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.


While the traffic is definitely awful, L.A. is my favorite city. It's a wonderful city and I can't wait to visit again soon!