New York may have avoided Mumford's prophecy of transforming into Los Angeles, but even Los Angeles is not quite as "Los Angeles" as it could have been, had it built the network of highways proposed in the 1950s—the Whitnall, the Laurel Canyon, and, most notoriously, the Beverly Hills Freeway. As described by Los Angeles, the proposed freeway was "a 9.5 mile, 10-lane gash through the viscera of L.A., separating from the Hollywood Freeway near Vermont, running east-west between Melrose and Santa Monica, then replacing Santa Monica in West Hollywood, where it plunged straight through Beverly Hills and Westwood to the 405." One of its main backers was the developer of Century City, the car-oriented "city within a city" built with quick freeway access in mind.
Given that the planned road would course through some of L.A.'s highest-capital neighborhoods, cultural and otherwise—among them today's vibrant, walkable haven of West Hollywood—there was, not surprisingly, vigorous and effective resistance, one of the first of the "freeway revolts" of the 1960s.
Still, the idea never quite went away—for old highway proposals never die, they just get more expensive. Hence a tunnel option was floated, as was the idea of adding second-level decking to Santa Monica Boulevard. As late as 1975, the Los Angeles Times pronounced: "Barring a miracle, it will eventually be built." But something else happened in 1975: Gov. Jerry Brown issued a "major policy statement" that the state would shift away from new highway building and toward improvements and expanded transit.
But as UCLA's Brian Taylor notes, in an article in The Journal of the American Planning Association, the decline of California's expansive program of highway building cannot be laid at the feet of Brown, or even the freeway revolts per se, for the highway program had been contracting since the mid-1960s.
The cancellation of the Beverly Hills Freeway was part of a systemic shift; Taylor writes, "only 7 percent of the unconstructed freeway routes that remained in the California Freeway System Plan in 1975 were actually built by 1990." The causes "were primarily financial." The land of endless freeways had come to the end of the fiscal road.
Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.