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Why LA really wasn't the city built for the automobile

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Los Angeles was actually a city built for the trolley, and plans for a smoothly integrated freeway system were doomed from the start.

Freeways. They're as much a part of the identity of Los Angeles as sunshine or the movie business.

But how did it become that way?

As difficult as it is to imagine, there was a time before freeways in Los Angeles, before cars became the dominant mode of transportation.

Matthew Roth, a historian with the Automobile Club of Southern California, joined Take Two to explain how the freeways in L.A. built up the way they did.


Did LA's freeway system build up in any sort of planned way?

I prefer the word 'network' because 'system' implies smoothly integrated, functioning parts and you can't really say that about the freeways in Los Angeles. There's always been an idea of freeways... They were first proposed in Los Angeles in 1924 as part of a big comprehensive street plan and the reasons that the engineering consultants who did this report said they wouldn't be built are really still true. One, it's really expensive... There's the fact that they compromise the quality of life in the immediate vicinity... the malapportioned benefit, you know, 'I'm paying for this freeway but this guy over here is benefiting from it'... It's not that people were stupid, they just built them in the face of these known problems, tried to work around them, and had differential success.

Is there any truth to this prevailing myth of a grand auto industry conspiracy to edge out trolleys and rail transport in LA? 

The trolleys were private businesses and they were the products of the Gilded Age, of unfettered capitalism. And in fact a lot of the capital 'p' Progressive politics of the late 19th and early 20th century were geared towards reining in the excesses of capitalism, notably including the trolley companies. And it meant that it was very difficult politically for trolley companies to be seen as a legitimate recipient of public resources... The funny thing about highways is that [cars] come along 20 years after the trolley lines were put in place, and they benefitted from the lobbying that had been done by bicyclists, the 'Good Roads Movement,' which lobbied for pavement because it's better to ride a bike on pavement than on dirt. And it was the Good Roads Movement that came out of bicycling that caused the creation of highway commissions in many states, including California. 1896 is the founding date of the California Highway Commission, which is a couple of years before the first automobile in California.

Then where did this idea of LA as "the city built for the automobile" come about?

At the exact moment when we first hear the phrase that this is the city built for the automobile, which is some time in 1924, it was in a political campaign to get support for road building, at the moment that that phrase was first uttered it was false. It was a city that had been built for the trolley. But what was powerful about that claim is that it was aspirational, it was, 'We CAN build this city for the automobile!'  The root motivation was to continue the rapid development of real estate. And the myth takes hold because it links with the boosterism of Southern California, and the exceptionalism— the idea that it's different here, the weather's different, the people are different. And what's different about them? They like cars better than everyone else.

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