Take the Parkway to the Freeway to the Automated Roadway

May 20, 2016
The past and future of freeway landscapes

California’s freeways—its state highways, urban expressways, and interstates—cumulatively stretch 15,104 miles, end to end. Counting each lane separately, California has 51,326 drivable miles of freeway. Using the standard 12-foot width the state’s Department of Transportation, Caltrans, uses for roadbuilding, California’s freeway system covers roughly 116 square miles. If California’s entire freeway system were stretched out along its 840-mile coastline, it would be sixty-one lanes wide.

Freeways, though, are not just their lanes. They are medians, overpasses, off-ramps, soundwalls, shoulders, berms, plantings, and peripheral spaces, together combining into a superstructure of interrelated elements spiderwebbed across the state. Freeways are infrastructure, architecture, and landscape all mixed together, and they make up a significant part of our built world.

Despite their massive physical presence and impact on the land, we tend to take freeways for granted if we don’t outright despise them. This is understandable. Freeways are so much a part our day-to-day experiences of California that they almost fade into the background. At the same time, we know that freeways have played a powerful and often heinous role in shaping the built environment and the way we live our lives. Although California has long been associated with the freedom of a car-oriented lifestyle in a car-oriented place, the downsides are plentifully evident when we stop to consider them. From traffic congestion and sprawl to environmental degradation and displacement, the list is long. And yet, it’s precisely this influence that makes freeways worth looking at and thinking about more critically.

While many now hope for removals and the gradual undoing of the freeway’s unpopular effects on urbanism, the structure and landscape of the freeway—and their imprints on the land—will likely be with us for many years. Perhaps our freeway structures will one day house the shanty towns of a state ravaged by drought and sea level rise. Their underpasses are already sheltering increasing numbers of homeless men and women. Or perhaps they’ll be highly efficient speedways for autonomous cars, traveling at hundreds of miles per hour, mere inches apart. Maybe they’ll be adapted to do more for us than just provide a direct route from here to there. By understanding how freeways evolved—and what opportunities were missed along the way—we might find ways to reengineer our freeways for the future.