The relationship between county residents and El Camino Real has shifted with changes in development and transportation, but it has been more of a gritty business thoroughfare than a residential street for most of its recent history.
The 500-mile Spanish road, which once linked missions, pueblos and presidios from Sonoma to San Diego, runs through the heart of many Peninsula communities. In the 20th century, however, the growing domination of the automobile, especially after World War II, allowed developers and builders to expand to areas beyondthe railroad tracks and El Camino, said Mitch Postel, director of the San Mateo County History Museum.
"[Cars] allowed developers to look up the hills and down to the Bay, and not just along the rail corridor," Postel said.
As the influence of cars grew, El Camino Real became lined with billboards, gas stations and junkyards, Postel said.
"It wasn’t beautiful everywhere," he said, calling it "the second tier of transportation" next to trains. From early American times, the highway had been a place where cattle were driven to market and transients hung out, rather than a place for pedestrians and residents.
Sprawl continued for decades after World War II, when big-name developers, such as the Bohannon Group, learned the techniques of mass construction from the government after World War II, Postel said. Low-cost government loans provided them and would-be homeowners the financial means to expand.
Now, however, the trend toward continued sprawl and increasing traffic problems is being met locally by new efforts to direct development back toward the main transportation corridors, Postel added, "We’re worried about the diminishing of our open spaces."