Conventional wisdom has it that Los Angeles’ sprawl is a consequence of its extensive postwar freeway system. In fact, it was because the city was sprawling already that freeways were thought a practical way of connecting its far-flung parts. It sprawled because it had the finest public transport network in America, if not the world, with over a thousand miles of rail and trolley lines.
Freeways, in fact, evolved slowly on the West Coast, at least at first. As late as 1947, the whole of California had just nineteen miles of them. Then along came State Senator Randolph Collier, from the remote town of Yreka, as far from Los Angeles as you can get in California. For forty years he dominated the California highway program, not just promoting the construction of freeways, but repeatedly blocking the funding of rail systems (which he called “rabbit transport”). By the mid-1950s most Californians had no choice but to take to the freeways. Today one-third of all the land in Los Angeles is given over to the automobile and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission has a larger budget that the city it serves.
This Bill Bryson book carries the subtitle “An Informal History of the English Language in the United States,” but he covers such a great deal more information that I feel as though I’m reading the history of America. Can you imagine how close California, and especially LA, was to being such a vastly different state?