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Los Angeles Traffic

My off-beat destination today is: The LA Freeway.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time driving on the LA Freeway this week and I’ve decided it’s an important destination for anyone who wants to understand the city.

Los Angeles is culturally diverse (more on that in my next post: “Around The World In An LA Prius”). With 140 cultures and 224 languages spoken, I wonder why there’s no ten-year civil war between warring ethnic factions. Something must bind Angelenos together.

Unlike other places where chit-chat can begin with complaints about the weather, Angelenos have no such luxury. That conversation would go nowhere. “Pretty sunny out today, wouldn’t you say? Yep. Nice cool breeze too. Yep.” See what I mean? It doesn’t strike up a conversation between strangers.

As a Danish friend of mine once noted, no matter what paradise you may inhabit, “It’s human nature to complain.” Fortunately, Angelenos have a viable complaint alternative that has been around for decades: the traffic.

The short-term visitor might try to integrate, but generally will fail. Visitors may note to an Angeleno:

  • The unspoken speed limit around here must be 80 miles per hour when the roads are clear!
  • Geez, you pay up the nose for parking everywhere.
  • I’d rather spend all day falling from the Tower of Terror than make a left turn.

All those statements only prove one thing to an Angeleno: that you don’t live here.

Like people in many other cities in the world who want to bathe in the lap of leisure, Angelenos are in a hurry, hurry to get there. So the problem is not that they live in a city of 3.8 million people and have no viable transportation alternative to driving, but simply that there’s just too many cars on the road.

Talk at the cafes, restaurants, and in the shops most often revolve around the best route to get from one place to another. And there’s a way all Angelenos talk about that: they use “the” in front of all freeway names, and freeway names only have a number: “the ten,” “the four-o-five,” etc.

A summarized traffic history might be appropriate. In the 1950’s, Los Angeles had a grand plan to build a comprehensive rail system. General Motors came along and said they would take over the project. GM then dug up all the rails that had already been built, which effectively forced Angelenos to buy cars.

By the 1970’s, the population had swelled and all those cars on the road created an ever present smog throughout the city with an accompanying stench. This didn’t lead to public transportation, but rather to stricter smog checks on cars that helped the city quite bit. Smog is less of an issue among Angelenos today.

While driving along the freeway, it’s easy to notice that the public service messages of going green also helped: fewer SUV’s are on the road now than were on the road seven years ago. More people have chosen to drive a Prius or smaller Japanese cars.

This is precisely why the LA freeways should be a choice destination for any tourist. The LA freeways are where all the cultures and languages congregate to glance at the ever present hollywood advertisments for the latest movie release that might go internationally viral. And then, there are the public service messages that call out:

  • Cigarettes kill several thousands of people everyday.
  • You wouldn’t eat 25 packs of sugar, so why drink it?
  • Child missing! Look out for this license plate and call the police…
  • Don’t drink and drive.
  • 50 cents can save a child’s life in Africa.

The plea for civic consciousness along the freeways can also be seen through murals. LA wants to become the international capital of street art and murals regularly portray the diversity of city faces as well as messages such as: “Jobs, Not Jail.”

Perhaps the public service messages and movie advertisements create a bond. Or perhaps people don’t care either way and the LA freeways provide an outlet to complain. Any native can get off the ramp and tell the next guy in the street: “the one-o-one is hell today.” They’ll get a compassionate nod, or at least a dizzying dose of street name alternatives.

Drive the freeway. You’ll “get” LA.

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