Arroyo Seco Freeway Opens in Los Angeles

The Arroyo Seco Freeway, the first part of the Los Angeles freeway system, began the development of a system of superhighways that would affect nearly every facet of life and culture in the United States.

Summary of Event

The Arroyo Seco Freeway, the first freeway constructed in Southern California, was built to help solve a serious transportation problem that had developed in the greater Los Angeles area. Its success led to the construction of many other freeways in the region, which in turn eventually led to new problems. [kw]Arroyo Seco Freeway Opens in Los Angeles (Dec. 30, 1940)
[kw]Freeway Opens in Los Angeles, Arroyo Seco (Dec. 30, 1940)
[kw]Los Angeles, Arroyo Seco Freeway Opens in (Dec. 30, 1940)
Arroyo Seco Freeway
Los Angeles;freeways
[g]United States;Dec. 30, 1940: Arroyo Seco Freeway Opens in Los Angeles[10360]
[c]Transportation;Dec. 30, 1940: Arroyo Seco Freeway Opens in Los Angeles[10360]
[c]Travel and recreation;Dec. 30, 1940: Arroyo Seco Freeway Opens in Los Angeles[10360]
[c]Environmental issues;Dec. 30, 1940: Arroyo Seco Freeway Opens in Los Angeles[10360]
[c]Urban planning;Dec. 30, 1940: Arroyo Seco Freeway Opens in Los Angeles[10360]

In the early part of the twentieth century, when Los Angeles was growing fast, trains and streetcars provided the principal forms of transportation. Investors could make phenomenal profits by buying rural real estate, extending railway or streetcar lines through the area, and then selling the land at a much higher price. Companies and individuals engaging in such speculation set fares that encouraged people to buy land out in the suburbs but that were too low to sustain operating costs for the trains and streetcars. After all the land had been bought, transportation costs could no longer be offset by profits from real estate sales. Existing services soon became overcrowded, and few additional lines were built. Links were not established between suburbs, Suburbs;traffic either—to reach a given suburb from a neighboring one, an individual had to make a trip in to the city and then out again. Railroad and streetcar companies often used campaign contributions and other financial inducements to ensure that the city government would ignore the complaints of citizens about the poor state of transportation in the region.

One solution—at least for a while—was the automobile, and with increases in auto traffic, new roads were built. Usually these were thoroughfares, intended to connect suburbs to one another or to the central business district. These thoroughfares, however, provided frontage for merchants, who gradually lined the new roads with stores and other businesses. As shoppers began visiting the new establishments, the resulting congestion interfered with traffic flow. Soon a new road was needed, and the process would repeat itself. It thus became necessary to limit access to the new highways. As California passed laws to limit such access, engineers began to study highways that had already been built or that were being built. These included the Bronx River Parkway in New York, completed in 1923, and the autobahns in Germany, constructed at Adolf Hitler’s direction beginning in 1933.

The Bronx River Parkway, Bronx River Parkway like many parkways to follow, was built to accommodate automobile traffic only. Because the cars of the day were slow, sharp curves that limited speeds to 35 miles per hour were not a problem. Only fifteen miles long, the parkway’s significance lay in the fact that access to it was limited and that it had been artfully designed as a long, narrow park with a road through it.

Hitler’s autobahns Autobahns had an entirely different purpose. During World War I, railroads had been used to transport troops, rations, and munitions to railheads, where they were transferred to trucks and horse-drawn carts. Because roads connecting the front with the railheads had been intended for the occasional farm vehicle, not for sustained use by major armies, they soon deteriorated into muddy ruts. Hitler wanted a highway system that could withstand continued use by heavy vehicles. The resulting design included shoulders for disabled vehicles and curves that permitted safe passage at speeds up to 120 miles per hour.

The engineers who designed the Arroyo Seco Freeway drew on these and other examples. The land chosen for the purpose provided only a narrow strip for two roadways, each thirty-five feet in width, separated by a curbed median strip six feet wide. Funding was provided by the state of California, which for the first time agreed to fund highway construction within a metropolitan area.

Reaction to the first two freeways (another was built at about the same time through the nearby Cahuenga Pass) was positive. City planners believed that the new roads would halt the decline of the city’s central business district. Downtown merchants considered the freeways essential to bringing shoppers to their stores. The people living in outlying areas considered the freeways a tremendous improvement over the congested roads and expensive, crowded public mass-transit systems they had endured before. The consensus was that additional freeways were needed, and the Los Angeles City Planning Department and the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission soon developed a comprehensive master plan with that aim. Before any additional freeways could be built, however, World War II intervened. The war effort brought many defense-related industries to Southern California, and the limitations of the highway system impeded the movement of both workers and materials, underscoring the need for improved roads.

The recently opened Arroyo Seco Freeway in 1940.


After the war, freeway construction took off. In the eastern United States, toll roads were built with the expectation that the bonds issued to finance them would be paid off by the tolls. In contrast, California paid for its freeways with state taxes on gasoline and motor-vehicle registration, the same method later used by the federal government to fund the interstate highway system. Gasoline;taxes


The Arroyo Seco Freeway showed that superhighways worked. In many ways, the freeway laid the groundwork for the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, National System of Interstate and Defense Highways proposed in 1944 but not funded until 1956. This system, largely completed by 1981, eventually consisted of some 41,000 miles of high-speed, limited-access highways linking all major cities in the contiguous United States. The federal government covered 90 percent of the costs of construction, with state governments responsible for the remaining 10 percent. The National Highway Trust Fund National Highway Trust Fund was established in 1956 to pay for this system, with a tax of three cents levied on each gallon of motor fuel (the tax was raised to four cents in 1959).

The system as a whole proved successful and not particularly controversial. In rural areas, the new superhighways were generally seen as beneficial. In the early 1960’s, however, it was found that fatal accidents occurred eight times more often on the interstate system than on other roads. Research showed that the primary cause was poor rural emergency medical care; ambulance personnel at the time had little medical training, and because the interstate highways were often far from towns, response times tended to be lengthy. The U.S. Department of Transportation responded by setting up programs to train emergency medical technicians to serve rural areas.

The entire country benefited from the interstate highway system in that it brought American citizens closer together. Long-distance driving times and expenses were reduced, as were many of the risks, irritations, and inconveniences of travel. Easier access to what previously were considered to be remote locations improved the sense of national community and reduced the effects of geographic barriers. On rural interstate roads, cars generally carried multiple passengers, rest areas functioned well, and business spurs whisked motorists in and out of small communities for services.

The story changed, however, and became more controversial, where the interstate system entered cities. In the cities, nearly all the benefits of superhighways went to local commuters, so it was more difficult to justify federal funding. At the same time, the costs were much higher than in rural areas. Apart from land acquisition and construction costs, which are always greater in metropolitan areas, there were other, more subtle, costs. For instance, interstate highways competed with mass transit. In the case of the Arroyo Seco Freeway, local mass transit was seriously deficient, and there was little local interest in improving it. Many cities, however, particularly in the East, originally developed with walking as the principal means of transportation. These cities had sufficiently high population densities to allow for efficient mass-transit systems. In such areas, competition from freeways sometimes resulted in decreased mass-transit ridership and accompanying financial stress to mass-transit systems.

Another cost of building freeways through cities came in the form of the barriers the freeways erected, often dividing areas within cities. A freeway may save commuting time, but it may also split the neighborhood it traverses and force residents to spend more time getting to places that were formerly within easy reach. Ironically, the same highway system that enhanced a sense of community across large parts of the United States served to interfere with that sense of community in many cities.

Because automobile exhaust is one of the major contributors to urban air pollution, moreover, the proliferation of freeways had dangerous consequences for the environment. The Los Angeles basin is particularly susceptible to air pollution because of its geography: When air cooled by the Pacific Ocean is blown into the basin, it may be trapped there beneath a layer of warmer air hedged in by the surrounding mountains. Air pollutants produced in the basin are part of this layer. Given the staggering health costs that stem from the pollution caused by automobile traffic congestion, serious efforts to reduce both the pollution and the congestion gained high priority in the Los Angeles area by the end of the twentieth century. Transportation;automobiles
Arroyo Seco Freeway
Los Angeles;freeways

Further Reading

  • Bottles, Scott L. Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Well-researched, thorough history of the role of the automobile in the growth and development of Los Angeles. One of the most informative and comprehensive sources on the topic available.
  • Dasmann, Raymond F. The Destruction of California. New York: Collier Books, 1966. Argues that the freeway system in California is largely responsible for the demise of the state’s cities. Characterizes Los Angeles as the city that “surrendered to the freeway system.”
  • Davidson, Janet F., and Michael S. Sweeney. On the Move: Transportation and the American Story. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2003. Companion volume to an exhibit at the National Museum of American History provides an overview of the evolution of transportation in the United States and how changes in transportation have affected other areas of American life. Includes illustrations.
  • Lents, James M., and William J. Kelly. “Clearing the Air in Los Angeles.” Scientific American 269 (October, 1993): 32-39. Reports on improvements in air quality in Los Angeles and on plans for meeting federally mandated air-quality standards by 2010. Summarizes adverse health effects of smog and reviews the history of air-pollution abatement programs in Southern California.
  • Lewis, Tom. Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life. New York: Viking Penguin, 1997. Readable history of the building of the U.S. interstate highway system focuses in large part on the individuals involved in the enterprise and on the system’s impacts on American society. Includes photographs.
  • Snow, W. Brewster, ed. The Highway and the Landscape. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1959. Collection of essays written by landscape architects and others during the period when the interstate system was in its active construction phase. Emphasizes the aesthetic qualities of well-designed expressways and points out the need for careful thought in the planning of highways, their plantings, and their interaction with the larger landscape. A refreshing and thought-provoking approach to the topic.

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