Ticket to the Twenties Themes: County of Los Angeles Regional Plan of Highways, San Gabriel Valley, 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we gear up for this weekend’s Ticket to the Twenties event and following on the heels of yesterday’s post about aspects of greater Los Angeles infrastructure, today’s post looks at another important element of the region’s development: future planning for highways, through a 1929 county highway plan focused on the San Gabriel Valley and a copy of which is in the Homestead’s collection.

In December 1922, Los Angeles County formed the first Regional Planning Commission in the nation and one of that body’s major goals, laid out by a resolution by the supervisors in May 1923, was to create a master plan for highways, especially as the Los Angeles area was becoming an especially car-centric one and in the absence of the kinds of planning mandates from the state and federal governments that would come later.

This and the following images come from a report in the Homestead’s collection that was the first of seven (only one other was issued) as a highway plan from the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission and focuses on the San Gabriel Valley (well, a portion of it as well as areas of the county to the east in the Inland Empire.)

A partial template of how to approach the matter came from The Traffic Commission of the City and County of Los Angeles, which issued a “Major Traffic Street Plan” in 1924 and which specifically concerned the City of Los Angeles.  That ambitious endeavor will be covered in a future post, but the county regional plan, obviously, was much bigger in scope.

The Regional Planning Commission created seven zones within the county.  1-W was denoted as San Fernando-La Crescenta; 1-E the mountain areas identified as Mt. Wilson-Mt. San Antonio [Baldy]; 2-W as Hollywood-Santa Monica Mountains; 2-E as the San Gabriel Valley; 3-W being Inglewood-Venice; 3-E comprising Downey-Puente; and 4 was Long Beach-Redondo.

The first report appeared in 1929 and was for the 2-E district in the San Gabriel Valley.  There was only one other report issued, that being for Long Beach-Redondo and which was published in 1931.  After that, a master plan of highways was released in 1941, but was a printing of an unpublished report from the mid-Twenties.

The only other report to be published was one in 1931 for area 4 (Long Beach-Redondo).

Adopted by a resolution of the county Board of Supervisors in mid-July, the report was the work of commission staffers from sections focusing on research/statistics, highways, subdivisions, zoning, landscape design and pictorials.  The commission had as its motto “Coordination—Cooperation—Design” and there was a logo featuring a map of the county and images of a wagon train and a long walking figure followed by an automobile and, above the car, an airplane.  A train and ship also feature in the logo to show the rapid transformation of transportation in the region.

The 138-page document includes an introductory section about the formation, structure and operations of the commission, the specifics of the plan, and a concluding portion about the carrying out of it.  A half-dozen maps were also included showing the highway plan, “the industrial situation,” grade crossing control, an airport plan, highways before planning began in 1925, and the status of the plan at the time of publication.

A foreword by Director Charles H. Diggs calls the document “the first definite milestone of progress” for a broad plan for the county.  It was based, he added, on sound, rational planning including “a wholesome regulation of land subdivision,” property regulation based on thoroughly applied zoning, and other elements.  More importantly, he noted, there had to be “the moulding of public opinion for a comprehensive plan, well prepared and possible of accomplishment.”


Chief Engineer William J. Fox, in a letter of submittal to Diggs, wrote that the two-year project meant that “extreme care has been exercised in an effort to set forth a plan that is practical, workable, comprehensive and consistent with modern highway practice.”  Not only did the supervisors approve the report, but it was supported by councils, planning commissions and engineers in the several incorporated cities.

Elsewhere in the introductory section, mention was made that “if planning is to be kept ahead of development, every stroke of every draftsman’s pen must be made to count both for present needs and for the future.”  Reference was also had to the work as being “a clear demonstration of the efficiency and zeal of each member of the staff.  In general, much effort was made to show that the process was conducted with high standards, cooperation with various agencies and organizations and that it was thorough in organization and execution.

With regard to the plan, it was noted that “the San Gabriel Valley is beautiful and productive” with “the eastern end  . . . largely agricultural in character, containing many fine citrus groves, while the western end approached a more nearly urban character” due to proximity to Los Angeles.  It was noted that 20% of the area was subdivided into town lots while 40% “is still entirely unoccupied.”

This is a detail of a large fold-out map showing the planning area and various road and highway types envisioned as part of the process.

There were seventeen incorporated towns and fourteen unincorporated ones (including what was listed as “Temple,” the subdivision of Walter Temple founded in 1923 and which had only recently had its name officially changed to “Temple City.”)  An interesting table listed the incorporated towns, the area in square miles, current and “ultimate” (that is, estimates for 1960 based on an algorithmic formula) population, assessed valuation, present and ultimate square feet of pavement and persons per auto.

The population figures are particularly interesting.  For example, Alhambra then had 33,650 souls with an expected ultimate number of 100,000, though it was 55,000 in 1960.  Arcadia, with just under 7,000 was projected to have 150,000, but it was just over 41,000 in 1960.  El Monte, however, which housed 4,500 people was only anticipated to have 18,200 ultimately and it had 13,000 in 1960.  So, the estimates were significantly overstated, though that can be seen as a good thing for highway planning if the realization of planning was to have highways to accommodate the expected traffic for those larger numbers.

Five factors were cited as part of determining the amount of paved highways required for “the safe and efficient movement of motor vehicles in a given community.”  These were the area of the district; the percentage of that area for types of vehicular use; population density relative to those uses; the ratio of vehicles to population; and estimates of the ratio of vehicles to paved streets.

“Ultimate” meant 1960, though the estimates were wildly off in most cases.

Importantly, planning was based on a ratio of people to car owners of between 3 and 4 persons per car.  For perspective, recent information shows that, in greater Los Angeles, there are nearly 12 million residents and there are nearly 6.5 million cars, so the ratio is actually closer to 1.8 persons per car.  Projections, however, were that, by 1960, persons per automobile would be roughly 2.75, which may have been the case, but, nearly sixty years beyond that, the density is much different.

Considerations of safety were also carefully projected, looking at sight distances, stopping distances, curvature of roadways, how intersection corners were treated with respect to curves rather than hard angles; and others. Specific examples of streets and intersections with other roadways or railroad tracks were cited in Pasadena and El Monte as illustrative of planning considerations.

General roadway widths, how residential subdivisions were to be mapped out to maximize traffic planning, and how streets were to be planned for industrial property were given significant attention.  This was particularly true in looking at how subdividing land could be done to avoid traffic congestion and dangerous conditions by having streets and highways designed to maximize flow.  A very interesting “Zoning By Design” schematic shows four types of plans: octagonal, circular, rectangular, and standard gridiron, with each having different treatments of roadways.


Building setbacks for sight lines and street widening; landscaping concepts; the proposal for bridle paths for horse riding along washes and flood control channels; and grade crossings and separations issues through eliminating or mitigating hazards (though these included Pacific Electric Railway streetcar lines that, by 1960, were basically abandoned) were also covered.

The section on aviation is intriguing, as well, as it was pointed out that “it is no longer sufficient that the plan made should provide adequately for the automobile,” but that “it must also consider the problems of ground facilities for the airplace and the dirigible.”  Of course, after the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, the latter was not relevant.  The report stated that estimating future air travel was difficult, but some assumptions were made about what could be expected by 1960.

A fold-out map showed a half-dozen existing airports, all but one west of the San Gabriel River and the other a tiny field in modern Walnut.  It was expected, though, that there would be about fifteen others built, ten of these east of the San Gabriel, in subsequent decades.  This would require much careful attention to the coordination of airports with nearby streets and highways.  What could not be anticipated in 1929 was the onset of jet travel by 1960 and its rapid expansion afterward which, of course, totally changes the planning process.

The red squares indicated planned or suggested airport locations.

In talking about carrying out plans, the document gave a synopsis of each incorporated city with a specific highway plan for each built upon the general county plan.  There are, in some cases, some interesting aerial photographs are provided.

In the example of El Monte, it was observed that, because the town was established much earlier than others, dating to the early 1850s, development took place long before any formal planning came into general use and this put the city at a disadvantage as it sought to adopt modern street and highway planning methods.

By contrast, West Covina was newly incorporated (1923) and was “a truly unique city” because it was “devoted exclusively to farming” and there was “not a single recorded lot.”  The absence of a planning commission was cited as “regrettable,” but it was added that “it is not yet too late.”  Without any urban development, the city had the “unparalleled opportunity to plan” in such a way that it would not have “to contend with the correction of past mistakes.”  If the city took advantage at the right time, it would be fortunate in planning for development and street construction to maximize conditions.  Done right, “careful city planning can make West Covina the outstanding city in this entire Valley.”

This was Azusa from the air in 1929 from a Spence Air Photos view.

Broadly speaking, a section headed “Highway Plan A Guide For The Future” stated that, if adhered to by all involved, “the plan will be a living thing that will grow as we grow, always in line with the changing needs of the community, rather than an arbitrary list of projects for immediate execution.”  Consequently, another element “Protection Of The Plan” cautioned officials against adopting and filing away the document.  City governments, improvement associations, clubs, property owners and others needed to work together to ensure that the carrying out of the plan be done in a consistent manner.

Popular support was considered essential, especially as cities cooperated with the county for mutual benefit through coordination of local and regional planning “in advance [original italics] of urban growth.”  Having undesirable conditions requiring costly corrections could be avoided by careful collaborative planning and execution for the better welfare of all who live in the region.

The document called for “a program of highway construction for the next five years” to begin carrying out the specifics of the plan.  The problem, naturally, was that, within just a few months after the adoption of the plan, Black Thursday, 24 October 1929, hit with the crash of the stock market in New York, ushering in the Great Depression.  The ambitions of this highway plan would be tempered by the realities of the often dark days of the 1930s, followed by restrictions of the World War II years.

West Covina, incorporated in 1923 as part of an effort to avoid having a sewage farm from Covina placed there, was completely agricultural with no town lots.  This afforded an opportunity, the report noted, to provide good planning from the outset.

Future planning for highways and streets would have to adapt to the significantly changed conditions of the post-World War II era, especially as changes in state and federal planning were made.  What we find now, almost 90 years after the issuance of the plan, is that we face other issues not in play in 1929.  Heavy urbanization, a lack of undeveloped space, more vehicles per person, climate change, and other factors weigh heavily on our future planning and it’ll be interesting to see what future years will bring when it comes to street and highway development.

One thought

  1. The value of regional planing.
    When a community is incorporated, the city fathers can lay out the streets however they want them, WITHIN THE CITY. Without a regional perspective, there is no guarantee that a particular street/roadway would match up with streets and roadways within the next adjoining community.

    This was a problem identified in the years just before this report. The “Major Traffic Street Plan” identified issues that happened in the development of the city of LA. It was discovered that during the 1880s and into the 1900s as the city of LA approved one new subdivision after another, they let the developers themselves decide where the streets would be placed. Some developers allowed or planned for major thoroughfares through their community (to bring business) and other choose to maximize the available lots that could be sold (and offer a closed residential atmosphere) and either planned no streets, or just minor, narrow right of ways.

    A significant headache for the city of LA as it came out of WWI and moved into the automobile age of the 1920s was having roads (or right of ways for future roads) that went straight and at a consistent width enough to make them viable paths to move automobiles long distances.

    Imagine having a 4 lane road that is stopped by a gate that enters into a private residential area. Or places where roads dont meet in square grids but at odd angles. (think about where West LA meets Culver City near Jefferson, La Cienga and Washington Blvds.)

    There were plenty of road mistakes made on the west side of LA that had to be corrected later. It was those problems that showed the need for better organized, overall master plans for building out the east side of LA.

    And living on the east side, I am happy that they did. 🙂

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