Los Angeles Transportation Facts and Fiction: Freeways

We’ve been running a quiz about stereotypical views of transportation and urbanization in Los Angeles. Consider a headline that ran in The New York Times in 2006: “In Land of Freeways, Mass Transit Makes Nary a Dent.” I’ll soon address the issue of Los Angeles transit. In the meantime, did you, like The Times‘s headline writer, guess that Los Angeles is dominated by an overbuilt freeway system?

Answer: a half-truth.

In a couple of respects, it is entirely justified to identify Los Angeles with the freeway; the city was a pioneer in freeway development. The Arroyo Seco Parkway (today’s Pasadena Freeway), which opened in 1940, is considered by many to be the first true urban freeway. (Sadly, the builders didn’t quite get it right. A jaunt down the road will remind you of a trip to Space Mountain; it twists like a snake, lacks acceleration and deceleration lanes, has inadequate shoulders, and features hair-raising exit ramps with tight turns and 5 m.p.h. speed limits.)

It is also correct that Los Angeles boasts an extensive freeway system. Counting Interstates and other expressways, the area ranks second in the nation in lane mileage, after New York.

But taking into account the area’s vast size, the network is one of the most underdeveloped in the U.S. According to the Federal Highway Administration, of the 36 largest metro areas, Los Angeles ranks dead last in terms of freeway lane miles per resident. (Chicago is second to last, and New York is near the bottom as well. The most freeway-heavy big city by this measure is Kansas City.)

With rock-bottom road space per person, it’s difficult to claim that the system is overbuilt (at least by U.S. standards), or that it dominates the region’s transportation profile. It is, of course, possible that despite the paucity of freeway mileage, Angelenos are disproportionately heavy highway users, perhaps due to the region’s geography or culture. I have some data on this, but to avoid spoiling the competition it will have to wait for a future post.

How did Los Angeles end up with such a skimpy system? Only about three-fifths of the lane mileage envisioned in Los Angeles’s 1959 master plan was ever completed.

Interestingly, the original plans included a freeway smack dab through Beverly Hills. Anybody want to hazard a guess as to why this project was canceled while plenty of freeways through poorer neighborhoods were not? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not because the department of transportation just forgot to get around to it.

Since we’ve seen that the sprawl and smog clichés belong on the proverbial cutting room floor, we’re down to three remaining stereotypes:

  • Thanks to the great distances between far-flung destinations, and perhaps Angelenos’ famed “love affair” with the car, Angelenos drive considerably more miles than most Americans.
  • Angelenos spend more time stuck in traffic than any other drivers in the nation.
  • Los Angeles’s mass transit system is underdeveloped and inadequate.

Tune in next time.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. Willie Cavecche says:

    Yeah, we make good use of those freeways, even if we are last on that list. Though I think that LA low rank, along with the positions of the other 3 cities, may be due to the fact that LA, NYC and Chicago each have alot of people, and Kansas City doesn’t (at least not comparatively).

    By the way, great description of the Pasadena freeway, though now I want to ride Space Mountain.

    The traffic time is the true statement.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  2. Uthor says:

    “Sadly, the builders didn’t quite get it right. A jaunt down the road will remind you of a trip to Space Mountain; it twists like a snake, lacks acceleration and deceleration lanes, has inadequate shoulders, and features hair-raising exit ramps with tight turns and 5 m.p.h. speed limits.”

    Sounds to me like they got it just right! :)

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  3. David says:

    Exactly. I think the low ranking does not take into account huge economies of scale with regard to public transportation and freeways. 1 person needs 1 road, 2 people can certainly use the same road.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  4. Eric M. Jones says:

    I am starting to think that, “If all the staticians were laid end-to-end, it would be a very good thing.”

    As has been said before: LA defines “sprawl”–so the roadspace-per-person number is a mere fantasy. By the way…how much roadspace per person do you think is enough?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. Steve says:

    Again, the the true statement is regarding mass transit. Folks in Atlanta and Houston (and probably New York) spend more time in stuck in traffic, and folks in the DC metro area certainly drive more. One of the major issues is the wrong headed requirements for parking (see http://shoup.bol.ucla.edu/People,Parking,Cities.pdf).

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. JoseAngelCMS says:

    As David explained, economies of scale allow one or more people to use the same road. If there is only one person that needs a road, then the road has to be built, but if the road is already there, then, the second person doesn’t not need a new road, but will in fact use the same one as the first person. If people complain about the road system in Los Angeles, then they should be taxed and the road should be made better. If they don’t want to pay the taxes, then the roads should stay exactly as they are because, even though they have lots of flaws, they serve their main purpose, allow people to travel from place to place.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. Chris says:


    Every Angeleno wishes it were that simple. It is well documented that our transportation taxes in the city, county, and state haven’t gone and don’t go to the roads. If somebody were to guarantee by burden of life in prison that the 405 would get double-decked through the West side, I’d gladly see my sales tax go to 11 percent (as it is, the sales tax is going way up due to other budget matters). But alas, that won’t happen.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. tcg says:

    Given the statement about Beverly Hills and wealthier neighborhoods, with the recently passed propositions that are seeking to improve public transportation…

    are poorer neighborhoods still going to take the brunt of the construction pitfalls?

    or does this even matter given california’s budget crisis?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0