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110 revisited

January 4, 2008 |  9:50 pm

Jan. 5, 1908
Los Angeles

1908_0105_traffic_2 Journey back with me now to the simple, carefree days of life in Los Angeles in 1908.

You might wonder what our great-grandparents were up to 100 years ago, or 30 years before the ground-breaking for the Pasadena Freeway.

Perhaps you imagine your great-uncle in the parlor serenading the family on the mandolin or winding up the Victrola while great-grandma was opening the kitchen door for the iceman and wondering if great-grandpa had stopped off at the saloon on the way home.

In a word: No.

Strangely enough, what they were really doing exactly a century ago was complaining about the awful traffic in Los Angeles. But wait, you say, we're talking about 1908. Traffic couldn't have been all that terrible, could it?

Indeed, it was.

"At every corner where two streets cross, we used to see an express wagon, as many as four at a junction, standing there most of the day waiting for business to come to them. And at some places were these big furniture vans almost as big as a house," one unidentified councilman said, according to The Times of May 16, 1908.

The councilman was speaking about the results of an ordinance described in The Times on Jan. 5, 1908, that established a downtown "business district" and a "congested district," where traffic was to be tightly regulated.

The business district was a large chunk of downtown from Los Angeles Street to Hill Street and generally Temple to 10th Street. (It's more complicated than that, but I don't want to overly tax anyone's knowledge of local geography--the Google map is complicated by the fact that I have to approximate where Marchessault Street was).

I wonder if you can guess the boundaries of the newly designated congested district.

Oh, come on. Try.

Did someone say "Spring Street and Broadway from 1st to 7th?"  How about "1st through 6th streets from Hill to Main?"

It's painfully familiar, isn't it?

Now remember, this is 1908. Was our new friend, the automobile, the problem?

Mostly, no. In general, it was freight vehicles drawn by animals, which were banned from the congested district from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week.

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Here are selections from the 1908 traffic ordinance:

"Between the hours of 8 o'clock a.m. and 7 o'clock p.m. of any day, it shall be unlawful for any person to drive or propel upon any street in the congested district of the city of Los Angeles, excepting 3rd Street:

Any freight vehicle drawn by more than four animals

or any two freight vehicles hitched in tandem

1908_0106_ads or any wagon loaded with hay

or any crude oil wagon

or any freight vehicle, the bed, body or carrying part of which shall exceed 20 feet in length or 8 1/2 feet in width

or any freight vehicle carrying a load, which load, together with the bed, body or carrying part of said vehicle shall at any point occupy a space greater than 20 feet in length or 8 1/2 feet in width.

The law also banned furniture vans, express or other wagons waiting for hire.

And at last, the regulation mentions automobiles: The number of cabs, autos or other passenger vehicles that may "stand on any block in the congested district" is limited to six, not more than three on one side of the street, nor within 75 feet of a corner.

And notice this: "They must have permission of the occupant of the property and a license from the Police Commission."

In addition, the speed limit for all vehicles was 12 mph in much of the downtown area (again, it's more complicated than that but that's the basic principle). The speed limit at intersections in the business district was 6 mph.

Not surprisingly, the new provisions of the complicated ordinance sowed confusion among the courts, police officers and drivers (of wagons, apparently).

Did it help ease traffic? The unidentified councilman thought so, but the drivers of freight wagons fought hard against the law.

Interestingly enough, the regulations made parking permits from the Police Commission a valuable commodity that sold for $500 to $1,500 ($10,433.26-$31,299.77 USD 2006).

Yep. I was thinking the same thing.

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