We gave birth to the SigAlert

Times Staff Writer

IN the autumn of 1943, World War II raged. On Nov. 22, the cover of Life magazine featured a portrait of a GI, with the caption, "Foot Soldier." Here at home, however, the dreamers were busy planning for the boom that would come with peace. In the future they envisioned, you wouldn't need your feet to get around. There was a brand-new word for mobility.

The word was "freeway."

Of course, back then editors felt the need to explain the concept for those who might not understand it. A freeway, the story noted, was an "express auto highway."

Naturally enough, this new word arose in the context of a feature about a certain beguiling part of 1940s America that was waiting, arms open, for GIs to homestead. The headline put it this way: "Los Angeles Is the Damnedest Place."

No, the freeway wasn't invented here. The Italians were first, back in 1925. Even in the United States, the Pennsylvania Turnpike began carrying cars three months ahead of the Arroyo Seco Parkway -- later to be known as the Pasadena Freeway -- which opened on Dec. 30, 1940. Such details didn't matter, though. Southern California embraced the freeway with a starry-eyed fervor normally reserved for real estate.

As Life reported, Los Angeles was where "automobile salesmen became millionaires and leading citizens." The marvels of L.A., the magazine claimed, would continue to grow and develop, making the city a "semi permanent world's fair," all connected by a web of freeways.

Sure enough, these express highways paved the way for Los Angeles to spread out and to fill in at the same time. For better and for worse, the vast spider-web of concrete perfected in Los Angeles became the template for suburban life across the nation. Then, in 1956, freeways began to reach out beyond urban areas to connect cities with the construction of the interstate highway system.

Today, there are almost 50,000 miles of freeway in the United States, and Los Angeles remains the undisputed capital of it all. Here, in terms of acres of concrete poured, daily miles traveled, hours expended, cargo hauled, decibels generated, tempers brought to boil ... well, maybe Burt Bacharach and Hal David put it best: "L.A. is a great big freeway."

Southern California's freeways are no longer universally free, with the advent of toll roads. The 1940s promise of unfettered movement turned out to be a false dream as congestion kept stubborn pace with construction. Every day, people in cars launch themselves onto the 101 and the 405, the 5 and the 10, the 91 and the 55. They crawl along at 15 mph in cars capable of 150. Hundreds of thousands of us jostle along together, but hardly a friendly gesture passes between us. As that yellowed old headline said, "Los Angeles Is the Damnedest Place."


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