Arroyo Seco Parkway At 70: The Unusual History Of The “Pasadena Freeway,” California Cycleway & Rare Traffic Plan Images

Proposed Arroyo Seco Freeway, (County of Los Angeles Regional Planning Commission), July, 1934

This Winter marks the 70th anniversary of the oldest freeway in the United States:  The Arroyo Seco Parkway opened on December 30, 1940.

Built during the Great Depression, construction of the parkway put a lot of people to work.

At the time, it was considered an engineering marvel, reducing travel time between Los Angeles and Pasadena from 27 to 12 minutes.

It conformed to modern standards of the times (including a speed limit of 45 mph), but is now considered by many as too narrow and dangerous for the amount of vehicular traffic it serves on a daily basis.

Anyone who has tried to exit some of its 90-degree offramps at the posted 5-miles-per-hour or merged onto the Parkway from a dead stop understands how outdated it has become.

Back in 1895, proposals were made for an alternative to Huntingon Drive which would provide a faster wagon connection between the two cities.

In 1897, two additional proposals came forward: a scenic parkway and a commuter cycleway.

The California Cycleway Company purchased a right-of-way from Pasadena to Avenue 54 in Highland Park, and constructed an elevated wooden bikeway which opened on January 1, 1900.

As the turn-of-the-century bicycle craze waned and Pacific Electric Railway connected Pasadena to Los Angeles, the bikeway was abandoned and torn down.

The California Cycleway connecting Pasadena and South Pasadena, ca. 1900 (Courtesy Dobbins Collection, Pasadena Museum of History)

Personal automobile use was on the rise, as the eight-year period from 1914-1922 saw the number of vehicle registrations in Los Angeles County quadruple.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and Harland Bartholomew’s landmark Major Street Traffic Plan For Los Angeles (41p. PDF, 1924) suggested the new parkway be built to provide motorists with a “great deal of incidental recreation and pleasure.”

Cover of California Highways depicting Figueroa Street northbound at Riverside Drive, ca. 1938. Future route of Arroyo Seco Parkway at Golden State Freeway. (Click for more information)

When the Arroyo Parkway opened, it became the new alignment for U.S. Route 66.  The old routing along Colorado Boulevard and Figueroa Street became the official Route 66 Alternate.

The original roadway north of the Los Angeles River remains largely as it was when it opened in 1940. 

Trucks and buses were banned in 1943, although bus restrictions have been dropped.

A 1953 southern extension connnected it to the Four-Level Interchange in downtown L.A., linking it to the Hollywood, Harbor and Golden State Freeways.

On November 16, 1954, its name changed to the Pasadena Freeway, as the northern extension of State Route 110.

The six-lane, six-mile long highway was designed for 27,000 automobiles a day.  These days, it carries more than 122,000 cars daily.

Arroyo Seco Parkway in its early days, looking north at Avenue 60 Bridge. 45 mile-per-hour speed limit seems appropriate at the time for this level of traffic. (Metro Transportation Library Archive)

The Arroyo Seco Parkway is one of only three “federal scenic byways” in California, and is designated by the American Socity of Civil Engineers as a historical engineering landmark.

All its original bridges are intact, as well as four others crossing the Arroyo Seco prior to construction: The 1895 Santa Fe Arroyo Seco Railroad Bridge (now part of the Metro Gold Line), the 1912 York Boulevard Bridge, The 1925 Avenue 26 Bridge, and the 1926 Avenue 60 Bridge.

On Sunday, June 15, 2003, the entire freeway was closed to motor vehicles to highlight several ongoing and proposed projects within the Arroyo Seco designed to improve the quality of life for everyone in the area.  Several reports on this event and other Arroyo Seco documents can be found here and here.

What goes around comes around, and the freeway formerly known as the “Pasadena Freeway” has now had its name restored to its original moniker as of December 30, 2010.  It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year.

Additional Resources:

Caltrans District 7 Projects: Arroyo Seco (SR-110) Parkway Improvement Project

Major Traffic Street Plan, Los Angeles California (41p. PDF, Omsted, Bartholomew, Cheney for Traffic Commission of the City and County of Los Angeles

Master Plan Of Highways (112p. PDF, County Of Los Angeles Regional Planning District, 1941)

Master Plan Of Parkways(61p. PDF, Los Angeles Department Of City Planning, 1941)

A Road As A Route And Place: The Evolution And Transformation Of The Arroyo Seco Parkway (32p. PDF : Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Robert Gottlieb)

North East L.A. Publications, Occidental College Urban & Environmental Policy Institute

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