Shifting Lanes: The Demise of the Southern California Autotopia


To understand the City of Angels, Joan Didion once wrote, one needed to immerse oneself in the freeway experience or, as she put it, “the only secular communion Los Angeles has.”1 Between 1968 and 1979 Didion published three books — two collections of non-fiction essays: “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” in 1968 and “The White Album” in 1979; and one work of fiction: “Play It as It Lays” in 1970 — that depicted a modern Southern California, buffeted by “the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse,” but grounded by its highways and relaxed by its pools. Southern California combined the elemental extremes of nature with the rigidity of the decade’s car-centric urban planning. For 1960s and early 1970s Californians, the car provided solace in an age of discomfort; but soon after the liberating effects of the freeway appeared increasingly diminished.

Prior to the age of gridlock, few writers captured the essence of SoCal automobility than Didion. In the months after splitting with her significant other, Maria Wyeth, Didion’s protagonist in “Play It as It Lays,” drives the freeway:

She dressed every morning with a greater sense of purpose than she had felt in some time […] for it was essential (to pause was to throw herself into unspeakable peril) that she be on the freeway by ten o’clock. Not somewhere on Hollywood Boulevard, not on her way to the freeway but actually on the freeway. If she was not she lost the day’s rhythm, its precariously imposed momentum.2

Imagistic and fragmented in its structure, “Play It as It Lays” aligned neatly with a decade that seemed awash in randomness as the idealism of the 1960s faded into oblivion. Maria’s drug- and sex- soaked travails expressed a certain moving stasis: plenty of activity but no real movement.

The prototypical Southern Californian image and lifestyle continued to depend on the newest of the nation’s established enterprises: its highway systems. The organization of its freeways provided clear, rational, safe passage in a decade that followed the violence of the late 1960s — embodied by the brutality of the Sharon Tate murder — with the environmental disaster of the 1970 Malibu fire and the protest and chaos of the 1970 Vietnam Moratorium march.

Concrete and steel stitched SoCal together — metaphorically and literally — providing passage and, oddly enough, a Futurist’s vision of the world as people seemed to merge with their vehicles. “The customized automobile is the natural crowning artefact of the way of life, the human ecology it adorns,” argued Reyner Banham in his oft-referenced 1971 work “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.”3 “[T]he freeway is not a limbo of existential angst, but the place where they spend the two calmest and most rewarding hours of their daily lives.”4

Didion recognized as much in her character Maria and her own non-fiction work. One could drive on the highway, but it paled in comparison to actually participating in the melding of machine and human. “Anyone can ‘drive’ on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going,” she argued in the mid-1970s.5 Even before Banham, Didion exhibited a keen awareness of this reality in 1970. When the freeway ran to its end at a San Pedro scrap metal yard, a sleepy Palmdale main street, or morphed into “common road,” human intuition reentered the picture: “When that happened [Maria] would keep in careful control, portage skillfully back, feel for the first time the heavy weight of the becalmed car beneath her and try to keep her eyes on the mainstream, the great pilings, the Cyclone fencing, the deadly oleander, the luminous signs, the organism which absorbed all her reflexes, all her attention.”6

Maria ate boiled eggs and drank Coca-Cola as she sped past the architecture of highways: Union 76 and Standard stations, Flying A’s in an unending array of signage and fuel. The horrors of her life vanished when conjoined with her vehicle. Throughout the decade, Didion continued to point out the unique experience of driving Los Angeles’ freeways. “Actual participants,” she noted, “think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture of the freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over.”7 Yet, Didion captured a cultural moment in flux as the highway morphed into a symbol of imprisonment rather than liberation.

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Still from ”Play It as It Lays”


“[F]or the first three quarters of the twentieth century, car culture and freeway culture represented the notion of liberation in space and time and also provided a source of power for the user,” reflected writer Robert Gottlieb in 2007.8 As the century came to a close gridlock dominated California highway life, as epitomized by the recurring congestion that occurs in places like the interchange of Route 405 and Route 5, more commonly referred to as “Orange Crush” — a reference to the daily struggles of Orange County commuters.9 As evidenced by Didion’s writings, things had not always been so — after all, Los Angeles’ original freeways served a different purpose. Before WWII, the Arroyo Seco Parkway (built in the 1930s, also known as the Pasadena Freeway) functioned as a scenic and relaxing escape. Likewise the Hollywood Freeway, completed just after WWII, “pursued affluence over the hills into the valley’s beyond. They were strictly foothill affairs,” asserted Banham.

In earlier decades, like the 1930s, “efficiency and aesthetic delight had been inseparable goals of parkway design,” as evidenced by the construction of the Arroyo Seco Parkway (later known as the Pasadena Freeway), the first in California and the American West. But by the 1940s efficiency had already begun to win out, noted Gottlieb.10 Multi-lane freeways represented the future, planners asserted, and soon after highways imposed themselves on Southern California, creating rather than following the landscape. “Dingbats” — wood and stucco two story walk up apartment blocks — began to populate SoCal geography. Highways carved the land shifting local land values so that they encouraged the construction of dingbats simultaneously demonstrating the consuming nature of the freeways and Los Angeles’s embrace of the normative.11

As correctly pointed out by KCET Departures contributor Colin Marshall in his recent piece on L.A.’s Blue Line, Banham saw the city’s transportation future in light rail or rapid rail system that never came to fruition. It took 22 years from the publication of “Four Ecologies” for the Metro Purple Line to come into existence. Unlike Banham however, Didion never envisioned a rapid rail, but bemusedly observed the early attempts by Caltrans to shape Los Angeles driving habits. “We are beginning a process of deliberately making it harder for drivers to use freeways,” one Caltrans official told Didion in the mid-1970s. “We are prepared to endure considerable public outcry in order to pry John Q. Public out of his car.”12

At the time the Santa Monica Freeway, 16.2 miles stretching from the ocean to downtown L.A., served the most drivers in the L.A. basin, providing passage to roughly 240,000 cars and trucks daily — the equivalent of approximately 260,000 people.13 Message boards flashed traffic reports sent from its central H.Q. on 120 South Spring Street. Caltrans’ attempts to encourage car pooling and bus ridership more or less hinged on its “diamond lane” project (more commonly referred to as HOV lanes today), which essentially reserved faster inside lanes on the Santa Monica for cars carrying three or more people. Unfortunately, Didion argued, this policy had created a 16-mile parking lot, saving 25 percent of the freeway for 3 percent of the cars.

Citizens Against the Diamond Lane picket Gov. Brown’s presidential campaign headquarters, 1974 | Herald-Examiner Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Predictably, lawsuits followed and Caltrans’ efforts unwittingly united Los Angeles County residents in opposition. Aggrieved Angelenos “splashed paint and scattered nails” along the diamond lanes and sometimes hurled projectiles at maintenance workers. Caltrans blamed the media. Nearly two decades later, some motorists continued to harbor ill feeling toward the diamond lanes. Irvine resident Lester P. Berriman welcomed Governor George Deukmejian’s 1987 proposal advocating for more spending on highways, but opposed any monies going to diamond lanes. “In all instances where diamond lanes have been added to freeways, accident rates increase, as with the Costa Mesa Freeway,” concluded Berriman. “Whereas, in all instances where mixed-flow lanes are added, accident rates decrease.” When Caltrans expressed a desire to add more diamond lanes in 1993, Los Angeles resident Michael Lawler told the L.A. Times: enough already. Drivers moving eastbound on the 10 Freeway from downtown experienced bumper to bumper traffic that hardly moved, while motorists stared longingly at an underused and “empty diamond lane, the typical pattern,” wrote Lawler. Wayne King, director of the Drivers for Highway Safety Transportation Forum, called the diamond lanes “a doomed … experiment” in 1999.

Nonetheless, despite the low murmur of dissent, HOV lanes proliferated. By 2010, California could claim the greatest number of HOV lanes in the nation. Didion may have tapped into a vein of unique California despair: the imposition of bureaucracy on what even Didion admitted was a SoCal illusion: individual mobility.14 The idea of the government imposing itself on one of Southern California’s most cherished habits no doubt troubled Didion and others. However, while Caltrans undoubtedly made errors in moments, the simple multiplication of people and cars in the post-WWII period could be identified as the real culprit in California’s late twentieth century automotive angst.

More recent HOV controversies centered on hybrids and their use of the lanes, thereby further illustrating how much driving in Los Angeles has changed since Didion’s 1970s. If some residents resolutely opposed the diamond lanes, environmentalists like Laurie David and Al Meyerhoff argued that the traffic innovation had done much good. After all, in 2004 Southern California’s smog levels rose to their worst levels since 1999 and as a state, drivers burned over one million barrels of gas a day. With an ever-increasing array of cars and motorists, HOV lanes offered an important step towards a better environment and more efficient road use. David and Meyerhoff pressed for extending HOV lane use to unaccompanied hybrid owners.

ExpressLanes on 110 Freeway | Photo: Metro

Apparently legislators listened. Between 2005 and 2007, the state issued yellow stickers to hybrid owners enabling them to access HOV lanes, even when driving alone. By encouraging motorists to buy fuel efficient cars, California policy makers aimed to reduce emissions. In the ensuing years, hybrids became increasingly common. In 2004, approximately 85,000 hybrids sold nationally; by 2007 that number climbed to 353,000. Though always meant to be a temporary incentive, the stickers’ life expectancy lasted several years more than intended stretching, until July 2011. Toyota Prius drivers, among others, now had to carpool like everyone else or purchase all electric or natural gas powered automobiles. While some observers lamented the policy’s sunset, others believed it appropriate. “It’s really frustrating when you’re sitting there not moving and cars are zipping by even though the driver’s alone,” Granada Hills resident Taghrid Chaaban, told the Times. “That’s not fair — I want to get places too.” Between charges of elitism (not everyone can afford a hybrid) and gumming up the HOV lanes, the yellow stickers, and the black market that arose around them, were not long for this world.

Other schemes have entered the debate. Some advocate congestion pricing, much like what London implemented a few years back. But Southern California’s dearth of non-bus public transportation makes such policies more controversial. “Congestion pricing will reduce traffic as well, but it will do so by allocating a precious resource by income,” noted Tim Rutten in 2008. When Los Angeles’ first “ExpressLanes” opened on portions of the 110 Freeway in 2012, lanes once reserved for car poolers or energy efficient vehicles were now open to individual drivers as toll express lanes, based on congestion pricing. This has resulted in some activists labeling them “Lexus Lanes.” Even less animated observers admit that such schemes favor opportunity cost over “nominal transportation equality,” since people who need to get somewhere quick and can pay will and those who can’t won’t.

“[T]he freeways become a special way of being alive … the extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical,” Banham famously pointed out in 1971. Today, extended police chases, gridlock, and road rage seem to define the Los Angeles driving experience more so than freedom. Didion and Banham witnessed the last gasp of autoutopia, as the sheer volume of Southern California drivers eroded illusions of mobility and necessitated controversial state intervention. Since then the infamous diamond or HOV lane has become a way of life in SoCal and around the nation, but now the fight is no longer about their existence, but exactly who gets to use them.


1 Joan Didion, The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1979), pg 83
2 Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1970) pgs. 15-16.
3 Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), pg. 204.
4 Ibid, pg. 204.
5 Joan Didion, The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1979), pg 83.
6 Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays, pg 18.
7 Joan Didion, The White Album, pg 83.
8 Robert Gottlieb, Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in a Global City, (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2007), pg. 175.
9 Ibid, pg. 176.
10 Ibid, 187.
11 Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, pg. 179
12 Joan Didion, The White Album, pg. 82.
13 Ibid, pg. 82.
14 Ibid, pg. 81.

This article originally appeared on the KCET Departures website under the Intersections column.