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Why the time is right to re-examine the L.A. freeway

In 1981, a young writer named David Brodsly described the Los Angeles freeway as one of the city's indispensible metaphors, “one of the few parts capable of standing for the whole.”

He argued that the freeway had expanded “the realm of the accessible” for drivers in Southern California — that it was a powerfully democratic force, in essence — and lent “a new clarity” to a vast metropolitan region that newcomers had long found illegible and tough to grasp.

For Brodsly and other writers of the 1970s and 1980s, the freeways were far more than a way of getting around. They were just as important — maybe more important — in symbolic, aesthetic and monumental terms.

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Reyner Banham, the British architectural historian and critic, nominated the L.A. freeway system as “one of the greater works of Man” — and the interchange where the 10 meets the 405 as “a work of art.”

This praise had a way of edging toward the religious. Brodsly called the post-war L.A. freeway “the cathedral of its time and place.” Joan Didion famously wrote that freeway driving offered “the only secular communion Los Angeles has.”

Though limited in their social and political perspectives — more on that later — those rhapsodic pronouncements about the freeway played a crucial role in shaping public understanding of L.A. and its built environment.

Nobody would make any of those claims today. The relationship between Southern Californians and our freeways is broken.

Freeways still enable mobility — at certain times of the day. At many other times, they actively seem to frustrate it. They don’t stitch together the region, if they ever did, as much as divide it. The idea that they help us make sense of Los Angeles — that they operate as existential way-finding devices — now seems quaint, at best.

The recently completed, billion-dollar expansion of the 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass, which I reviewed last week, suggests that Los Angeles has forgotten the art of designing freeways: The word cathedral did not leap to mind as I took in its mismatched collection of retaining walls, concrete block, denuded hillsides and barbed wire.

In a broader sense, freeways no longer represent the region’s larger ambition. To a significant degree we can blame bad traffic for that; a system that allowed drivers to zip from one side of the city to the other in half an hour has become a trap, a producer of uncertainty and stress.

(As writer Ben Schwartz put it on Twitter not long ago, “LA freeway entrances should have Xanax dispensers.” Compare that to Banham’s entirely sincere 1971 assertion that the freeway is the place where Angelenos “spend the two calmest and most rewarding hours of their daily lives.” For Banham, the freeways themselves were the Xanax dispensers!)

Meanwhile we’re investing tens of billions of dollars to dramatically expand the region's mass-transit system. The private car is not going to disappear — not by a long shot — but it is drifting steadily from the center of the region’s self-image.

Younger drivers see cars less as tickets to freedom and connection and more as obstacles to those things, in part because the one time that they can’t tap out texts or post pictures to Instagram is while they’re behind the wheel. Three decades ago, according to Fortune, about 70% of American 17-year-olds had a driver’s license; the figure today is 46%. More U.S. teenagers now have a smartphone than a license.

Increasingly the fundamental task Los Angeles faces is one of re-urbanization — of infill development, of reanimating or repairing the public realm. At the heart of that task is an understanding that the most successful kinds of spaces in the city are the ones where a broad range of activities has a chance to play out.

In this emerging Los Angeles, the freeway is an outlier, a hulking support system for an aging, if not outdated, set of beliefs. The freeways were built to allow the region to stretch outward; the movement that counts now is in the opposite direction, as the city doubles back on itself, looking to develop more densely areas where it built lightly before.

Even more important, the freeway is designed as a monoculture — a landscape where one and only one activity, the movement of mostly private vehicles, is allowed to take place. (This explains why walking, running, protesting or sitting down at a dinner table on a freeway, as one group did during the Carmageddon shutdown of the 405 four years ago, remain among the most radical things any Angeleno can do.) Though legally public, the freeway is among the most restricted and limited territories in Southern California.

Even Brodsly (in his "L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay," which remains one of the best studies of the system as well as the only book he's ever written) acknowledged as much. “More than any other ecology in Los Angeles,” he wrote, “more than any single comprehensible place, the freeway is a private space.”

The truth is that we no longer have the luxury of building that kind of specialized, single-use infrastructure. (That's one reason efforts to remake the L.A. River, which in its concrete-wrapped form is as much of a monoculture as a freeway, are picking up steam.) In an increasingly crowded city, one where housing prices continue to rise and the inequality gap is widening, we need all the spaces of the city — especially the publicly owned ones — to take on a greater load, to do more, to enable more. 

Mass transit works in precisely this productive way — on several levels at once, in the city planning’s version of the positive feedback loop. New train lines often are built in tandem with new bike and walking paths. Transit promotes walking as well as a renewed attention to the design of the public realm, since a trip on public transit often begins or ends, or both, with a trip on foot.

Freeways — especially when they’re clogged with traffic — foreclose other ways of understanding or engaging the city. Although this may well change when driverless electric cars become commonplace, the land along them, noisy and polluted, has become a landscape of last resort: the least desirable, least healthy part of the city. A USC study found that growing up within a third of a mile of a freeway left children with “substantial deficits in lung function.”

“Freeway close,” once an advertising slogan, has become a black mark.

And don’t forget that the celebration of the L.A. freeway by Brodsly, Didion, Banham and others often came from a place of distance or privilege. The perspective was radically different in a neighborhood like Boyle Heights, which was cut off from the rest of Los Angeles by a tangle of interchanges after the war. Residents there were far less likely to see the L.A. freeway as ennobling or beautiful.

UCLA's Eric Avila, in his 2014 book “The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City,” writes that residents living in neighborhoods disrupted by freeway construction were forced to deal with these concrete neighbors “through an unwanted intimacy, forced by an interventionist state at the height of its power.” Avila echoes earlier complaints about the freeway's effect on Los Angeles in Richard Lillard's "Eden in Jeopardy," published in 1966, and other books.

Still, it’s fair to say that during the brief automotive golden age when the L.A. freeway was flowing swiftly and easily with traffic, it became in the dominant cultural narrative a kind of abstraction. It was a network and a symbol — of movement, ambition, metropolitan growth, modernity — as much as a thing.

Now that our freeways are so often backed up, drivers have come to see them in a dramatically different way. We stare at them, at uncomfortably close range, while stuck in traffic. They've come back into focus for what they physically are: fixed behemoths that dominate much of the landscape in the region.

This newly literal perspective on the freeways may, paradoxically enough, unlock newly creative ways of reimagining or even radically repurposing them: as elevated parks or as passageways for bikes, driverless cars or public transit.

For all these reasons, I’ll be writing several more articles in the coming months looking at the Los Angeles freeway. Quite simply, the series will aim to fix our gaze on the freeways again as the city changes dramatically around them — to look at them carefully, curiously and critically. 

It will ask whether we can approach the task of reimagining our freeways with the same energy, ambition and expertise that we brought to the task of building them in the first place.

Instead of widening them at great expense and with little or no benefit in terms of congestion, as we just finished doing with the 405, we need to broaden how we think about the freeway and its 21st century potential.

The truth is that Los Angeles, once a pioneer in defining the freeway’s place in urban life, has fallen behind other cities. From Dallas to Paris to Seoul, the most innovative ideas about freeways and how they can be redesigned are coming from places far from Southern California.

It’s time for L.A. to catch up. Or, to put it another way: Now that L.A.’s attitude about the freeway has changed so dramatically, isn’t it also time to consider changing the L.A. freeway itself? Can this cathedral of ours be restored, rethought and brought back to life, or will we watch passively as it ages, cracks and eventually breaks down?

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