Freeways before the Arroyo Seco Parkway

Fun and informative piece on Los Angeles' first freeways by Nathan Masters on the KCET website. The very first freeway was not the Arroyo Seco Parkway from Pasadena to almost downtown, as many believe.

Some parkways and expressways grew out of the 1924 "Major Traffic Street Plan," by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Harland Bartholomew and Charles Henry Cheney, which addressed LA's choking traffic issues of the '20s by creating the system of boulevards we have now. Wilshire, for instance, was elevated to almost highway status after the plan was adopted — that's when it was pushed into downtown from Westlake Park by forcibly widening residential Orange Street, and renaming it Wilshire Boulevard, as far east as Figueroa. East of Figueroa Street, Wilshire Boulevard's path was bulldozed into the heart of downtown through existing homes and commercial buildings, with the intent to reach the river and form a cross-town conduit. The demolition got as far as Grand Avenue before the project was abandoned. To this day, Wilshire's 15.8-mile course from the ocean ends abruptly at Grand Avenue and the One Wilshire building.

But freeways were yet anther step. Masters recounts how the city engineer and the Automobile Club of Southern California promoted the idea of roads where cars were separated from cross-traffic. The freeway concept was first tried on a four-mile stretch of Ramona Boulevard on the Eastside. Here's an excerpt from his story:

Built between 1933 and 1935 at a cost of $877,000, the highway linked downtown Los Angeles to the communities of the southern San Gabriel Valley. It offered all the features of a modern freeway except -- at first -- a center divider. Nine bridges carried cross-traffic safely over the roadway, and driveways to adjacent properties were prohibited.

The roadway, dubbed the "Air Line route," was seen as a major achievement in traffic design.

"A great engineering dream is coming true here," proclaimed the Los Angeles Times after plans for the proto-freeway were announced. "The Ramona Boulevard project...a mighty route to go far easterly straight from the heart of Los Angeles...a new bond between the metropolis and its eastern environs and a thoroughfare development of tremendous importance for the city east of the river."

But the Air Line's poor safety record tarnished enthusiasm for the roadway, which opened on April 20, 1935. With no center divider, the freeway recorded 77 injuries in its first 40 months. In response, the city added a steel center guardrail that featured black-and-white striping, reflective paneling, and blinking amber lights placed at 100-foot intervals.

Later, in 1940, came the predecessor of the Hollywood Freeway through Cahuenga Pass, with the Pacific Electric streetcar link to the San Fernando Valley that was carved into the pass around 1911 relocated to the center of the two-mile-long Cahuenga Pass Freeway. The first leg of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, now often called the Pasadena Freeway, opened at the end of 1940, from Glenarm Street in Pasadena to the Figueroa Street tunnels. Only later did it reach downtown Los Angeles.

Photo of Ramona Boulevard "freeway," east of the Macy Street (Cesar Chavez Avenue) Viaduct. Pacific Electric and Southern Pacific tracks run to the left in Canada de los Abilas. California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries via KCET

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