Navigating the Traffic Maze at the City’s Core


It rolls off the tongue like an obscenity: The four-level. No place in Los Angeles may conjure more dread. This roaring maw of hurtling steel and gasoline fumes accounts for an ungodly number of radio traffic reports, all of them bad: spilled loads, lane closures, jackknifed big rigs.

Nearly half a million drivers a day enter this granddaddy of all freeway interchanges, where the tentacles of the Harbor Freeway cross and hook up with those of the Hollywood. Half a million drivers who share one thing in common: not where they are going--oh, puh-leeease--but the fact that not one of them really wants to be here.

The downtown four-level is filled with harrowing merges. One of the worst comes when you’re traveling from the southbound Hollywood to the southbound Harbor. You have to veer three lanes to the left--into traffic that might be stopped, or traveling three times your speed--or face being shunted onto downtown streets, a broken grid of one-ways that can swallow up the most nimble Ferrari.

It is task enough for hardened commuters. For out-of-towners, those poor souls trying to navigate the core of the city with rental cars and hand-scrawled directions, this is the worst kind of tourist trap.

At the point where traffic merges, “you can see the terrified expressions as they’re trying to get to the right,” says attorney William Moore, who is usually trying to merge left. The right-mergers are trying to get off the freeway at 3rd Street, 4th Street and Wilshire Boulevard. They look at Moore “sort of mouth agape,” he says, “like, ‘Ah! What’s he doing?’ ”


Joan Didion wrote about the same terrible confluence of cars 31 years ago in her novel “Play It as It Lays.” Didion’s character was a woman who “drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions. . . . On the afternoon she finally [completed the merge] without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night slept dreamlessly.”

Marianne Hooper drives it, sometimes with her 3-year-old son in the back seat. She is more likely to have nightmares.

“All these big SUVs, they’re barreling down on you,” she says. “It’s horrible.”

Like ancient, unfixable plumbing, the four-level is deplorable, annoying, indispensable, prone to clogs and probably stuck here forever. It channels a ceaseless flow of traffic through conduits no longer adequate for the job. When it opened in 1953, at a cost of $5.5 million, it was the first of its kind, the prototype for every multilevel freeway interchange in America, and it worked well enough to spawn thousands.

That it occupied the site of the old town gallows was omen enough that Caltrans officials still note the fact. How many drivers have met their doom on the interchange is uncertain. The fender-benders and lost man-hours due to rush-hour congestion are too numerous to ever tally. The trade-off for a vast, wide-open city and cheap transportation is the fact that, sooner or later, everyone gets squeezed through this sausage grinder.

“From above, it looks otherworldly,” says radio and TV traffic reporter Jim Thornton, who used to gaze down from a helicopter. He’d see nothing moving but the cars and wisps of smoke from industrial stacks. “You can’t hear people honking--you just see them swerve to cut in front of somebody else. You can almost see what people are thinking. . . . ‘Am I going to make it to work on time? Am I stuck? Should I turn back?’ ”

The four-level is no longer the biggest or the busiest of Los Angeles’ many interchanges, but it remains forbidding. Located next to Chinatown south of Dodger Stadium, it is the apex in a troika of busy central-city interchanges.

Roll in from Orange County and you must also negotiate the East L.A. interchange, where the Pomona, Santa Ana and Hollywood freeways snake together. Motor up from San Pedro and you plunge into three miles of concrete jungle that begin where the Harbor and Santa Monica freeways merge near Staples Center.

That stretch of the Harbor Freeway is especially daunting.

Downtown office spires loom overhead. The roadway sinks as you near the four-level; concrete overpasses create a feeling of claustrophobia. It can unnerve some drivers so badly that they wreck or have a panic attack--or both.

“Say they’re from Ogden, Utah, or somewhere in Wyoming--they don’t even have that kind of freeway system,” postulates Dr. Michael Singer, a psychiatrist specializing in anxiety disorders. “The person becomes overwhelmed with fright. ‘What do I do? What do I do?’ The adrenaline is flowing, their hearts are pounding, they can actually get lightheaded to the point they fear they’re going to faint. Sometimes they have to look for the nearest ramp, get off on a side street and try to breathe normally, try to contain themselves.”

Anne McAndrews, a Long Beach golf instructor, is not that bad off, but neither is she an Indy driver. Any time she nears the four-level her pulse quickens, she is on edge.

“I turn off the radio, or turn it down, and think about where I’m going,” she says. “Where I have problems is having all these lanes, these choices, and you have to make a decision very quickly. You feel like it’s the end of the world if you go the wrong way.”

Liane Colsky has done that. Once she ended up downtown, on surface streets, and tried to circle back to the freeway--only to circle and circle.

“I kept missing the ramp,” she remembers. “The sign was a little misleading, and I kept going around and missing it.”

There is no bright side, except the sick satisfaction that some other cities may have it even worse. Freeways and toll roads added to old East Coast road grids are sometimes so confusing as to make us thankful for places like the four-level--or so says Susan Parman, an anthropology professor at Cal State Fullerton. She recalled one horrific experience in Pittsburgh, crossing and recrossing bridges.

Parman sees at least some hint of order in the four-level’s well-marked signs and clearly defined lanes, the pathways that connect the little villages that make up Los Angeles.

On the four-level and its offspring, she is philosophical: “We’ve built these incredible monstrosities, but they are planned and they are rational. They create a sense of place. In some ways the four-levels are a kind of statement: This is our dream, this is our city, and never mind the dangers that might go along with it.”