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Blacktop manifesto

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PARIS had its Baron Haussmann, who in the 19th century redesigned the French capital. New York had its Robert Moses, who before and after World War II redesigned that city's highways, parks and bridges.

And Los Angeles? L.A. had the Traffic Commission.

By the 1920s, the city was something of a mess. Its sidewalks were clogged with people. Its streets were jammed with cars. Trolleys crawled through downtown, and congestion — what we often think of as strictly a modern headache — was casting a pall over this newly found paradise.

No wonder, then, that concerned citizens and business leaders took it upon themselves to form a traffic commission and contract three city planners — Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Harland Bartholomew and Charles H. Cheney.

The result of their efforts, a 70-page book complete with red binding and gold lettering and entitled "Major Traffic Street Plan (Price Five Dollars)," presents a radical portrait of our post-World War I city — and still describes the world that we navigate today. It is a remarkable document, and it sits today in a 10th floor office of the Department of Transportation. To turn its pages is to see a city imagine itself into being.

By 1923, the downtown grid had 31 traffic signals, the city's first network of its kind. Two years later, the pedestrian regulations and a vehicle code — establishing the rules of engagement between automobiles and pedestrians, using cross streets, prohibiting jaywalking, etc. — would go into effect.

But the future loomed large, and if Los Angeles was to become a great city, as the commission hoped, something needed to be done about its streets, relics from the horse-and-buggy days that were often narrow, discontinuous and unaligned. These early roads were developed to provide access to property, not for getting anywhere fast.

Olmsted (son of New York's Central Park designer), Bartholomew and Cheney — described as "three city planners of unquestioned standing" — were charged with turning the helter-skelter of Los Angeles, stretched out over 144 square miles, into the blueprint for a new metropolis. What made their mission easier was the understanding that not all streets are created equal — nor should they be.

The planners first created a statistical portrait of the city. They charted traffic increases on major roads and mapped population distribution. They analyzed street work and accident patterns, and they enlisted the Boy Scouts, who on Feb. 14, 1924, from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. conducted traffic counts at 122 intersections in the city.

With this information in hand, the planners were able to establish a hierarchy of streets and identify which to widen, shorten and extend. But utility was not the only inspiration for their pens. A sense of logic, beauty and historical precedent is the undertone of the work — as well as an understanding that driving could be an aesthetic experience.

In their proposal for "Parkways and Boulevards," they argued for creating "the feeling of openness that comes only with plenty of width and by an ample enframement of trees, shrubs, and other plantations."

"A parkway or boulevard may be used mainly by people going to and from business and yet give them a great deal of incidental recreation and pleasure; but ordinarily the justification for such treatment is greatest on routes used also largely by people who are traveling solely for pleasure — as to and from the beaches, the mountains, etc."

Although the legacy of the Traffic Commission is largely invisible today — which indeed is a measure of its success — three routes in particular show the breadth and influence of its grand vision.

Arroyo Seco ParkwayThe plan identified "the bed of the stream from Pasadena to the Los Angeles River" as a candidate for a parkway, calling it "scenically one of the most beautiful and attractive routes in the city." The voters agreed, and in 1925, bridges at avenues 26, 43 and 60 were constructed. Work stopped during the Depression and didn't resume in earnest until the 1940s (the four tunnels constructed for an extension of Figueroa Street were completed between 1931 and 1935). The Arroyo Seco Parkway, extending from Pasadena to the four-level interchange downtown, was completed in 1953.

The Cahuenga ParkwayFirst there was a path, then railroad tracks and, finally, in 1927, Cahuenga Boulevard was widened to four lanes with sidewalks and street lighting. In the 1930s, the city engineer, Lloyd Aldrich, envisioned a parkway with four lanes in each direction, the Santa Monica Mountains on either side, bridges and landscaped islands between the roadways. Work began in 1938, and the last segment was completed in 1954.

Olympic BoulevardIdentified as 10th Street in the "Major Traffic Street Plan," Olympic was described as "one of the greatest central thoroughfares of Los Angeles." Renamed in honor of the 1932 L.A. Olympics, the boulevard, running from downtown to Santa Monica, has seen a number of widenings and realignments over the years. During the 1940s and 1950s, it was reconfigured for traffic flow twice a day: four lanes devoted to eastbound traffic in the morning, two to west; four lanes for westbound traffic in the afternoon, two to the east.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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