by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Among the most dynamic of changes in 1920s America broadly and Greater Los Angeles, in particular, was the rapid expansion of improvements in and the use of transportation, especially aviation and automobiles. While the former was just starting, by the end of the decade, to make enormous strides in both the movement of freight and passengers, the latter was so far developed that local governments were increasingly confronting the challenge of trying to keep up with use through improvements in parking and traffic regulation, street construction and paving, highway development, and much else. Naturally, for our car-centric region, the issues were complex and widespread.
The featured object from the Homestead’s holdings is the printed 1928 annual reports from the traffic commissions of Los Angeles city and county and the focus is basically on “the relief of traffic congestion” and the “measure of pride” felt in the submission of the reports. The foreword noted that “the traffic problems is a progressive one requiring a progressive solution” abd, because there wasn’t a traffic engineering department within the Angel City’s government, the commission worked with city departments ” working out sane, economic solutions.”
The commission also touted “the most complete harmony” between it and the city enginer, Board of Public Works, the police department, the city attorney and other entities with results directed toward “new projects or new methods of handling traffic.” As “an unofficial organization” which sought to work with civic groups, business organizations and individuals, the commission felt “that its work has proved an economic investment, looking forward to the betterment of the city along transportation lines.”
Finally, this opening section noted that the commission’s efforts followed two tracks: traffic regulations “which will permit of the most intensive use, with safety, of existing street area” and creating more streets “in accordance with the Major Traffic Street Plan for the opening, widening and extending of needed traffic arteries” and in conjunction with the Major Highways Committee.
With respect to traffic regulations, there were seventeen areas covered in the report. For the “Central Traffic District” downtown, work was done to ease crowding on Tenth and Eleventh streets, which had narrow roadways and streetcar tracks,by including them in the ordinance applicable to crowding so that parking was limited to 45 minutes during business hours and none at all between 4:30 and 6 p.m. when commuters were heading home. A separate statement concerned Eighth Street from Main to Figueroa and measure were undertaken to create three westbound and one eastbound lanes in the 4:30-6 p.m. timeframe, allowing for growth in capacity from about 800 to over 1,350 cars on that street.
Out to the west, the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue was subjected to a traffic investigation which showed that it was “the heaviest traffic corner in the United States, and probably in the world” with nearly 75,000 vehicles counted there on 11 February. This was “relatively more traffic” than found at Park Avenue and 57th Street in New York, Woodward Avenue and Grand Boulevard in Detroit and Michigan Avenue and Jackson Boulevard in Chicago.
Elsewhere in the Angel City, the commission did “traffic checks” and found that there were many other intersections with “heavy increases when new streets and arteries are opened to the public.” Other than Wilshire and Western, the other high-traffic intersections were at Wilshire and Vermont, Wilshire and La Brea and Figueroa and Santa Barbara (this latter now Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.)
A Traffic Violations Bureau was in operation for more than a year, but only very recently became efficient, so the commission was able, during the year, to get more staff and offices in the newly completed City Hall (opened the previous April at what had previously been the Temple Block, developed by the brothers Jonathan and F.P.F. Temple, and nearby areas.) With a more effective management, “there has been an increase of 258 per cent in citations” in six months during the year “without causing any inconvenience to the courts.”
The Commission also opposed a plan to totally ban parking on dowtown streets “on the ground that such a drastic step was unnecessary” and, instead, was working on a concept to limit parking during evening rush hours on a dozen thoroughfares from the Central Business District outward. With respect to off-street parking, a survey was conducted downtown and it was learned that the use of lots and garages increased 10% in the prior eighteen months. There were 146 lots and 58 garages with capacities of over 13,400 for the former and just above 9,800 for the latter. A parking ban from 4:30-6 p.m. on Eighth led to prohibitions for a couple blocks west of Figueroa for Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Ninth streets, as well.
Other notable projects was the creation of a Police Traffic School with coordination from the Automobile Club of Southern California and almost 1,800 police officers who wored traffic duties, and all but a few passed the tests. There were two courses, comprised of six talks concerning enforcement of traffic laws. While the Los Angeles Fire Department sought to ban raised traffic buttons because “they were a menace to fast moving fire fighting apparatus,” the commission successfully petitioned to have them retained because their removal “would practically end the value of pedestrian safety zones.”
It was quite frequent in the early 20th century for downtown streets to be used for all manner of parades, but the burgeoning use of thoroughfares for auto traffic caused “traffic chaos and cause[d] serious losses to business interests,” so the commission sought an ordinance banning these events within the Central Traffic District unless a majority of the City Council approved otherwise. Miller McClintock, a noted traffic expert and the grandfather of Rep. Tom McClintock of northern California, proposed a system of timed traffic signals for downtown streets and, while a general appropriation from the Council was held up, $9,000 was provided for five signals on Sixth Street between Beaudry and Alvarado streets heading west out of downtown. There was, however, “considerable work to do to iron out difficulties that have arisen, before this system can be placed in operation.”
In the publicity arena, it was noted that commission “has maintained a continuous program . . . in the metropolitan papers and smaller dailies and weeklies, together with occasional articles in magazines of national circulation,” with a total of well over 2,500 pieces distributed in some form. It was added that there was a steep drop in published opposition to the Major Traffic Street Plan, developed four years earlier, because the commission’s work served “to impress on property owners that they themselves will be the principal beneficiaries.” Also noted was the marketing efforts were addressed to the public for safety and traffic regulation improvements, as well.
After noting that the commission staffed a booth at the recent edition of the Los Angeles Automobile Show, at which some 30,000 folders were handed out with information about safe driving, a section discussed the scandal involving Secretary Clarence R. Snethen, former publicity director. In late October, President W.L. Brent called an executive committee meeting to discuss the organizations’s finances and the auditor’s report. When Snethen did not show up and later was found to have fled the Angel City, a warrant was taken out for his arrest because over $10,000 were short in his accounts “which resulted from his overdrawing his salary.”
The fugitive was tracked down in Louisiana and then returned to Los Angeles, where, early in 1929, he confessed to his misdeeds, spanning a couple of years. He pled guilty to a single charge of grand theft for the absconding of $300, but, rather than receive the probation he was hoping for, Snethen was instead slapped with a sentence of 1 to 10 years at San Quentin. He served a year-and-a-half before being paroled in fall 1930, with a discharge following a couple of years later. On 3 December 1928, his replacement, Walter R. Lindersmith, was named and the report noted that “despite Snethen’s defalcation, the work of the Traffic Commission was not interrupted” and it was claimed that the it “will function even more efficiently in the future.”
The Street Improvement and Maintenance section began with the observation that “during the past two years there has been considerable betterment in the condition of Los Angeles streets,” adding that, while the budget for 1928-1929 was about the same as the prior year, “the lower cost of materials will enable the city to expand its work, with 300 men dedicated to pavement repair. Among new equipment acquired were a quintet of street sweepers along with vehicles for that repair work.
Grade crossing elimination was undertaken with the association of the Auto Club and two major projects finished during the year included one at La Brea Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard in the Mid-Wilshire area and a Pacific Electric Railway underpass on Glendale Boulevard near the Los Angeles River near Griffith Park and Atwater Village. Another was underway in Hollywood, while monies were set aside for work at six other locations on the west side, in Highland Park, and elsewhere.
A Bridge Program subsection noted that that there were four bond issues passed between 1923 and 1926 and five new spans were completed in the past year, including the First Street bridge to Boyle Heights, the Fourth and Lorena streets span in the southeastern part of that neighborhood, the North Spring Street bridge into Lincoln Heights, the Glendale-Hyperion span at Atwater Village (a replica of which is at Disney’s Califorina Adventure theme park), and a Sepulveda Boulevard one. Two others to be completed in the coming year were on Pacoima Avenue in that neighborhood near San Fernando and the Fourth Street Viaduct over the Los Angeles River to Boyle Heights.
The Major Highway Committee reported that “exceptional progress has been made . . . in carrying forward projects included in the Major Traffic Street Plan” and lauded cooperative efforts with city officials and departments. More than 100 street widening and opening projects were in progress and condemnation proceedings were finalized for seven others, while court proceedings looked favorable for ten more.
A Second Unit part noted that, in fall 1926, the city charter was amended for a tax increase of nine cents for every $100 of assessed property for five years and the estimated $9 million was to be devoted for work under the “Second Unit of the Major Traffic Street Plan.” The commission sent a list of twenty projects with projected costs and at the 21 December 1928 council meeting, that list was basically adopted—this reproduced in the report.
When it came to Paving, it was noted that “many new wide pavements have been installed on major traffic streets in the past year, the total for the entire city being 248 miles” and that “the new permanently paved highways have proved a boon to motorists.” Eighteen such jobs were listed from many areas of the sprawling metropolis.
Finally, a Rapid Transit Committee simply reported that there was little activity in the past year so that the committee “had no opportunity to function regularly,” though it did hope to meet again in 1929 so “that the work of carrying out a rapid transit plan for Los Angeles will be under way,” given “strong demand for quicker rail service from the down town district to outlying sections.”
The last two pages were devoted to listing the officers, executive committee members, directors and technical staff of the commission, as well as the officers, administative committee members and general committee members for the Major Highways Committee. Among the prominent names were David W. Pontius of the Pacific Electric Railway; newspaper publishers E. Manchester Boddy, Edward A. Dickson, and Harry Chandler; real estate developers like Edwin G. Hart, Harold Janss, Harry Culver, Charles Toberman, William May Garland, Gilbert H. Beesemeyer, J.B. Van Nuys, Alphonzo Bell, S.H. Woodruff, and Joseph Toplitzky; business figures including John G. Bullock, F.W. Braun, B.H. Dyas, S.C. Graham, David A. Hamburger, Irving and Marco Hellman, William Lacy, and Charles F. Stern; and other notable Angelnos such as Eli P. Clark, Henry W. Keller (who chaired the Major Highways Commission), Orra E. Monnette, Arthur S. Bent, Frank P. Flint, Jackson A. Graves, Harry M. Haldeman (father of the notorious H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff). architect Sumner Hunt, Henry O’Melveny, film notable Hal Roach, bankers Henry M. Robinson and Joseph F. Sartori, and Moses H. Sherman. Walter P. Temple’s attorney and business partner in the Temple Estate and Temple Townsite companies, George H. Woodruff, was also one of the nearly 120 members of the Major Highways Committee.
This set of reports from The Traffic Commission of the City and County of Los Angeles is an interesting and informative document about some of the state of affairs dealing with automobile transportation developments in the region toward the end of the Roaring Twenties. Because the musem’s collection contains a copy of the 1924 Major Traffic Street Plan, we’ll have to devote some space in this blog in the near future to a look at that important, if largely unrealized, planning document.