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.

play it2-thumb-600x361-53060
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.

Author: Ryan Reft

I dig ditches.

29 thoughts

  1. Actual alternatives to car usage need to be in place before any pressure on people to leave their cars can have real effect. The political reality of the anti-light-rail lobby needs to be confronted more directly, bus and light rail networks need to be put in place, then congestion fees and express lanes can be used to positive effect rather than just making a bad situation worse.

    Where the highways are full, mass transit that actually moves is the actual option of “individual mobility”. Maybe it’s just marketing: if highways are rebranded as a kind of mass transit that is invasive to neighborhoods and doesn’t work very well for commuting (which is a more realistic picture), then other forms of mass transit can be seen as the more functional alternatives they are. There is nothing more individual than commuting on your own two feet on the community’s trains and busses rather than being slotted into a stream of bank-owned cars that leave you stranded on an overpass in the middle of nowhere when there’s a pileup.

    1. Hey Andrew,
      Cosign. The history of SoCal automobility is a bit shadowy – accusations that car manufacturers bought up then destroyed street car infrastructure and the like to promote cars and so on. It’s almost Chinatownesque really. I would say I think Didion remembered a different time before the crush of people in SoCal made driving prison rather than freedom, but absolutely, you have give people a real choice in the matter otherwise it only causes controversy. Thanks for checking us out.


      1. Loved your phrase “made driving prison rather than freedom.” As a resident of the OC – LA’s bastard cousin – I love driving but hate commuting. It’s a lot different here from the Midwest where I grew up. Blissfully I have begun to work from home and dread any time when I have to take the freeway.

      2. Hey Brett Johnson,
        Yup from the Middle West myself but also from a family of 7 living just outside the Chi so I didn’t drive a ton growing up. SoCal was a bit of a transportational culture shock when I got there. Thanks for checking ToM out!


    2. Mass Transit could work, to reduce congestion, but only if done properly. The system would have to have standards that drivers would be held to. The trains/buses would need to be kept clean and well maintained. Most importantly of all it would have to be run by competent people. People who understand where to put a new line is not a question whose answer can be based in politics. Basically, if mass transits is going to work, if you want to see mass transit work, the only really option is to turn to the private market. But such a move is not likely to be seen in California.
      Sure the government could make a mass transit system happen, they could use millions of tax payer dollars, to defeat opposition groups, do countless studies, and build the necessary infrastructure. Unfortunately the decisions on where stops should be, would be based on what is best for politics, not what is the most efficient, or cost effective.
      The car represent individuality and freedom. Mass Transit represent the opposite, it is conformity and constraint. A generic box picks you and a hundred other people up. You sit in a generic seat, like countless other mindless souls. You leave when you are told, arrive when you are told, go the root that you are told. For mass transit to be viewed favorably, it must be made to be a pleasant experience, one that doesn’t suck a persons soul from their body.

      1. Kinda late, but I don’t think cars represent individuality and freedom and neither does mass transit, at least the kind you’re explaining. Most people don’t make their cars particularly unique and are wedded to bank loans or lease payments for extended periods of time. In addition, the insurance payments, gas payments, parking passes, and so on don’t help. Traffic is soul sucking as it is. Mass transit can be liberating in some ways, stifling in others. You’ll have time to do things you normally wouldn’t be able to do while driving. The decor, riders, and the heavier investment on planning and timing may be problematic. People deserve to have either option, be fully informed of what either mode means to them, and make the choice on their own.

    3. Its disturbing how comfortable you are suggesting people need to be steered away from cars to public transportation, as if you were just moving pawns on a board.

      1. disturbing: causing anxiety.
        You seem to think it is your position to manipulate people to conform to your view of what is best for society. The answer to the traffic problem is not to build more public transportation and squeeze people out of their cars. The answer is the free market. More restrictions and government spending won’t fix anything.

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Like many former and current southern California dwellers, I think still about traffic. Ryan Reft has a post at Tropics of Meta about traffic, LA freeways (aka parking lots), HOV lanes and replacing the freedom of the open road with gridlock. Anyone who thinks about traffic should Reft’s article.

    1. What up Sandvick? Thanks for the comments and the reblog. Digging what is up to. Going to put it on our roll call this week. Big ups and let us know if you ever want to contribute though it looks as if you have your hands filled already!


    1. Segmation,
      Oh don’t I know it. I lived in SD for almost 4 years, mostly in University Heights but North Park too so I stayed mostly on the 5 and 805, took the 15 on occasion (I want to say to go to Vegas specifically but not sure). Thanks for checking ToM out!


  3. This is a thoughtful overview of the history of LA freeways, but I wonder about the unspoken observation that permeates this discussion. The population of California has increased from roughly 20 million in 1970 to nearly 40 million in 2014. Of course there’s gridlock. At what point do we actually start looking at the root cause of traffic, not in terms of numbers of cars, but numbers of people? It’s apparent that the carrying capacity of LA roads has been reached. What next?

    1. Slayton,
      Yeah you’re right but there’s no real way to prevent people from coming to LA (particularly with the entertainment industry centered there and the weather being what it is). It’s been expansion since WWII and unlikely to stop. My ‘rents visited my brother in Santa Monica a couple weeks back (he works at UCLA) and they actually used public transportation a fair amount but it’s still not really a viable means to traverse the city. We’ll have to see. Thanks for checking ToM out!


  4. i now see southern california roadways from the comfy seat of a scooter, and i can say quite confidently that much of the traffic problem is caused by driver error. i see some bizarre behavior, such as texting(i estimate 1/3 all), talking on phones, digging around in the back seat, eating, putting on make-up, and arguing. however, nothing astonishes me more than the frequency at which i see drivers at stop lights stopping 15 to 20′ behind the line that they could have pulled forward to. this is often more than a full car length, and it happens all the time. i also see, with ridiculous regularity, people, for whatever their particular distraction is, refusing to go when the light turns green. we need a media campaign to remind people that when they get on public roadways, their primary function is to drive, in an expeditious manner, not to be immersed in all of their personal distractions. this in itself, would greatly lessen traffic problems.

  5. Cars got way smaller as the 1950s receded into history. Logically, that had to be a help. But then the 4 x 4 moved in, Whatever the correct answer is, SIZE of vehicle must have some part in it. Those baby cars were so promising for a while. Here in England unemployment is a useful factor. Too many new jobs will choke the roads.

    1. PS People want and need home-door to workplace-door. They do not want or need a bus-stop or more than one bus-stop shoved in the middle. As a visitor in LA thrice, I loved the buses and train. But my tourist destinations were by definition well served by bus (and some by train).

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