One of the trademarks of SNL's The Californians sketch is the constant, meaningless jibber jabber about traffic and freeways and alternate routes. It's one of those things that you don't realize you do until people start making fun of it. Ever since then, I've always felt stupid about every traffic-related tweet I've put out and continue to put out. I can't help it. Here in Southern California, traffic is a way of life. It's bigger than everything. We shape our lives around it, and any way we can circumvent its massive gravity is a victory that delays our final unmourned grave. It's that serious. It feels as if I've spent a third of my 20s in LA traffic.
In an effort to perhaps exorcise my person of all traffic-related thoughts and ideas, I've decided to indulge completely in the art of traffic ruminations. If New Yorkers can write endless poems, short stories and personal essays about sitting on the subway, why can't we do the same about inching half a mile in 30 minutes? Surely there's a way to do it that isn't as excruciating as the real experience. Someone out there must be able to romanticize it into something less Californian and obnoxious.
For me, personally, my traffic life as been shaped by 3 major freeways branching out from my ocean-adjacent home base: California State Route 91, Interstate 110 and the San Diego 405. Highways draw activity and life, the way trade routes and rivers once did, but they lack the character of their predecessors. The 110 has no special power or significance in its uniform concrete the way the Mississippi river does — unless you give it one, as defined by the function it serves in your life. My reasons have never been especially meaningful, but they've been significant to my life as a 20-something, marking different chapters the way moving out of your childhood home does.
The 91 is an east/west freeway that leads from San Bernardino to Compton. It was the first freeway I got to know thoroughly, since it connected my hometown to my college town. Because of that, it was a long vestibule, or the phonebooth of costume changes. As a student, heading east was a transition into my "real" life: the one where I lived most of the time, that I worked to improve and succeed in. Heading west, felt like putting everything on hold. I drove Friday night roads just to pause and create for myself some downtime. Being there didn't feel true to who I was, and I was always restless to get on that freeway. That concept died when I graduated and moved back home. I left my college town slowly, in bits and pieces, but when I finally packed everything up I imagined shedding bits of my independence along the 91's dust.
It would stay in my life, though, as a necessary functional way. A few months after graduation, I began working 5 AM shifts at a mediocre retail job, a dozen miles down the freeway. I hated the road then — it made me late for work, or it did not keep work at bay long enough. The 25 minutes on average commute was where I got in my most potent self-loathing, and where I assured myself that this was a temporary stop-gap measure, and that soon I would be doing something decent. It wasn't always bad when it was the road I would take to see a girl. The physical distance between people is always romanticized, and back then, the road was Rapunzel's tower or Dylan's north country. I drive more than almost anyone I know, and I think that's because I want to see everyone more urgently.
The 91 is also the only of the three highways that dips, however briefly, away from the urban sprawl. The exit signs denoting Yorba Linda were one of the landmarks I used to chart my progress (shout out to the 1979 mural) and they were followed up by winding hillside roads. The landscape was either deep green or dry yellow, the uniform of California deserts. It was also the sight of my biggest car accident to date: on my way home from work, just a few miles from my exit, I totaled my car and got pretty beat up in a 3 vehicle collision. It shook me enough to distrust the universe, or at least, the luck of the highway. As time went on, my eastbound trips became less frequent, to four times a year and then once a year and then not at all. I haven't had a reason to drive that way in a long time.
The 110, I've always thought, should be Los Angeles' signature freeway. It's the one that pierces the heart of downtown. The moment where you follow a curve until the skyline reveals itself was one of my favorite driving experiences back when my LA trips were rare. When the road dives in between skyscrapers, especially at night, it feels like this is how living in LA should be. It's as close to the flavor of a typical city that we'll ever get here.
My reason for taking the 110 regularly was on my way to Hollywood to intern at a magazine. It remains among the coolest things I've done thus far, and so the 110 has always been the path to culture and importance to me. Growing up in one of the many generic industrial suburbs, I've always hungered to be somewhere more central, with more meaning and gravity. I didn't want to be on a satellite. The 110 drew a line to my goal.
The accident I had on the 110, because again I've had accidents on all freeways like a schmuck, was a minor fender bender in stop and go traffic. It was a 5 mph nudge that was entirely my fault. We settled outside of insurance, with a transfer of so much cash, though I secretly hoped the middle-aged man I was settling with would have a last minute change of heart. "You know what," he might begin. "It's not even a noticeable scratch when you get up close. I don't really need to get it repaired. Why don't you keep it? Merry Christmas." It wasn't anywhere near December, but I would shake his hand and thank him profusely.
What's interesting about the 110 is that before it disappears into Pasadena, it becomes the old road. The tunnels near Dodger Stadium become wormholes into the past, as the road shrinks into uncomfortable narrows. It's a relic from a smaller LA and every time I am surprised that the three lanes haven't been filled by wrecks. Most treacherous are the on-ramps: they're short, maybe the length of two cars, and begin with full stops. They don't feed into their own lane for a mile and slowly merge. You're expected to go from 0 to 60 with a poor view of what's zooming around the corner. It pays to play it extra safe here.
The 405 is my current ride. It is Southern California's busiest freeway, and therefore the default image of Los Angeles traffic. You can see this in the way parts of it are built: it becomes a huge 8 lane monster right around the airport, and during stretches that are guaranteed to be turtle slow, entire buildings have been draped in advertising banners. They're the largest ads I've ever seen, over 80 feet wide in my rough naked eye calculations. They tell me to watch the newest movies or buy the latest video games or drink Coors Light responsibly. The days when I get to speed by the whole thing, I know I'm making good time.
I've described the 405 to others as a terrible endless nightmare. For an Angeleno with a commute, it is the least ideal path. There are no real shortcuts — I've tried just about every combination of side street and freeway driving to no avail, sometimes making things worse. But it's also the type of rite of passage that makes our local culture. To become a New Yorker, you develop a type of toughness to cope with the city's flaws: everyone is in your personal space due to the urban density, subways and cabs are grab bags, and the average person is probably rude. But you grow thicker skin, and if New York Toughness is admirable, then so is Angeleno Patience.
Our parallel is surely the rush hour traffic along the 405. It seems to last from 7 AM to 9 AM, and then resurfaces from 3 PM to 7 PM. It lacks any kind of express toll lane and while there's usually construction somewhere along its spine, it never seems to make a difference. Maybe they can't make a difference. Maybe this is the best we can expect, and the 405 is simply an obsolete tool to our bloated city. It fits our grown-ass city like a shirt from middle school.
My 405 accident (because again someone up there wants to destroy me but I've foiled them at every turn) was a good old fashioned fender bender. The car in front of me stopped abruptly. I stopped abruptly too, but since I now know a thing or two about proper following distance, I didn't hit him. The guy behind me though had no such life lesson. In hindsight, it was the most painless accident experience I've had. Still a couple months of hassle, but clean cut and no deceptions.
The only things that seemed to shake the malice of the 405 were the much publicized Carmageddons. It seems the best thing you can do to alleviate the ridiculousness of the freeway is to target it culturally: convince people to drive less, or at least, plan smarter routes. During these two weekends where a crucial part of the freeway was torn down and rebuilt, it was bypass surgery for the city's heart. The blood flowed freely. We could use an annual traffic holidays like that.
I'll always love Los Angeles, but the necessity of the freeway is one of the reasons I'm looking for a way out. I've come to terms with the fact that I'm a below average driver, which is unfortunate, considering how much I have to be behind the wheel. But escaping the freeway-industrial complex is more than just trying to preserve my life by taking away the risk of time spent in cars. I also want to live in a city where you don't have to plan your life around freeways. I don't know what it's like to spend my daily travelling time unenclosed and exposed, like I'm part of the world instead of on my way to join it.