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.

Willie Cavecche

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.


"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! :)


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.

Eric M. Jones

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?


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).


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.



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.


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?


Doesn't this contradict his earlier point about sprawl? First he claims that LA is not characterized, but now he claims that the vastness of the city renders the miles of highway inadequate? Am I missing something? This guy is playing with numbers far too much to justify his previously-drawn conclusions.

Chris Fuhrman

An ongoing complaint about the development of the Grove, an upscale, outdoor shopping center in Los Angeles, is the traffic it generates despite being so far from the freeway. Much of the nicer parts of the region aren't served by freeways, whether by collective muscle (Beverly Hills, South Pasadena) or geography (Manhattan Beach, Brentwood). Getting to Orange County requires freeway travel, but many daily trips don't.


I've lived in LA off and on for 15 years including commutes of 25 miles a few times. I actually got to my destinations much more quickly by skipping the freeway and driving on surface streets. Each time, I lived near freeways and followed parallel paths. For example, Burbank to Los Feliz to West Adams to Santa Monica; and Alhambra to Downtown LA to Santa Monica.

LA freeways are at a saturation point that begs for better and more available public transit that does not share city streets with auto traffic, at least in the higher density city core.


BSK, don't know if you're missing anything, your logic is just wrong. The argument here is that there is too much density for the amount of roads supports the previous argument.


I prefer to think of a drive on the Pasadena Freeway as akin to Mr. Toad's Wild Ride...

Matt M.

Nothing better than a drive on the Arroyo Seco Parkway (Pasadena Freeway) in a sports car.

I really think the point about Los Angeles being covered in freeways is false. As was pointed out there are really less freeways/highways there than in other US cities. I find it funny that some people say that it is true because that is their image of Los Angeles, but the facts say there really aren't any more freeways than other cities.

I would say the smog issue is a half truth and the mass transit as well. While most areas of Los Angeles actually experience low levels of smog, there are still high readings in the distant suburbs right up against the large mountains, which gives LA its 2nd worst air reading in the country even though most residents experience only a few days over the national standard for polluted air (many other US cities have more days in their central core).

On mass transit, while the bus system is actually fairly comprehensive and over 1.5M angelenos take public transit every day, the rail system still has quite a few glaring holes, although this seems to be improving as I know two new lines are opening up in the next 2 years and there is new funding for extending the main subway line across the city along with other lines as well.


Ed Greenberg

The Arroyo Seco Parkway Pasadena Freeway) reminds me of the Interboro Parkway.


We probably drive much less than average, at least those of us in the city, because we estimate that 5 miles takes about 30 minutes. who has time to go much further?

I use the transit system every day and, while it's frustrating at times, the breadth of the system is pretty amazing.


Aaron, the language is misleading:

"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."

They start by talking about size of the area and end by talking about miles per resident. Unless they mean the "area's vast size" is talking about population, than it's simply an ambiguous statement, open to either of our interpretations.


There was a Los Angeles plan that was developed in the 1920s -1940s to have the entire metropolitan area covered by a system of parkways and boulevards. Historicists and planners who have studied this plan believed that LA would have become the most livable community in the world with the plan's implementation as it contained no freeways at all. Part of the plan has been built in Silverlake and parts of East Hollywood and in some other areas where there are no freeways today. It supports your article that is written and I felt it was worth mentioning.

On another note, I would like to challenge you to at least two of the remaining three stereotypes about LA at a future date.


I'm a bit confused by why per capita lane mileage is a useful statistic. Is there a way to control for density? Large cities have a lot of people and hence have highly valued land and mobilized interests to protect property (which you touch on in your point about Beverly Hills). So, freeway mileage/capita is definitely going to be less in places that have smaller populations and hence less polarized land values (not surprisingly the most populous US cities LA, NY and Chi are at the bottom of your list). Also, though Los Angeles is large, many of the large (in lane # s and useage) freeways in the region (except the 110, part of the 10 and Valley freeways (where the 5 and 405 converge) only glance through the city limits for a few miles or are outside of the boundary, such as the 5, the 405 south of LAX, 105, 91, 605, 55, 22, 210) Finally, LA has a number of some of the longest arterial boulevards in the US, Vermont, Western, Normandie and Sepulveda each approach 40 miles in length, and to that list you can add Wilshire, Sunset, Slauson, Crenshaw, Artesia, Beach, etc... Point is they carry a significant amount of traffic and may obscure the validity of freeway miles/capita measure


John G

The myth is that LA is an example of sprawl and too many freeways. But LA is actually very dense, and as the article points out, has about half the freeway miles originally planned. I had read somewhere that environmental groups have been systematically fighting freeways in the LA area since the 1960's. If so, it's non-intuitive at first.

Freeways remove the most pollution per dollar spent, way more economically than mass transit, by reducing stop and go congestion. So why would anybody who cares about clean air oppose freeways? Likely it's because freeways allow people to more easily live where they want, escaping the crime, crowding and congestion, but using more land, the dreaded "sprawl". Enviros and pro-transit folks want people to live in crowded cities, (Portland planners want to INCREASE density), and use mass transit. Some cities actually create congestion intentionally, to drive (no pun intended) more people to mass transit. Search "Smart Growth and the Ideal City" for an interesting article about the ideal communist city.

With the world getting more dangerous, I think a dispersed population that can get on a freeway at any time is much safer. Consider the unfortunate folks that were dependent upon buses during hurricane Katrina, and stuck without drivers.