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The Winding Arroyo Corridor

The history of the Arroyo Seco Parkway is as circuitous as the route it takes.

By Austin Roy

It did not rain the morning the 23rd Pasadena Rose Queen, Sally Stanton Rubsamen, and the 29th Governor of California, Culbert L. Olsen, unveiled the first six miles of the Arroyo Seco Parkway. It had showered earlier that week, but on December 30, 1940, the air was cool and dry—surely a good sign. The ruling sovereigns shook hands, Ms. Rubsamen cut the red silk ribbon, and the Arroyo Seco became  first freeway in the Western United States.

A fitting beginning for a mythic freeway: the presiding powers (the Rose Queen and the Governor), the clement weather, the calmness of it all even though it was the early 1940s.

The project was challenging. The Depression’s e­ffects remained, and the war was ramping up. The day before the freeway’s unveiling, President Roosevelt declared the US would equip the United Kingdom with “an arsenal of democracy” to combat the Nazis. While the freeway’s construction would create hundreds of jobs, it would be astronomically expensive—six million dollars. City officials claimed the parkway would be “fine as long as somebody else pays for it.”

And then, somebody did pay. The Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, the Pasadena Realty Board and the Pasadena City Planning Commission paid. When the parkway was recognized as a state highway by the California Highway Commission, federal funds became available, and the Work Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration paid. And, as a professor of urban planning at UCLA wrote in a 2005 journal article, the “wealthy and powerful residents of Pasadena” paid. An arsenal of democracy.

That first day in 1940, the Arroyo Seco Parkway was recognized by the government as both a parkway and a highway—similar terms with distinct histories. The term “parkway” was coined in the late 19th Century by architects Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted who used it describe carriage pathways specially designed for “pleasure riding.” Where highways were practical, parkways were experiential. The speed limit on the Arroyo Seco was a judicious 45 miles-per-hour; Governor Olson described the ride as one of “easy, nerve free comfort and safety.”

As the highway boom ignited in the late 1940s and early 1950s however, the Arroyo Seco’s purpose shifted: leisure usurped by efficiency. The drive began to resemble what it is today—it became less “easy” and “nerve-free.” On November 16, 1954, the name was officially changed to the Pasadena Freeway. However, in 1993, Assembly Bill 1247 was passed recognizing California Historic Parkways as part of the State Scenic Highway System—a system which provides a unique array of federal funding opportunities—and the Pasadena Freeway claimed that it still met the requirements of being a parkway even though it was called a freeway. In June 2002, the Federal Highway Administration recognized Arroyo as a National Scenic Byway.

Eight years later, the Pasadena Freeway officially reverted its name back to the Arroyo Seco Parkway for reasons that are still not entirely clear. One year after that, in 2011, the Parkway was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the Arroyo Seco receives grants and federal funding as a highway, a parkway, a byway, and a historic place.

Parkway. Freeway. Parkway again. Byway. Historic place. A circuitous history for a winding corridor.

At the start, when the Parkway really was a parkway, and the speed limit was 45 miles-per-hour, the Arroyo Seco carried approximately 27,000 cars per day. Today, that number is roughly 130,000. More drivers, faster cars, same infrastructure—there is no mystery to the unprecedented number of crashes on the Arroyo Seco. The onramps are short, the curves tight, the drivers, often unprepared. In 2016, there were 671 recorded collisions. In 2017, there were 772. In 2018, there have already been more than 200 accidents. Although calculating the danger of a freeway is an imperfect process, a study for the California Historical Society in the mid-2000s claimed the Arroyo Seco to be “the most unsafe route in the region based on accident rates.”

Change has been attempted, especially in recent years. A 2012 Corridor Partnership Plan prepared by Caltrans proposed a number of safety updates, but most are still years away, and it is uncertain how much progress has been made in the past six years. A 2015 petition to make the right-hand lanes entrance/ exit-only lanes received over 1,000 signatures, but nothing came of it. Less than a year ago, Caltrans prepared a 365-page Safety Enhancement proposal; however, it is unclear which (if any) of the suggested projects will be executed.

Some cite cost as the reason behind the inaction. Others allude to resistance from those who seek to preserve the parkway’s original infrastructure for historical purposes. Some just say that change takes time. In the meantime, we continue to drive it.

On freeways, there is only from and to; there is no middle or center. Parkways become freeways, change their names back to parkways, but remain as freeways. We learn to heed the beginnings and the ends, and in doing so, we neglect to maintain awe for passages themselves. We remove the term “pleasure driving” from the dictionaries.

It is, perhaps, too much to ask the daily commuter to consider the Arroyo Seco as both a means and an ends. However, in the moments when the freeway frustrates us most, when we are too tired to see the poetry in the narrow lanes and the blind turns, we ought to remember that the Arroyo Seco was designed with different intentions. At one time, it was both parkway and freeway. The Los Angeles Times had called it an engineering marvel. When asked to reflect upon her experience in the early forties, Ms. Rubsamen said, “My reign as Rose Queen was a complete delight to me. I hadn’t even worn lipstick until then.” The time was different, and roads reflected that.

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