, just over 2 percent of total city land is used for freeways. But in East L.A., freeways cover 9 percent of land, and in Boyle Heights they occupy 12 percent.
“We’re all in on freeways,” he said of the city’s approach to planning. “We bought in on this stuff and we can’t return it.”
Still, some are giving it a shot — and moments like the recent closure of the 10 give them hope.
“To see it come down so brilliantly is a great metaphor for where we need to go as a city,” said John Yi, the executive director of Los Angeles Walks, a pedestrian advocacy group. “In a way, I am grateful for these moments of pain, because it reminds the city how reliant we are on this one system that doesn’t serve any of us.”
Yi and more than 20 other advocates sent an open letter to local and state leaders on Thursday, urging them to capitalize on the closure of I-10 by rolling out alternatives to driving and to “not just fix the freeway.” Some ideas include creating more bus lanes, increasing rail service and making public transit fare-free during the shutdown.
There are signs these arguments may be resonating with city leaders: Bass on Thursday introduced a measure that aimed to promote Metro ridership and expand its service.
Bass herself rode light rail to work this week and has said she wants to make Metro “a system of first choice.” The line parallel to the I-10 has reported a 10 percent increase in use since the closure, and Yi said advocacy organizations will push to make permanent some of the temporary changes outlined in Bass’s measure, as they did after the pandemic.
“If we want to tell people to get out of their cars, we better have a good alternative,” Yi said. He acknowledges that this one closure will not inspire a sea change in the city. But, he said, every little bit of momentum helps.
“Getting around L.A. is universally reviled,” he said. “That’s an opportunity for change.”
Until then, the traffic jam continues.