To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Last Freeway

The true story of L.A.’s freeways, and a judge who changed everything.


By Hillel Aron, July 2011


 Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Hillel Aron’s “The Last Freeway” was published in Slake in 2011 and appeared as a Longreads Member Pick in September 2013. It’s a story about a city (Los Angeles), a freeway interchange (where the 105 meets the 110), and a man (Judge Harry Pregerson). Aron explains:
“Well, my friends Joe Donnelly and Laurie Ochoa had this great quarterly called Slake, and I wanted to write something for them, so we sat down and talked about it… I think maybe I pitched it to them, I can’t remember. I’d was just always fascinated by freeways, growing up in Los Angeles, and I loved that Reyner Banham book, The Architecture of the Four Ecologies. When I was kid, I was completely enchanted by that 105 / 110 interchange, the carpool lane one, which towers above the city. It’s basically like a rollercoaster. Actually it kind of sucks—since I wrote the piece, they’ve turned that carpool lane into a “toll lane,” so normal carpoolers can’t use it anymore without one of those fast pass things. At any rate, I did some research and it turned out that (a) the 105 was the last freeway built in Los Angeles—the end of an era, really. And it was so tough to build that it basically set a precedent of not building freeways anymore. And (b), there was this nutty judge who turned the whole thing into a New Deal-style public works program to benefit the communities that were being bisected by this massive beast of a freeway. And he also ordered them to stick a train in the middle of it, which didn’t quite go to the airport, but that’s a different story…”


I have a recurring dream that begins with me driving on the stretch of the 105 Freeway that flows like a giant tributary from LAX toward its convergence with the 110, where commuters offload for the high-rises of downtown Los Angeles. In the dream, I’m driving in the carpool lane on the gentle incline toward the massive interchange and everything is fine. But suddenly the carpool lane rises as the narrow two-lane ramp veers left at the pinnacle and the rest of the 105 drops away. High up in the air, with the city stretched out before me, I fail to make the turn. My car smashes through the barrier and I hurtle off the side of the interchange into the expanse below.

The object of my nightmare had an official name: the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange. The interchange, with its 130-foot-tall octagonal pillars adorned with art deco–style finishes, stands resolutely against the backdrop of city and mountains—a true monument to L.A.’s passion for movement.

My nightmares weren’t all that original. Even before the first commuter traversed any of the 105’s seventeen miles, the interchange starred in a climactic scene in the film Speed, alongside Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, and a bus that can’t stop. In a heroic twist on my dream, Reeves drives the bus over an unfinished section and lands it safely on the other side. Since this dramatic debut, the Harry Pregerson Interchange has become nearly as iconic as the Hollywood sign.

The Century Freeway, as the 105 is known, opened to great fanfare on the morning of October 15, 1993. Governor Pete Wilson arrived in an open-top, vintage white automobile. The USC Trojan Marching Band played, accompanied, naturally, by the USC Song Girls. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) sponsored a 10K fun run and bicycle race across the freeway for everyone involved in the project.

The festivities followed a difficult twenty-year gestation that managed to absorb many of the social and political conflicts of the time, not to mention $2.2 billion of federal and state funds, a class-action lawsuit, and a federal consent decree. Officially, the freeway was named after Glenn Anderson, the Democratic congressman from San Pedro who fought for the project. But the true architect of the 105 was a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge named Harry Pregerson. He had just turned seventy when the freeway opened, and by then had spent more than two decades supervising the project, sorting through a tangle of competing interests and playing midwife to L.A.’s last freeway.

Although competing theories about urban planning were part of the long battle, it was about more than just the best way to move people through a sprawling megalopolis. The freeway became a focal point for resistance to paternalistic urban renewal, but then, ultimately, an example of socially responsible civil engineering. When the rubber finally hit the road on the 105, Judge Pregerson’s ruling ensured that central planners could no longer impose public-works projects on communities without residents having their say.

As Carlye Hall, one of the lawyers who sued Caltrans over the freeway construction, told the Los Angeles Times, “There has never before been a freeway that had so many social programs attached to it, and this never would have happened without Judge Pregerson.”

The language of design, architecture, and urbanism in Los Angeles is the language of movement … and the city will never be fully understood by those who cannot move fluently through its diffuse urban texture.
—Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies
The automobile didn’t always dominate Los Angeles transportation. The city’s legendary sprawl was created not by car, but by railway. Before the railroad, downtown Los Angeles was little more than a pueblo with a couple markets and a few thousand people. It may never have become much more were it not for a small group of wealthy Angelenos led by the banker Isaias Hellman and the lawyer Henry O’Melveny, who managed to persuade the Southern Pacific Railroad to run its San Francisco–to-Yuma line through Los Angeles—instead of a more direct route through the high desert—before hooking east. Within a couple decades, five railway lines cut through downtown Los Angeles. Banham writes that by 1880, “The railways had outlined the form of the city and sketched in the pattern of movement that was to characterize its peculiar style of life.”

If pieces of the transcontinental railway formed the city’s skeleton, its arteries were the track laid down by the Pacific Electric Railway, a fleet of 1,250 Red Cars spread over 1,164 miles of track. Services ran from Santa Monica to Riverside, from San Fernando to Orange. At its peak in 1925, it was the world’s largest interurban railway system.

But from almost the very beginning, the Red Car competed against the automobile. In 1938, the Automobile Club of Southern California laid out a grand new vision for Los Angeles. It called for more than 400 miles of “the world’s first great Elevated Motorways System” and the gradual phasing out of the railways in favor of bus service.

The first freeways in Los Angeles were built in the early 1940s, the Arroyo Seco Parkway and the Cahuenga Pass Freeway. They converged in the heart of downtown and formed the world’s first stack interchange. Sure, there was traffic. But freeways were seen then as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Looked at today, Los Angeles’s 1958 General Plan does indeed read like a dystopian vision of concrete and shadows, calling for 1,500 miles of freeways through Greater Los Angeles. Santa Monica Boulevard would have become the Beverly Hills Freeway. Laurel Canyon Boulevard would have turned into the Laurel Canyon Freeway, and continued all the way through the portion of La Cienega Boulevard running toward LAX that still feels like a freeway (the only part of the proposed system that got built). Pacific Coast Highway would now be the Pacific Coast Freeway. And the Santa Monica Mountains would be home to no fewer than six elevated motorways. You were never supposed to be more than four or five miles from a freeway.

A Freeway and Expressway System for Los Angeles, Orange, and Ventura Counties, Metropolitan Transportation Engineering Board, June 30, 1958
A Freeway and Expressway System for Los Angeles, Orange, and Ventura Counties, Metropolitan Transportation Engineering Board, June 30, 1958

“There was always a vision of L.A. as big pockets of high activity centers,” says Frank Quon, deputy district director for Caltrans. “You can call it urban sprawl—it’s just a large area with major business-type centers. So that network would tie it all together. And it was a very good vision.”

But it was not to be. Just as the freeways seemed poised to take over the sky and blot out the sun, freeway revolts ignited in San Francisco. A 1964 rally in Golden Gate Park drew some 200,000 people to protest the proposed extension of the Embarcadero Freeway along the waterfront. The folk singer Malvina Reynolds sang her moderately well-known folk song “Little Boxes,” a polemic against suburban development. In New York, a freeway revolt pitted urban theorist Jane Jacobs against Robert Moses, midcentury New York’s master urban planner, often said to have been the most powerful man in New York City. Over the next twenty years, backlash against freeways would spread all over the world: Sydney, Montreal, London, Detroit, and even Los Angeles.


In 1971, four young, idealistic lawyers left the luxurious offices of O’Melveny and Myers (founded by the aforementioned Henry O’Melveny in 1885) to form the Center for Law in the Public Interest with the help of a Ford Foundation grant. It was one of the country’s first public-interest law firms. When a San Francisco firm called Public Advocates, which specialized in freeway and housing litigation, found its caseload too heavy, it referred a suit against the planned Century Freeway to the Center for Law in the Public Interest.

“We’d just opened our operation,” says John Phillips, who cofounded the center when he was twenty-eight.

Esther and Ralph Keith, a couple living near the proposed 105-405 interchange, sought an injunction in federal district court against the Century Freeway’s construction. They argued that state and federal agencies had failed to comply with environmental, housing, and civil rights laws. The legal theory was bold for its time: the freeway proposal was discriminatory and didn’t afford residents in the “blighted” neighborhoods the same considerations as better-off neighborhoods. Three other families, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, the NAACP, and the city of Hawthorne joined the Keiths.

Keith v. Volpe became the center’s first case. John A. Volpe was the state’s secretary of transportation.
“Caltrans was bullying everybody, paying too little for their property, using strong-arm tactics to get them out,” says Phillips. “Esther and Ralph Keith would not sell.”


Had the state of California managed to build the 105 Freeway in the 1960s, it would have encountered little resistance. Unlike, say, Greenwich Village or downtown San Francisco, the residents of Watts and Lynwood had little political clout. They were mostly poor and mostly African American. This, of course, was partly by design—these were the “blighted areas” that AAA wanted to pave over. But Caltrans was slow to act, and by 1971, conditions on the ground, as they say, had changed.

By then, President Nixon had signed two bills into law that would have dire consequences for public-works projects: the latest Federal-Aid Highway Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The first required the state to provide adequate replacement housing before it bought homes from people to make way for highways. The second required in-depth environmental studies, subject to review, for any public-works project. Government projects would never be the same.

“Congress will pass laws with great fanfare, and then there’s nobody to enforce them,” says the center’s John Phillips. “Who’s gonna sue the U.S. attorney? Who’s gonna sue Caltrans? Well that’s what we did. We didn’t set out to stop the freeway, per se.”

The plaintiffs had two main complaints: that the government was providing inadequate housing to displaced residents and that no environmental-impact study had been performed.
Had any other judge been selected to hear the case, our story would have been different. But as fate would have it, the randomly selected judge was Harry Pregerson.

Judge Harry Pregerson (right) receiving an award from Hershel Gober. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.
Judge Harry Pregerson (right) receiving an award from Hershel Gober.

Pregerson was and is a practical man, and by all accounts he was driven less by ideology than by the desire to find solutions. He took two months to reach his decision. On July 7, 1972, he issued a preliminary injunction to stop all construction and involuntary selling of property along the Century Freeway corridor, pending environmental-impact reports. It was a bombshell. For the first time, the building of a major freeway had been halted by court order. The L.A. Times reported:
Pregerson went further than many experts, including the center’s lawyers and state officials, expected. James A. More, director of Public Works, parent agency for the Division of Highways, said he was stunned by the ruling.

“It’s very serious … not only with respect to the Century Freeway but also as it might affect others in California.”
The state was forced to hold hearings on noise and air pollution, revise its housing program and consider myriad construction alternatives, including abandonment of the freeway. An unnamed attorney for the Center for Law in the Public Interest was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying, “This may mark the end of the freeway era in the Los Angeles metropolitan region.”

The judge’s ruling on the injunction led to a federal consent decree, which Pregerson oversaw, and for the next seven years both sides battered away at each other in negotiations. Pregerson wrote in a 2007 Southwestern University Law Review essay, “The Freeway with a Heart”:
In consent-decree litigation, these people are going to be with you for the next five, ten, or fifteen years, maybe more. So in addition to being judge, you have to be a psychologist, a diplomat, and, at times, a babysitter.
In the same issue of the law review, Southwestern University law professor Christopher David Ruiz Cameron wrote in his essay “Harry Pregerson, the Real Mayor of Los Angeles”:
Most judges would have avoided the headaches that followed, either by leaving the parties to sort out the environmental issues on their own or by dismissing the lawsuit altogether. But Judge Pregerson saw and seized the opportunity to address the larger social implications of a massive public works project, one that would eventually cost $2.2 billion. Why, he wondered, shouldn’t the freeway corridor in traffic-snarled Los Angeles include a rail line for public transportation? Or a carpool lane to reduce smog? And why shouldn’t some of the lucrative government contracts and high-paying jobs that it would take to build the project go to the people who actually live there? And for that matter, why shouldn’t their children have day care while their parents were at work building the new freeway?
It was this kind of “judicial activism” that would later enrage conservatives. Even mainstream journalists describe Pregerson as a “New Deal liberal,” a title that the judge doesn’t seem to like very much.

“I don’t think of myself as a New Deal–style liberal,” he tells me. “I think being a judge has given me an opportunity to help working people, improve the city.”


I sit with Judge Pregerson in the kitchen of his office, an anonymous-looking unit in an anonymous-looking building in Woodland Hills, across the street from one of those enormous Westfield shopping malls. Every half hour or so, one of his clerks comes in and gets a bowl of potato salad or a cup of coffee. The judge talks and talks. For five and a half hours, he talks. When I try to ask questions, he ignores them, or, visibly annoyed, reluctantly answers, as if he were being forced on an inconvenient detour. He talks with his eyes closed, his voice getting softer and softer, and at times it seems like he is drifting off to sleep.

Pregerson has wild, sagebrush eyebrows. He wears a pair of half-moon spectacles, a brown bomber jacket, cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a Stetson, making him look a bit like an old Charlton Heston—only with a BlackBerry clipped to his canvas belt. He has a firm handshake and a serious demeanor. When I mention that he never seems to be smiling in any of his photographs, he deadpans, “I’m a very serious guy.”

He is eighty-seven, or as he says with a wry smile, “four score and seven years old.” His memory is astonishing. He grew up in Boyle Heights and he remembers the name of the Japanese kid he carpooled with to UCLA in the 1930s, though he can’t remember the name of the driver who picked them up in a Model A Coupe. He remembers the city before the freeway, before they pulled out the train tracks. He remembers how the city sounded.

“There was no freeway then. There were trains, and you could hear the trains whistle, you could hear the roosters crow,” he says. “At noon, the gas company downtown blew a whistle. You could hear it all over the city. That was their lunch break. We walked to school. We had the yellow car, but it cost three and a half cents, and why waste three and half cents when you could walk? It took about an hour, but it was fun because I’d walk with my friends.”

Pregerson was the only kid from his graduating class at Roosevelt High School to go to UCLA. He says it wasn’t because he was the smartest, just the only one whose family could afford the $25-per-semester tuition. In college, he joined the ROTC and eventually enlisted in the Marines.

“The worst thing that could happen was for the war to end before I could participate,” he says. “We were all anxious to go. I know it sounds strange. Times were different. There were 10 million people in armed services. Everybody wanted to get involved.

“I took French because I thought I’d go to France like my father did and I could talk to French girls. But I never got to France.”

The judge doesn’t seem to like talking about the war. When I ask how it was, he answers, sarcastically, “It was a great time.”

I persist and finally he shuts the kitchen door and pulls down his pants. On each of his upper thighs there are two small pinpricks, like a needle might make on a sofa cushion. He starts talking.
“We went from Pavuvu to Okinawa. That was April 1, 1945, that was the landing,” he says. “We had a battalion of 1,000 men, and then replacements. People would move in and be dead by five o’clock.
“It was thirty-three days before I got injured. I got hit by a dumdum bullet, an explosive bullet. I’m lucky because of penicillin. … I’m lucky because I lived.”


Judges tend to be formal, speaking as if channeling the voice of the almighty. Pregerson is different.
“Some judges really stand on ceremony,” says Felicia Marcus, one of Pregerson’s former law clerks. “If you’re in his court and you have something to add, he’ll let you say it. I swear to god, if the janitor walked by and wanted to say something, he’d let him talk. The focus is always on getting to the right answer.”

Like his hero, the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, Pregerson has always had a knack for consensus building. His skill at bringing together divergent parties—Caltrans, neighborhood residents, and unions—and forging a compromise was the key factor in getting the Century Freeway built. According to the L.A. Times, Pregerson was known to open negotiations early in the morning by telling all parties, “Gentlemen, I just happen to have brought my lunch with me and it could be a long day. I’m not sure yet when you’ll be able to eat.”

The Century Freeway’s final consent decree, filed in 1979, included a housing program, jobs program, jobs training program, affirmative-action program, and a child-care program, all under the guise of a freeway project that somehow also had to have a train running down the middle. Even for a legislative body, these initiatives would have been bold, but for them to come at the behest of a district court judge was unheard of.

The agreement called for 3,000 single-family homes and 1,200 multifamily buildings to be constructed in neighborhoods along the freeway corridor. The 25,000 displaced residents living in the corridor would be able to buy houses at below-market rates. Sixty-five percent of the workers on both the freeway and the housing would be minorities; 10 percent would be women. Nearly 5,000 locals went through an apprenticeship program and were given construction jobs. Perhaps most astonishingly, the consent decree called for the construction of day-care centers for the families of employees.

“That’s why it was an unprecedented decree, that’s why people studied it and have done dissertations on it,” says John Phillips. “This whole panoply of benefits under the guise of a freeway changed and transformed the community.”

What was originally envisioned as a ten-lane freeway would now be eight lanes, and one of them on each side would be reserved for high-occupancy vehicles, the city’s first carpool lanes. And just as the Cahuenga Pass freeway had the Red Car running down its middle, the Century Freeway would have the Green Line, Los Angeles’s first light rail system to be approved in more than thirty years.

“My dream was to have, at every off ramp, a parking lot so people could come here and park their car, and there would be a child-care center,” says Pregerson. “You’d go to work on light rail. We were gonna have all kinds of social services—parent classes, day care, substance abuse, preschool.”
It was a new vision of transportation in Los Angeles, conceived in a court of law.
About a month after the consent decree, President Carter nominated Pregerson to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. During the Senate confirmation hearings, Wyoming Republican Alan Simpson asked Pregerson what he’d do if a decision in a case involved an instance of case law or statute that offended his conscience. Pregerson answered:
I was born and raised in this country, and I am steeped in its traditions, its mores, its beliefs, and its philosophies; and if I felt strongly in a situation like that, I feel it would be the product of my very being and upbringing. I would follow my conscience.
Pregerson was eventually confirmed, even though this exchange, as well as some of his later decisions, earned the wrath of conservatives everywhere. Despite his promotion, the judge continued to personally supervise the freeway programs set forth by the consent decree.

Finally, in 1981, construction began on the Century Freeway. First, the remaining homes had to be bought and torn down, including the home of Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson at 3701 West 119th Street. It was the house where the Wilsons recorded their first song, “Surfin’,” and became the Beach Boys. The house of Ralph and Esther Keith was also torn down—unnecessarily so, as it turned out, and so it was eventually replaced by another house. Ralph died in August 1982 and never saw his house torn down. Esther moved to another house a few blocks away. She viewed the final consent decree as a failure, and didn’t attend the freeway’s opening.

Jeff Gates was a photographer who started taking pictures of the torn-down houses in the Century Freeway corridor in the early eighties. When he showed some of his photographs to Esther Keith, one in particular caught her attention. It was a boarded-up house with a sign on it that read “Sorkness Fotos.” It must have been a business with a house in the back, thought Gates.

“When Esther saw that photo, she started to cry,” he says.

The owner of the house, explained Esther Keith, had committed suicide after being forced to move.
“She and her husband had really tried to stop this freeway, and they failed,” says Gates. “Even though there were concessions that were won because of it, she still was bitter about everything they went through.”

Gates moved to the East Coast in the eighties. When he returned to Los Angeles shortly before the 105’s completion, he was struck by its beauty. “From a sculptural vantage point,” he wrote in 1995, “the interchanges of the 105 [with the 110 Freeway] are some of the most amazing pieces of public art I have ever touched.”

Photo by Neil Kremer

The legacy of the Century Freeway is more than just a spectacular interchange and a good way to get to LAX from downtown. It’s more than a movie about a runaway bus, and it’s more than a few thousand houses torn out from the ground.

New freeway construction is now a virtual nonstarter in this city. The Long Beach Freeway, or the 710, was supposed to run all the way north to Pasadena, meeting up with the 210. That project is held up by a tangle of court proceedings, environmental reports, and “meetings with the community.” The judge handling the case just so happens to be Harry Pregerson’s son. There is a small chance the project will go through. One of the ideas being floated is a tunnel under South Pasadena, most likely prohibitively expensive.

“We don’t build brand-new freeways anymore,” says Frank Quon of Caltrans.

In 1980, Los Angeles residents finally voted for public transit with their wallets by approving Proposition A, which added a half-percent sales tax to pay for a rail system. The Blue Line, a light rail system running to Long Beach, opened in 1990. And shortly before the 105 opened, the city’s first two subways began service: the Red Line and the Purple Line.

But the same sort of neighborhood activism, or some would say NIMBYism, proved as good at holding up rapid transit as it was at stalling freeways. Construction of the Red Line was delayed for ten years following protests, not to mention a methane gas explosion and the fact that Hollywood Boulevard was sinking—the ground that the MTA was tunneling through turned out to be soft and powdery, causing it to depress.

It’s a pattern seen over and over again during the past two decades: city proposes plan, community fights plan, city scales back. Before Los Angeles can build its utopian “subway to the sea,” it must first endure hundreds of meetings, reports, public comment periods, alternative plans, reports, votes, protests, and counter protests. Transportation projects in Los Angeles have become obscenely expensive, not to mention tedious.

The social programs set up by Pregerson’s consent decree, meanwhile, have had an unambiguously positive legacy. Take, for instance, the case of Century Housing, the public-private partnership formed to build homes for displaced residents living in the 105’s path. What was supposed to be a temporary company was turned into a permanent nonprofit, after the judge dispatched Allan Kingston, then the CEO of Century Housing, to Washington, D.C.

“We got permission from old man Bush to take all the assets, the buildings, the money, and roll it all over into a nonprofit, rather than selling things off,” Pregerson says.

Today, Century Housing is one of the biggest providers of affordable housing in the United States. Since it was privatized in 1995, it has built or preserved more than 13,000 homes.

Pregerson continued to find opportunities for social progress in public projects. Among the judge’s hallmark achievements was ordering the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant to upgrade after spilling raw sewage into the ocean for years. Completed in 1998 after eleven years and almost $4 billion, it was named one of the top ten public-works projects of the twentieth century by the American Public Works Association, leading Pregerson to become known as the Sludge Judge.

“It’s arguably one of the biggest environmental wins in our nation’s history,” says Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, which helped bring the case to court. “They were one of the worst polluters, just horrible. Now there’s been a 95 percent reduction of sewage solids dumped into Santa Monica Bay.”

On the kitchen table in Pregerson’s office sits a framed photograph of himself as a younger man, looking a bit like Touch of Evil–era Charlton Heston, alongside his best friend, the former Central California Democratic congressman James Corman. The judge notices me looking at the photo.

“One time Corman said, ‘Harry, you’re not a judge, you’re a social worker,'” he says. “I said, ‘Thanks, Jim, that’s a great compliment.’

“Judges can do that if they want to.”

Driving in America Is Approaching a 'New Normal'

Car use was up in 2014, but there's still plenty of evidence we've hit "peak car."


By Eric Jaffe, March 23, 2015

The Federal Highway Administration recently released U.S. driving data for 2014, and at first glance the numbers call into question the whole notion that America has reached "peak car." Total vehicle miles traveled were up 1.7 percent on the year—surging 2.5 percent in the second half of the year. U.S. driving closed 2014 within a bumper's length of the all-time high reached in 2007, and appears to be trending up.

It's not hard to account for the latest driving spike. The economy has rebounded, gas prices have plunged, and car-reliant suburbs have grown at a faster pace than city centers in some metros. More jobs is great, but that also means more commuters, and the overwhelming majority of Americans still drives to work, whether it's the most convenient travel option or the only one.

So the trends clearly show that Americans are driving more than they did a few years ago. But that doesn't mean calls of "peak car" missed the mark. Eric Sundquist and Chris McCahill of the State Smart Transportation Initiative point out that vehicle miles traveled per capita (which rose at a slower rate than total driving in 2014) remains well off its 2004 high—6.6 percent off, by their calculation.

Instead, Sundquist and McCahill believe there's a "new normal" of American motorization: lots of driving, sure, but slower growth of car use than in the past, and likely some declines moving forward.
The strongest point in their corner is that the connection between driving and economic expansion is far weaker today than it's been historically. The next chart says it all on this count. Sundquist and McCahill report that in previous decades GDP and vehicle miles went hand in hand. But that changed circa 1995. From that point on, if you used GDP to predict car use, you would have overestimated driving mileage by a wide margin—about 22 percent in 2014.

The decoupling of VMT and GDP isn't just a national phenomenon. Wonkblog's Emily Badger has shown similar trends to be true at the state level, and they've held at the city level, too. (One recent study of 98 U.S. metros found "virtually no significant causal relationship" between driving and economic activity in either direction.) That means economic growth no longer relies on (or leads to) people hopping into their car to get to work or the store—at least, not as strongly as it has in the past.

What's harder to figure out is just why driving and economic growth are playing this unchained melody. Via email to CityLab, Sundquist and McCahill point to a number of "big factors" that might have weakened the traditional connection. These include the rise of walkable places, where economic growth thrives precisely because there's less driving; stagnant wages, which leads to less disposable income to buy a car or take a taxi; declining car use among Boomers and new travel preferences among Millennials; and marginal changes in commuting habits related to transit use or working from home.

Might we add one more to the list: the maturity of the American road network. In most U.S. metros our highways already connect all the key points worth connecting. The huge economic benefits of new access to undiscovered lands are no longer as great as they once were.

Whether or not "peak car" has arrived might seem like mere semantics; either way, transportation patterns are clearly changing. But insights into driving trends are critical for plenty of practical reasons. They shape discussions about highway policy (namely, whether to maintain roads or expand them), transportation funding (how and when to replace the failing gas tax), and urban development (whether car use reflects the failure of smart growth or the need for more of it). Normal can be boring, but it's also the measuring stick for everything that's not.

MTA's toll-lane project may be a victim of its own success


Eagle Rock’s Freeway Revolt


March 23, 2015


Las Flores Drive is about 20 feet wide, curb-to-curb. It is one of the narrowest streets to run contiguously for as long as it does, and to also feature sidewalks on both sides of the street. It’s no surprise people sometimes mistake it for an alley, it really is a quaint street. However, without community engagement, there is a good chance the street would not exist in its tranquil state, if at all.
134 Freeway Plans Take Shape
In the 1950s, plans to complete the 134 Freeway (then referred to as the Colorado Boulevard Freeway) started to take shape. At this point, the freeway already ran through Burbank and Pasadena, but it did not yet go through Glendale or Eagle Rock[i]. Initially, there were a few routing configurations being considered for the portion through Eagle Rock. One proposal had the freeway running south of Colorado Boulevard along Chickasaw Avenue, while the other two placed the freeway north of the boulevard, with one along Las Flores Drive and the other on Hill Drive.
The grey thick lines show the proposed Las Flores and Chickasaw freeway routes. 

These routes were immediately opposed by a substantial portion of the neighborhood, including local elected officials  and the Chamber of Commerce. Hundreds of people attended meetings lasting several hours. In 1959, Eagle Rock’s Assembly Representative, John Collier, boldly proclaimed that a freeway through Eagle Rock “brings no benefits” to anyone [ii]. Eagle Rock residents protested on the behalf of the numerous residents that would be displaced by the freeway routing with one local at the time stating:
“A freeway that would cut Eagle Rock in two would kill this community as a lovely residential suburb.” [iii]
Organized Opposition
In response to the state’s careless, insensitive freeway routing preferences, a group of Eagle Rock residents very early on in the planning stages proposed the freeway be placed as far up into the northern hillside as possible [iv]. Although it is impossible to sneak a freeway through a community unnoticed, running the 134 freeway in the hills would be the least obtrusive and require the least amount of homes be demolished to accommodate the regional automobile corridor. The Chamber of Commerce conducted polls asking Eagle Rock residents which route they favored; a route as far north as possible proved popular.
“North Eagle Rock Homeowner’s Association” Opposes Hill Drive Route
Naturally, suggestions of pushing the freeway against the hills did not sit well with residents along Hill Drive and the streets north of it. A group of residents formed the “North Eagle Rock Homeowner’s Association,” opposing any route in the immediate vicinity of Hill Drive [v]. The Association asserted the Chamber of Commerce was producing biased polls to favor a northern alignment of the 134 Freeway with one member stating a freeway route should be based on “engineering and financial facts rather than public sentiment.” Arguments against a northerly running freeway route included that it would cost more money and likely destroy Eagle Rock Park. The Eagle Rock Homeowner’s Association found an ally in the Los Angeles Recreation and Park Commission insofar that the Commission went on the record as opposing any route that would go through Eagle Rock Park [vi].
“Northeast Skyway League” Wants Freeway to go Around Eagle Rock, Not Through It
In 1960, group of residents formally organized the “Northeast Skyway League” to fully advocate for routing the 134 Freeway as far north into the hills as possible [vii]. The Skyway League argued a freeway in the hills would provide a more pleasant and scenic experience. The group was headed by Les Rice, President of the Chamber of Commerce.
As evident from their local organizing and involvement in the Northeast Skyway League, the Chamber of Commerce fiercely opposed the freeway. The reason for the Chamber’s opposition stemmed from the belief that any route through the center of Eagle Rock – and in particular the Las Flores route – would isolate residents from their neighbors and local shops while sending business to shopping districts in Pasadena and Glendale [viii].
Highway engineers criticized the Skyway League’s proposal, telling the community that a route far up into the ridge of local foothills would cost $15 million more than the engineer-favored routes and that the Skyway League’s route would not provide sufficient service [ix].
Despite pushback from engineers, Assemblymember John Collier defended the Skyway League’s proposed route in the foothills. He argued:
“The present Colorado Boulevard through Eagle Rock is wider than the proposed freeway. Eagle Rock is a bedroom community and doesn’t need a freeway. It will obtain no benefits and will only be damaged by such a route.” [x]
State Highway Engineers Favor Las Flores Route
By 1960, to the delight of the North Eagle Rock Homeowner’s Association, the state highway engineers formally favored routing the 134 freeway along Las Flores, which was planned to have two access points for on- and off-ramps [xi]. The engineers claimed this route would provide the best service, be the cheapest to construct  and afford the most benefits to the community. This route would require nearly 400 homes be removed to build the freeway [xii]. The Skyway League’s route, by comparison, would only require the removal of 12 homes and the organization insisted no on- or off-ramps were necessary in Eagle Rock because Colorado Boulevard provided all the access people need [xiii]. Although the organization lacked the backing of professional engineers, it was supported by the Chamber of Commerce, Assemblymember Collier, and Eagle Rock’s city council representative, John C. Holland.

“Eagle Rock Citizens Protective League” Presents a Middle Ground
Neighborhood opinion was split further when Harry Lawson, publisher of the Eagle Rock Sentinel, formed yet another organization with its own favored route. This group was named the Eagle Rock Citizens Protective League, and preferred a route just north of Hill Drive. This route was estimated to require the removal of about 150 homes and considered a compromise between the Homeowners’ Association and Skyway League [xiv].
“Eagle Rock Freeway Association” Pushes for ‘No Freeway’ Alternative
There were now three organizations, each advocating different routings for the 134 Freeway, and in 1961 another would form. The newest voice in the conversation was a group called the Eagle Rock Freeway Association. The Freeway Association opposed any freeway through Eagle Rock but would favor a route south of Colorado Boulevard if a freeway was deemed absolutely necessary [xv]. The organization was comprised primarily of residents living along Hill Drive.
Highway Commission Selects “Hill Drive” Route
Before the 134 was built through Eagle Rock, this is where the freeway ended and traffic was funneled onto Colorado Boulevard. The Freeway Association argued routes that did not incorporate it into the freeway would make it obsolete. This freeway stub would be converted into an on- and off-ramp.
Shortly after the Freeway Association entered the discussion, the Highway Commission picked the route preferred by the Citizens Protective League [xvi]. This was a rare case in that Commission’s decision rejected the official recommendation from the state highway engineers. At this point, the Skyway League dropped its opposition due to fear that further discussion might lead the Highway Commission to change its decision and go with a more southernly route. The Skyway League urged Assemblymember Collier to adopt their view, which he did.
However, the Freeway Association continued their fight, arguing that the mile-long freeway connector in Eagle Rock to the already-built portion of the freeway would be abandoned if a route north of Colorado Boulevard were built. Highway officials countered that the freeway stub would become an on- and off-ramp [xvii].
Final Attempts to Block Freeway Construction
After a decision had been formally selected, phone surveys conducted in Eagle Rock showed most residents did not want any freeway of any kind going through the neighborhood. One resident opposed to the freeway remarked:
“There are no serious traffic problems in the community, which is completely developed, and we see no way problems could arise in the future.” [xviii]
Dissatisfied with the Commission’s decision, a petition circulated asking the two Assembly Members for the area to create legislation that would remove any freeway routing through Eagle Rock [xix]. The effort would ultimately be unsuccessful.
Neighborhood Engagement and Advocacy Yields Results
Although the freeway would eventually be built, the neighborhood’s resistance yielded results. Not only did the Highway Commission reject the engineers’ recommendation and choose a considerably less invasive freeway route, but in 1964 plans for an on- and off-ramp at Eagle Rock Boulevard were discarded [xx]. The freeway was also built to go around Eagle Rock Park, rather than through it.
Opening Day of Freeway Protest
The 134 Freeway would not be completed until 1971. While welcomed by some, during its opening ceremony Eagle Rock’s Councilmember, Art Snyder, was critical of the freeway. Synder declined his seat on a platform of dignitaries and called the construction of the freeway “an ecological disaster.” He would go on to say:
“Eagle Rock would be just as well off without this freeway. The tragedy is that it was placed through the most beautiful portion of the community.” [xxi]
The freeway’s opening ceremony was also disrupted by “Friends of the Earth,” a student organization from Occidental College. The protestors carried signs reading “Freeways are Not the Answer,” “Millions for Freeways, Pennies for Clean Air,” and “LA Needs Mass Transit Now” [xxii].
Reflecting on the Freeway Today
The 134 FWY, 2FWY, and Eagle Rock Plaza with double-decker parking lot surrounding it– a monument to the automobile-centric freeway era of Eagle Rock.
Unlike the 710 Freeway, which is still debated to this date, the 134 Freeway was built. Although some remember what the neighborhood was like before it, today it is difficult to imagine what life would be like without the freeway. The most unfortunate by-product of the freeway’s construction is that recreational hillside access was almost completely eliminated. Before the freeway, residents could hike into the hills and the neighborhood was more connected with the Glenoaks Canyon neighborhood in Glendale.
However, the freeway did present benefits as well. With the freeway completed, trash trucks from Glendale no longer used Colorado Boulevard to reach the Scholl Canyon Landfill (another contentious neighborhood issue). Perhaps without the freeway going through Eagle Rock, Colorado Boulevard would be like Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, where a freeway was planned but  never built. The two cities seem are doing well but there is no denying they feel the squeeze on their streets during rush hour. In this sense, the freeway has allowed Eagle Rock’s main street to be somewhat preserved for local traffic and created opportunities to have a more pedestrian-oriented boulevard.
For better or for worse, the freeway was a major force in changing the small-town character of Eagle Rock and shaping the neighborhood we know today. Additionally, regardless of one’s opinion on the freeway, this chapter in Eagle Rock’s history demonstrates that engaged advocacy from residents can impact  decision-making.
[i] “Decision on Freeway Bogs Down: State Commission to Study Proposals on Disputed Routes” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Oct 18, 1959, pg GB1
[ii] ibid
[iii] ibid
[iv] “Freeway Route Hit by Owners: Eagle Rock Masses for Protest Against Hill Dr. Proposal” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Oct 4, 1959; pg. GB1
[v] ibid
[vi] “Freeway Route Through Playground Opposed” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Oct 25, 1959;  pg. GB_A12
[vii] “Eagle Rock, Citizens Urge Freeway ‘In Sky'” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Jan 20, 1960; pg. 12
[viii] “Eagle Rock Split on Freeway Route: Community Divided Into Three…” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Dec 18, 1960; pg. F3
[ix] “Eagle Rock, Citizens Urge Freeway ‘In Sky'” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Jan 20, 1960; pg. 12
[x] “Three-Way Fight Erupts Over Freeway Routing: Glendale, Eagle Rock and…” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Oct 28, 1960; pg. B1
[xi] “Eagle Rock Split on Freeway Route: Community Divided Into Three…” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Dec 18, 1960; pg. F3
[xii] “Leaders to Fight Freeway Routing: Glendale, Eagle Rock Residents Fear Economic Damage to Area” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Jul 3, 1960; pg. GB1
[xiii] “Eagle Rock Split on Freeway Route: Community Divided Into Three…” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Dec 18, 1960; pg. F3
[xiv] ibid
[xv] “Eagle Rock Will Ask Hearing on Freeway: Data Being Gathered to Support Plea” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Mar 26, 1961; pg. GB1
[xvi] ibid
[xvii] ibid
[xviii] “Freeway Hit In Phone Poll: Eagle Rock Residents Tell Thoroughfare Opposition” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Apr 16, 1961; pg. GB1
[xix] ibid
[xx] “Eagle Rock Asks Freeway On, Off Ramps” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); May 28, 1964; pg. H1
[xxi] “Ventura Freeway Criticized at Dedication” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Aug 19, 1971; pg. SG1