It is the signature image of California, Southern California especially. The shoulder to shoulder bumper to bumper car culture. Celebrated in film from "American Graffiti" to "The Fast And The Furious."
A place where the car has long been king and the daily commute the stuff of urban legend, where motorists like Rich Kassabian are modern day road warriors:
"In miles we're looking at like 190 and in hours we're looking at three hours. And that's the best case scenario," he says about his commute round trip. You need a degree of stamina and probably a degree of luck to survive doing this everyday."
It's a culture that thrives in San Francisco where drivers fill their cars with absolute strangers so they can take the car pool lane home. No talking, smoking or cell phones allowed.
It comes to life every Friday in the San Fernando Valley when grown men steer their boyhood dreams to a drive-in restaurant for something called cruise night:
"Cruise night is really neat because you've got people from every walk of life ... And the common denominator is the car," explains Kent Bash.
And it jumps and shakes every Sunday in L.A.'s Crenshaw neighborhood when classic cars are set in motion by hydraulic systems and the imagination of their owners.
But nowhere is it on greater display than on California's seemingly endless freeways. Those sprawling monuments to democracy, where everyone is equal at any speed. California writer Celeste Fremon:
"Washington has the White House and the Washington monument. And Paris has the Eiffel tower and Venice has its canals. But the symbol, the architectural symbol of L.A. is its freeway system," she says.
The growth of California's car culture was by design, not chance. Nurtured and encouraged by the ever expanding system of freeways. The idea of urban planners being that if you build it, people will come. And go. More easily the length and width of this huge state:
"The era of freeways began here in 1940 with the Arroyo Seco connecting Pasadena with Los Angeles," explains historian and California state librarian Kevin Starr. "Transportation in the automobile was one of the ways California envisioned itself. Invented itself. California grew up alongside the automobile. The population of the state went from a mere three million people, when the automobile was introduced to 35 million people today."
And it started a new kind of architecture in California that caught on all across America. Eye catching buildings...shaped for what they sold. And car friendly Motels, drive through restaurants, space age car washes.
And California's car culture influenced something else ...and still does. Car design. All the major automakers are here. Frank Saucedo is director of General Motors' California design studio.
"Californians' mind set in general is this free spirit. It's a cliche but its true. And people really love their cars," says Saucedo.
Novelist-screen writer John Ridley loves all three of his cars:
"It's a two seater, so it's sporty, which is very important. Even if you're trying to save the planet, you gotta look good while you're doing it. Chicks dig it," he says.
Ridley owns a hybrid gas and electric car that gets 50 miles to the gallon ...A 220-thousand dollar Ferrari that does not.
"It's a little bit of an ego machine," says Ridley.
And an old mustang because his father had one. He believes California's car culture affects what people buy. And how they behave. Road rage, for example.
"Yes! Another trend. Another trend for Los Angeles. We're always the trendsetters," Ridley says.
For good and bad, says Ridley, cars make a statement about their owners: "A lot of times people identify their anger with a certain kind of car. 'Oh, those people in those cars always drive like maniacs. This guy, people who drive their SUV's always drive like king of the road.' It starts to become iconographic. You don't like that kind of car. You don't like that kind of person."
"I would hate for you to think that this vehicle is an extension of any part of me, really" says Kassabian with a laugh.
Back on the freeway there's Rich Kassabian and his three-hour daily commute:
"Typically I try and get out the door from home about 5:30 in the morning," Kassabian says.
He makes the long drive in his old car so his family can live in a nicer house. And he's a daily witness to life in the not-so-fast lane:
"I've seen people brushing their teeth. I've seen people shaving. I've seen people putting on make up. Um, one morning I saw two people, probably can't say what they were doing but I think I know what they were doing," he says.
There's much to see of the car culture.
Where else but California are car chases a regular feature of live television. ... Sharing screen space with presidential addresses ... Knocking soap operas off the air.
Where else can you see artists altering freeway signs into something understandable because they're tired of getting lost. ... But there may be limits ... Even for the car culture.
"People of the inland empire ... Start your engines," said Gov. Davis at a ribbon cutting last year for the Foothill Freeway outside Los Angeles. Historic, said California's governor, because it will be the last new freeway ever built in the state.
Historian Kevin Starr: "We're seeing an acknowledgment that the era of freeways is over. The era of freeways represented the height of modernism of general, large heroically scaled, almost geometric solutions to, to transportation problems. That is over. There isn't enough money."
The era of limits has begun. Symbolized by a turn to mass transit. And a return to an old sense of community.
"The Hollywood freeway was built to take 120-thousand drivers. We're up to nearly 350-thousand a day. Obviously that's ridiculous. Perhaps the overcrowding of freeways is helping push us in the direction of real community, of having to look each other in the eye and not have a windshield in between," Starr says.
For now though, the car is still king. Still the icon of that free-wheeling, wind in your face California dream. Even if the dream is more than a little crowded.
Copyright 2002 CBS. All rights reserved.