Los Angeles: 20 Years after Speed

Speed Movie PosterI was watching TV the other night when the movie Speed (1994) came on.  For those who have not seen it, Speed is an action film set in Los Angeles that starred Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, and Jeff Daniels.  In the words of Roger Ebert, the late film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, the movie is “like an ingenious windup machine.  It’s a smart, inventive thriller that starts with hostages trapped on an elevator and continues with two chases – one on a bus, one on a subway – so that it’s wall-to-wall with action, stunts, special effects and excitement.  We’ve seen this done before, but seldom so well, or at such a high pitch of energy.”

I enjoyed the movie the first time around and appreciated it even more after watching it again a few days ago.  As a plannerd, I could not help but notice how much Los Angeles, especially its transportation infrastructure, has improved since Speed came out in 1994.  In this article, I would like to discuss the progress that has been made in this city in the 20 years after Speed.

Big Blue Bus

Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus is perhaps the most recognizable bus in Southern California.  In the movie, a Big Blue Bus is rigged with a bomb and the driver cannot slow down below 50 mph or the bomb would explode.  The bus in the film is a General Motors “New Look” bus, which was first introduced in 1959 but kept in prominent and active service by Santa Monica until early 2005, long after most other American cities had retired the retro-looking bus.  (The “New Look” bus was commonly known by the nickname “Fishbowl” (for its six-piece rounded windshield) and was produced by General Motors until 1987.)  Big Blue Bus todayToday, the Big Blue Bus fleet is modern and environmentally-friendly, powered by compressed gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG) and electric/gas hybrid engines.  With sustainability in mind, Santa Monica rebuilt its bus maintenance facility with a recycled-water bus wash and energy-efficient features including: 600 80-kilowatt photovoltaic panels on the roof to help reduce energy costs by up to 15% annually; highly reflective concrete paving in the bus yard to keep the facility’s micro-climate cooler; and workspaces designed to use natural ventilation so less air conditioning is required.

Interstate 105

105 signIn the movie, Annie (Sandra Bullock) navigated the bus through traffic, onto side streets, and eventually onto the empty Interstate 105 freeway, which was under construction at that time.  Shortly after, Jack (Keanu Reeves) is informed that there is a gap in the freeway at an upcoming interchange.  He then tells Annie to accelerate the bus to its maximum speed, causing it to safely jump over the gap and reach the other side.  (Whether this can be accomplished in reality is questionable, but I will not focus on that.)  Speed was actually filmed on the 105 a few weeks before the freeway opened to the public.  The 105 was an integral part of a Caltrans 1960s master plan for the Southern California freeway system, but it did not open until 1993.  Many factors contributed to the delay, including (but not limited to): the growth of the environmental movement in the 1960s; fiscal difficulties brought about by the 1971 Sylmar earthquake and the California tax revolt of the late 1970s; and community opposition from areas along the freeway’s path.  Throughout the difficulties, Congressman Glenn M. Anderson tirelessly advocated for the route’s construction, touting its possibilities for congestion relief along Century, Manchester, and Firestone Boulevards and the Imperial Highway.  The 105 has successfully relieved pressure on these major streets as well as on the Santa Monica (I-10) and San Diego (I-405) Freeways for drivers between Downtown Los Angeles and LAX.  After Anderson’s death in 1994, Caltrans honored him by renaming the freeway in his honor.  However, the route’s original name, “Century Freeway,” is still commonly used in the region.

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)

LAXIn Speed, Jack sees the exit on the 105 for LAX and tells Annie to get off the freeway and drive into the airport where the bus can circle its runways and news helicopters cannot film the bus.  Los Angeles International Airport has changed a great deal since 1994.  In 2000, fifteen glass pylons up to ten stories high were placed in a circle around the intersection of Sepulveda Boulevard and Century Boulevard, with more pylons of decreasing height following Century Boulevard eastward, evoking a sense of departure and arrival.  Illuminated from the inside, the pylons have become a symbol of LAX: they slowly cycle through a rainbow of colors that represents the multicultural makeup of Los Angeles and can be customized to celebrate events, holidays or a season.  LAX PylonsThis was part of an overall face-lift that included new signage and various other cosmetic enhancements.  Today, LAX is in the midst of a $4.11 billion renovation and improvement program to expand and rehabilitate the Tom Bradley International Terminal to: accommodate the next generation of larger aircraft; handle the growing number of flights to and from the Southern California region; and develop the Central Terminal Area of the airport to include streamlined passenger processing, public transportation, and updated central utility plants.

Metro Rail

In the movie, Jack chases the bomber (Dennis Hopper) on the Metro (Red Line) and ultimately defeats him.  He then diffuses Annie’s explosive vest, but cannot uncuff her from the pole or stop the train.  With no other options, he then speeds up the train going into a curve, causing it to derail through a tunnel under construction and sending it up a ramp onto Hollywood Boulevard.  Metro Red LineL.A.’s Metro rail system has expanded greatly since 1994.  In addition to the Red Line, the following lines have opened: Green (1995), Gold (2003), Purple (2006), and Expo (2012).  (The Blue Line started operating in 1990.)  The Red and Purple Lines follow a fully underground route (subway), and the Green Line has a fully elevated route.  The Blue, Expo, and Gold Lines run in various settings, including at-grade street level, at-grade right-of-way, elevated, and underground.  I have personally benefited from the growth of the rail system as I was previously a Gold Line rider and currently uses the Red/Purple Lines for my daily commute to and from work.  Metro is now working on the Regional Connector project which would extend from the Metro Gold Line Little Tokyo/Arts District Station to the 7th Street/Metro Center station in Downtown L.A., allowing passengers to transfer to Blue, Expo, Red, and Purple Lines, bypassing Union Station.  The 1.9-mile alignment will serve Little Tokyo, the Arts District, Civic Center, the Historic Core, Broadway, Grand Avenue, Bunker Hill, Flower Street, and the Financial District.


If you live in Los Angeles and have not seen Speed, I highly recommend it.  It is a great L.A. movie that takes viewers on a fun ride around town.  As a planner, I enjoyed it even more because it made me realize how much Los Angeles has matured as a city and improved in the last two decades.  I am excited about the future of L.A. and look forward to seeing what will happen in the next 20 years.


Photo credits:

Speed movie poster from Wikipedia (Fair Use Doctr.)

Big Blue Bus from Wikipedia, by Author AllyUnion

I-105 Sign from Wikipedia (Pub. Dom. image)

LAX from Flickr by monkeytime | brachiator (Creative Commons lic.)

LAX Lights Pylons from Wikipedia (Fair Use Doctr.)

Metro Red Line from Wikipedia, by The Port of Authority (talk) (Creative Commons lic.)

Profile photo of Clement Lau About Clement Lau

Clement Lau, AICP, has 15 years of professional experience in urban and regional planning. Currently, Dr. Lau is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. He enjoys writing about a variety of planning issues and is on the author panel for UrbDeZine. He also has published articles in the California Planning & Development Report, Public Works Management & Policy, and Progressive Planning. Dr. Lau previously worked for Los Angeles County's Department of Regional Planning and the consulting firm of Cotton/Bridges/Associates in Pasadena. He has guest lectured on public policy and urban planning topics at the University of Southern California and California State University, Northridge. He holds a doctorate and master's in urban planning from USC, and bachelor's in economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.