Some 515 miles of freeway hose through greater Los Angeles that connects its 10 million inhabitants from Sylmar in the north all the way down to the banks of San Pedro. Since the opening of the Arroyo Seco Parkway in 1940, it has proven crucial to the region, but their construction has not come without significant social costs – neighborhoods razed, residents displaced, entire communities split into two pieces of the vast transportation infrastructure. In his latest book, Freewaytopia: How Highways Shaped Los Angeles, author Paul Haddad takes readers on a whirlwind ride through Los Angeles’ extensive highway system. In the excerpt below, we take a look at 110 Harbor Freeway, where the first live traffic updates via helicopter took place.
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Over the next four years, the Harbor Freeway began to assemble. Press alarms went out with every new off-ramp when they came online: Olympic. Washington. Slauson. Almost all were accompanied by the kind of theatricality that defined the era. One of the dedications featured a shapely model named Ann Bradford who wore a window frame embossed with the words “Miss Freeway Link” – certainly one of the more lumpy female honors dreamed of by a chamber of commerce. Even the highway’s old nemesis, Kenneth Hahn, could not help but attend the opening on 124th Street. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony on September 25, 1958, Hahn boasted that the highway — now ten miles long — was already LA’s second busiest after the Hollywood Freeway. When completed, he said, it will carry more traffic than “any street, highway or highway in the world.”
The huge popularity of Harbor Freeways – even in unfinished form – came with some growing pain for motorists. The downtown section turned out to be a confusing grid of bridges and ramps that required rapid lane changes and sudden start-stops. As anyone merging from the Hollywood Freeway to the Southbound Harbor Freeway can attest, the maneuver requires a “Frogger” -like thread of the needle through three lanes within a quarter mile so you won’t involuntarily get out of one of Downtown the ramps. The nerve-wracking exercise is amplified by incoming drivers from Arroyo Seco, who cross the same three lanes from the other direction — from left to right — who seek exactly the exits you are trying to avoid.
Subtracting both movements is nothing short of a navigation baptism for beginners. Some drivers can not pull it off at all. Such was the case for Greg Morton, a 34-year-old management consultant whose trials made him briefly famous. In March 1958, just south of Four Level, Morton attempted to weave to the right from the fast lane. Suddenly a car drove into his lane and Morton panicked. He wedged the wheel to the left and found himself marooned on the middle median, which in those days was simply a raised concrete strip with planters at a distance every twenty feet. These planters posed a problem for Morton. He did not feel that he could get a “start” to join the stream of rushing cars. So he waited for a break in traffic. And waited. And waited. When he was stranded, he tried to mark eighteen past police cars for help. Only one stopped. “You got yourself up there, didn’t you?” served officers. “Just start your engine and drive.” Which is exactly what the officer did.
Things got so bad, Morton finally said hell with it. He took a bath towel out of the trunk and started sunbathing right there on the median. Perhaps this strange play is what finally got a Good Samaritan to help this clearly misguided individual. The stranger was a civilian on a motorcycle who promised to call from a telephone box for help. Probably a sympathetic officer arrived within minutes and stopped the traffic long enough for Morton to escape the median. All in all, the Highland Park resident had been stranded for an hour and fifteen minutes.
When asked about it later, Morton was shaken, but took it all in stride. “I would have given twenty kroner if, as it were, there had been a phone out there I could have used to call for help,” he said.
Maybe Kenneth Hahn was listening. Four years later, Hahn – then county superintendent – was the driving force behind the installation of roadside call boxes. Hahn posed for a photo on one and made an emergency call. It was on the Harbor Freeway.
Although call boxes had to wait a few more years, 1958 saw the first routine traffic reports from helicopters. Prior to this, highway conditions were performed by rushing cars or occasional flights. Radio station KABC was first out of the gate with Operation Airwatch. Every weekday morning and afternoon, traffic jockey Donn Reed delivered rush hour updates from the cockpit of a Bell whirlybird. It was an instant hit with motorists, and Reed had proof. One morning he asked all the drivers who saw his copter to flash the headlights. Six out of ten cars did.
The fact that so many commuters lined up may have saved the life of a three-year-old girl who toddles through the traffic on the Harbor Freeway. Reed got his studio cut into programming so he could warn motorists about her presence. As cars lowered and paused, she walked off the main road, no worse for wear and tear.
Not surprisingly, Harbor Freeway saw the bulk of traffic updates. In 1958, more than 318,000 vehicles a day passed through The Stack. That same year, the Dodgers started their first season in Los Angeles after moving from Brooklyn. Home games were played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as the team waited on their regular field in Chavez Ravine. Built for the 1932 Olympics, the Colosseum’s football length was not designed for baseball, nor was its dense Exposition Park neighborhood suitable for battalions of cars stuck in the streets from spring to fall. Parking spaces around the Colosseum could only accommodate 3,400 vehicles, forcing most motorists to pay to park on people’s lawns or find street parking. A fan from Phoenix who flew in to catch the game had to walk 24 blocks afterwards to find a taxi to his hotel — a longer journey than his flight.
Crushing traffic around the Colosseum backed onto the Harbor Freeway for a mile or more in each direction. The delays led to a Dodger fan stereotype that continues to this day: “Fans have arrived as late as the third inning,” pointed out sports writer Rob Shafer of Pasadena Star-News. For the most part, though, Angelenos were so crazy about their Boys in Blue that any inconveniences were met with skewed wit. “The only thing the Dodgers forgot to take with them when they moved to Los Angeles was the New York subway,” one newspaper said. When Liberace was mad to perform at the nearby Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena during a Dodger game, Rob Shafer swore that traffic on the Harbor Freeway created “a kind of human record for collective blood pressure.”
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