October 30, 1989 - From the October, 1989 issue

“The River Model” Analogy of Freeways: Dense Transportation Tributaries

Mark A. Wilder, former L.A. County Transportation Commissioner and current environmental consultant with Mark Wilder & Associates, critiques past and present freeway planning of Los Angeles county. Wilder proposes a new system fashioned around early means of transportation and commerce: rivers. 

According to the latest vogue, I learned about the Los Angeles Freeway System in kindergarten. Maybe that's accurate. While Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, everything was fine and no one felt any urgency to do anything. But when he broke, no one, not even all the King's horses and all the King's men, could fix him.

Like eggs, it's easier to lay more freeways than to fix the broken ones. And so we do, or at least try to, until we ask the neighborhoods and cities what they think. Then, if history is correct, we go away and hide until the gridlock crisis comes. (It is a fact that less than half of the 1960's Freeway Plan for Southern California has been built. The rest has been cancelled due to local opposition.)

Freeways have always been planned in a vacuum. Housing and jobs are vaguely correlated and planned in another vacuum. When the plans come together in what we perceive as reality, we simply call them “Monday morning”, or in professional jargon, congestion.

Up to now, the cure has been little more than two aspirin and an equal number of car lengths forward. Every blue moon a lane is added, a shoulder dedicated to high-occupancy vehicle usage, or an operational change implemented such as truck limitation or ridesharing. However, no significant strategy has been suggested which deals with how Southern California's freeways will be operating in the year 2010 when the population has increased by 50% and business activity has increased by 60%. I suppose that crossing our fingers (tightly), and hoping it won't get worse has always been our version of a reasonable policy.

The projection of six million additional cars and trucks over the next 20 years should be sufficient to make us realize, or at least assume, that the roads and freeways cannot operate under the same set of rules and authority which exist today. I offer the “river model” of freeways as a creative approach.

The 1960's Freeway Plan for Southern California was designed as a grid system to serve the needs of 12 million people living in a low-density configuration—one big suburb. The plan got separated from reality in the 1970's in two ways. Fust, opposition materialized from the neighborhoods which were built along the early freeways. Second, a radical change to the property tax structure and local government financing methods in 1978 encouraged the 133 cities of Southern California cities to invent new revenue sources. Increased retail sales and property taxes from denser downtowns and activity centers were the preferred solutions. As a result, 64 centers are now emerging which have little or no correlation with the existing freeways.

In other words, more population than expected is using less freeways than were planned, in ways that do not correlate transportation, housing and jobs in any way, shape or form.

In the 1800's and early 1900's, rivers were the main source of transportation and the lifeline of commerce. They still play an extremely important role. If we examine the development patterns which evolved along them, we can see a progression of docks, intense industrial use, connection with other local transportation means, commercial and retail activities, and dense housing that tapered off inland from the banks. The system actually had a balance of transportation, jobs, and housing, and was one of the two distinct patterns of urban design (along with urban centers).


As cars and trucks took over from ships and barges, and freeways displaced rivers as the primary lifeline of commerce, their ability to spread out broke down these natural ties. However, there were no planning principles which replaced it.

Freeways, like rivers, are major transportation corridors. If the river planning scenario were applied to freeways, it would produce a very different design, plan, and operation of the Southern California region.

First, usage alongside it (banks) would be zoned for employment-intense industrial or commercial use. This would move the high-rise construction demand from the centers and spread it out along the freeways throughout the region. High-density housing would be built immediately inland of the commercial high-rise strip with parking in-between in order to accommodate both. It would also provide an opportunity to balance the jobs created with new housing.

Second, the freeways would be connected to the buildings along them by new forms of on/off ramps. This would isolate on/off movements from the free-flowing center portion.

Third, the need to properly bring together all three elements (physical changes to the freeway, commercial high-rises/intense industrial buildings, and housing) would overcome the ability of the 133 cities in the six counties of Southern California to plan and pay for this type of solution in their respective jurisdictions. A Central Corridor Authority would have control over freeway building, land-use zoning along it, and control of a tax base which is related to the use of the corridor.

The freeways (rivers) of the region should not benefit any single city along it. Rather, the freeways need to be recognized as a limited regional treasure which will help solve the problem of how 20 million people can live and work here instead of being part of the growing list of problems which threaten our quality of life.

Rivers have always been viewed as a source of life. Using river development as a model, so too can our freeways accommodate our quality of life in an efficient manner, instead of choking the economy and ourselves in the process.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.