The last 100 years of transit and transportation planning in Los Angeles hold stories full of challenges and opportunities, successes and failures, and some surprises, little known “firsts,” and enduring urban legends.
We are taking a look back — decade by decade — at key resources from our collection to contextualize the seminal traffic, transit, and transportation plans for the region in order to provide greater understanding of how we arrived where we are today.
The economic uncertainty of the 1930s gave way to a decade marked by a Second World War and continued rapid growth of Los Angeles. Military bases and ports serving the Pacific Theater in WWII, along with a burgeoning aerospace industry, primed Los Angeles for further growth — and all the planning, construction, operations and consequences that come with it.
Following the conceptualization of the “freeway” as a new type of parkway in 1933, the opening of the region’s first “freeway” (the Arroyo Seco Parkway) in 1939 set the stage for a decade of numerous, extensive studies and plans for a highway network serving the rapidly growing and densifying County.
One early effort was the July, 1941 Report on the Feasibility of a Freeway Along the Channel of the Los Angeles River from the San Fernando Valley to the Los Angeles – Long Beach Harbors.
The introduction of the report states that “the proposed river freeway offers the quickest means of solving many of the traffic problems related to a substantial block of the defense industries.”
It recommends that “the top of each levee be developed into a 4-lane roadway, approximately 50 feet wide.”
The 1941 Comprehensive Report on the Master Plan of Highways: County of Los Angeles Regional Planning District, Volume 1 (The Plan & Its Preparation) noted that over a million motor vehicles were traveling some 8 billion miles annually.
These statistics led the report authors to suggest in a chart that Los Angeles County’s population would begin leveling off at around 6 million by 1970, but also asks: “Since we can in no sense be certain that a future census will not record 10,000,000 or more inhabitants in the Los Angeles Region, shall we not then courageously and boldly even lay down our plans now for at least twice the present figure?”
That “present figure” in 1940 was 3 million, hence the plan for a population of 6,000,000.
It projects that by 1990, there will be approximately 2.5 million automobiles in the County (while the actual number is closer to twice that many).
As one can see in the illustration below depicting “normal” driving time at five minute intervals, a trip from the Civic Center to the coast would take approximately 40 minutes.
The report put forth eleven recommendations. These include:
- That the basis for financing all acquisition and construction shall include the funds derived under Sate law from the motor vehicle fuel tax and from motor licenses
- That State Legislation be sought to provide for the creation of a county-wide Highway Authority charged with the custody of all highway funds, and their expenditure in accordance with the Master Plan and a sound priority program based on actual needs
- That each incorporated city within the Region be urged to adopt a Master Plan of Highways and precise official plans based thereon, in accordance with the procedure set forth in the Planning Act of the State of California.
Eighty years of highway construction, transit construction and operation, and other traffic mitigation measures have not lessened that drive time, as the population has far outstripped what was predicted and planned for in the earliest highway proposals.
The Los Angeles Department of City Planning’s 1941 Master Plan of Parkways noted that recent construction of the Arroyo Seco Parkway and Cahuenga Pass Freeway had already proven their worth. It deemed the term “parkway” as synonymous with “freeway” and “expressway,” differing only in the “character of the development.” This is explained as parkways holding the possibility of landscaping and other improvements over the “objectionable” features of the narrower “freeway.”
By the early 1940s, freeway planning was explored in the context of existing mass transit facilities, but were expected to be a necessary, integral part of overall transportation landscape in Los Angeles County.
Their planning consisted of not just routes, but standardized features such as grade separations, interchanges, lane coloring, border treatment, emergency parking areas, accommodation for trucks and buses, ingress and egress, service stations, speed limits, signage, and lighting.
The freeways and vehicular traffic overall were becoming central to urban planning and the impact on commerce. Parking, pedestrianism, and travel habits were taken into consideration for planning.
The 1944 Transit Study for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area made it perfectly clear that parkways were not only vital to continued streetcar service in the city, but how much faster passengers could arrive via coach as opposed to rail, as shown here.
It highlighted the need for cross-town and feeder service in Los Angeles County, and its selected findings include:
- Plans for construction of the initial parkway routes must consider intersecting parkways and surface lines as well as the parkway transit lines
- An area of agreement has been established regarding first priority of parkways to be built, and tentatively, for a ten-year program
- Parkway design and construction, economic considerations including war-time inflation, and coach service
It notes that “various rail lines have been abandoned — more probably will be. Some rights-of-way should continue to be used for transportation purposes.”
By 1945, the Downtown Business Men’s Association had created a parking committee and disseminated a downtown Los Angeles parking study. In a nod to the primary importance of personal automobiles, it warned that:
If [potential new parking areas] are not set aside, the choice parking areas will gradually be absorbed for other purposes, thus increasing the demand for parking space and making it increasingly hard to secure sufficient parking property well located, at reasonable prices.
Also in 1945, a study by the engineering firm of DeLeuw, Lewis and Ong recommended that it was time to make definite plans for financing, constructing, and operating rail rapid transit facilities on the proposed Hollywood, Santa Monica, Olympic, Inglewood and Harbor Freeways, and for the construction of a subway under Broadway.
However, not much was done about it.
While efforts were being made to meet current and future parking needs, plans were simultaneously under way for transit needs to be met as well.
The DeLeuw, Lewis and Ong report did outline several recommendations for immediate action:
- Purchase and operation of modern equipment
- Development of a master plan for rapid transit
- Preparation of plans for development of transit facilities to keep pace with planning of parkways
- Planning and negotiation of an agreement for transit unification
- A specific plan for financing rapid transit
- Planning and zoning to provide adequate facilities for transit
Despite the rise in popularity for personal automobile use from the 1920s through the post-war era, automobile use was much more dangerous in the 1940s than more recently.
In 1945, it is noted that automobile accidents were responsible for 1,042 deaths in Los Angeles County when the population was approximately 1,700,000. By comparison, that number had dropped nearly in half to 604 in the year 2010, when the total population was over 9,800,000.
A 1946 report titled Interregional, Regional, Metropolitan Parkways in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area advocated for a vast network of parkways. It acknowledged that existing streets were not designed to meet the needs of current traffic levels, and that “the trend of transit is toward increased use of buses and commercial use of trucks.”
The parkways of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area are proposed to provide the major elements of a rapid transit bus system. The use of the parkways by express buses will more than double the passenger carrying capacity of the parkways, thus doubling their economic value to the area. They will provide rapid transit service for the area at a small fraction of the cost of any type of separate rapid transit system.
To be fair, not all transportation planning following World War II was related to freeway planning. As at-grade transit in Los Angeles was increasingly slowed down by contending for street space with automobiles, Los Angeles Railway was presented with the Suggested Down Town Traffic Solution Program, “compliments of” the Plant Engineering Company in 1946.
This 1946 report’s authors writes that:
In studying over the solutions [for traffic] suggested to date, we noticed that none of them offer any relief for the very congested area in the center of the business district, but rather are more concerned with the problem of rapid transportation of the public from the suburbs to the business district, and vice versa; that is, either a rapid transit rail system serving the business district via subways, or a rapid transit bus system operating over the freeways and downtown streets.
Their solution? Removal of all sidewalks in Downtown Los Angeles.
With pedestrians elevated above the street, there would be more room for automobiles and transit at street level.
This proposal is far-fetched and likely never went anywhere, but to some degree, it does speak to infrastructure planning following the war. Why was this even proposed? Perhaps its authors, the Plant Engineering Company, did not have work and were throwing ideas against the wall to see if anything stuck.
Another key resource from this period also stressed the importance of comprehensive planning beyond just freeways. The 1947 Town Hall publication titled The Los Angeles Traffic and Transit Problem addressed chronic parking shortages by explaining that:
The finest possible system of freeways from shoreline to mountains would be to an extent wasted if the freeway user who wished to do business in the downtown district could not find a place of park when he got there. Off-street parking is a problem of other built-up areas as well as of the central business district. IN the latter area, the problem is more acute and is of greater general concern to the whole metropolitan area of which it forms the hub.
By 1948, it was full steam ahead for “rapid transit” concepts in Los Angeles. The Rapid Transit Action Group of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce developed a Rail Rapid Transit Now! document that explained how you could “live where you like…work where you please” in the growing, polycentric city.
It explained right on its cover that a rail rapid transit solution was:
Needed: Autos and buses can’t move Los Angeles’ four million people now. Crawling traffic will come to a shuddering, chaotic halt when we have six million people plus.
Now or Never: The modern way to build a rail rapid transit system is between the roadways of a freeway. The freeways are being built now. the rail system must be built at the same time.
It Costs Less: Rail rapid transit will costs a fraction as much built in a freeway. It can be financed. It can be self-supporting. And 4 times as many people can ride for 1/2 the cost, per person.
This report does a great job outlining not only how quickly Los Angeles was growing in the post-WWII years, but how far behind it was compared to other large U.S. cities in terms of planning for future growth.
This seminal report features many important early aspects of rail transit planning. As noted on the cover, rail lines were intended to run along the center median of the forthcoming freeways. It stated that downtown subway stations would be about two blocks apart. It explained that freeways were “basic” to a city that “is not normal,” but rather “unique.”
The report logically points out that “Los Angeles can today obtain a rapid transit system for a fractional part of what one will cost in the future,” but proposing that to “live where we like and work where we please” in a metropolitan area of well over 10 million people is certainly a tall order in 21st century Los Angeles.
That same year, the Traffic Survey Committee of the City of Los Angeles was officially formed to develop an appraisal of the street traffic problem to determine how various aspects of it were being handled by the several city departments, and to determine existing deficiencies in traffic management.
In 1949, a new multi-modal mass transit concept for Los Angeles arrived on the scene: monorail transit combined with freeways. Although monorail proposals for Southern California date back as far as 1912, this plan suggested that monorail transit combined with freeway construction was a visionary solution for the region. A report titled Rapid Transit for Metropolitan Areas and Related Problems from the California Assembly Fact-Finding Committee on Highways, Streets and Bridges extolled the virtues of monorails in conjunction with freeway construction.
Pacific Monorail System, Inc., was organized in 1946 to explore the big-city transportation problem and to prepare the basic engineering design for an overhead monorail system, consisting of lightweight cars, resembling an airplane fuselage, suspended from a single rail with individual electric drives from a power line.
The selling point was that:
The monorail structure, switching devices, stations, shops and equipment can be produced for less than one-tenth of subway cost per mile and for less than one-half of surface lines cost. Rights-of-way present no problem because the upright standards to which the rails are attached demand ground space of only six to eight feet in width.
The report also includes a proposal for a regional network of single-track, underground “tubes” carrying high-speed, semiautomatic electric trains serving the 2,000,000 people living in the central 175-square mile area of Los Angeles.
This ringing endorsement of monorails and other creative transit proposals foreshadowed the next decade’s focus on single-rail transit systems and other emerging solutions alongside a building boom and rapid freeway expansion across the region.
More past visions:
Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 1940s
Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 1950s
Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 1960s
Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 1970s
Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 1980s
Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 1990s
Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 2000s
Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 2010s