This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

Why you shouldn't take the freeway in Phoenix, or Los Angeles


If you're like most people who live in Phoenix, or Los Angeles, when you want to go somewhere, you immediately head for the nearest freeway. There are a LOT of freeways in Los Angeles, and in the past couple of decades, quite a few have been built in Phoenix.

As someone who's lived in both places, I understand the logic. Freeways are designed to get cars from one place to another with the minimum of obstacles. Surface streets have stoplights, cars turning, that sort of thing. Freeways do one thing - they move forward quickly.

At least that's the theory. When I lived in Los Angeles, over thirty years ago, the freeways looked more like parking lots than anything else. And I understand that it's gotten even more crowded there nowadays! And while the Phoenix freeways certainly aren't as congested as the ones in Los Angeles, they're often jammed down to a crawl, making them an unpleasant experience.

Don't get me wrong - I love freeways, and when they're not crowded, you can get from one place to another much quicker, and they're much safer than taking surface streets. But when traffic jams, getting on a freeway is just delusional - the image of speed is still there, but it's just an image. The reality is that it's a painfully dull way to drive through a city.

Freeways are like elevators - they're fine if you're moving along quickly, and don't spend much time in them, staring at nothing. They aren't designed to be entertaining, they're designed for function, and that function is movement. Staring straight ahead, whether in an elevator or on a freeway, is fine as long as you're moving forward fairly quickly. When you come to a stop, or a crawl, it's a very bad, and boring, place to be.

I'm easily bored, so I rarely take freeways, especially if I know that traffic will be slowing down. There's not much to see on a freeway, other than the taillights of the cars ahead of you, maybe some stray signs telling you that the exit you need is two miles away, some stray palm trees, some freeway landscaping. I'm interested in cars, but most of them are the same ones I see every day. If I'm lucky I'll see a Tesla or something, or maybe be able to read some interesting bumper stickers while I sit in traffic. When I'm with someone who's driving, I can usually count on some ranting, and getting to see that little blood vein on the side of the temple that tends to show when people get stuck in traffic on the freeway.

The best solution that I found for this when I lived in Los Angeles was to avoid the freeways. No, I didn't get anywhere any quicker than anyone else, but I was entertained. I drove along the Cahuenga Pass, on Mulholland, on Sepulveda. I admired the interesting architecture of the classic California neighborhoods, I passed businesses and saw old neon signs. I saw the kind of things that most of the people who live in a city never see.

I avoid freeways in Phoenix, too. If I'm out history adventuring with a friend, and they ask if they should take the freeway, I hesitate. I know that it's the logical thing to do, but it's so boring! Let's take the surface streets, and see something!

Image at the top of this post: the Black Canyon Freeway (I-17) in the 1960s, Phoenix, Arizona.


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