Pasadena Freeway turns 70, showing its age and its charm
Each of the many freeways that crisscross our city has a personality.
Interstate 710, still known to us L.A. old-timers as the Long Beach Freeway, is a working man hauling freight and merchandise day and night.
The Santa Monica Freeway is ambitious and vain, an actor rushing to a casting call and zipping past you in his sports car.
The oldest of them all is the Pasadena Freeway. He’s your crotchety and eccentric grandfather. Stubborn, set in his ways, and still wearing fashions from the middle of the last century.
Designed when a fleet of Model Ts still crowded L.A.'s streets, the Pasadena winds through a narrow valley for six scenic miles — past sycamore groves and underneath train trestles and arched bridges.
The Pasadena Freeway, or 110, just turned 70. Caltrans is commemorating its birthday with a small exhibition this month at its downtown headquarters. Since the Pasadena Freeway and I are old friends, I ambled over there to help celebrate.
I found a small exhibition space with photographs and memorabilia, and a video screen showing the Pasadena Freeway’s old home movies.
“Man moves river to make way for freeway,” reads a caption in the silent film that shows the Pasadena being born, river boulders being scraped out along the watershed of the Arroyo Seco.
And there’s footage from the freeway’s first days, including the earliest film ever shot of bad freeway driving, with bulbous 1930s Fords and Packards cutting each other off at about 45 mph.
People still drive aggressively on the Pasadena — which has recently been rechristened with its original name, the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Except now they do it at 65 mph while texting.
When it rains, the Pasadena turns into a demolition derby, with cars bouncing off the concrete and metal barriers. Once I saw a guy speed past me at about 70 on a wet morning — and lose control suddenly, his car somersaulting in the air like a gymnast, then miraculously landing on its wheels.
Driving the Arroyo Seco Parkway is, day in and day out, the most dangerous thing I do.
The Pasadena has a higher rate of accidents, even though its 55 mph speed limit is slower than other freeways, said Frank Quon, Caltrans’ deputy district director for operations.
“We need people to pay attention on the Arroyo Seco,” said Quon. “We’re always taking a lot of hits” on the barriers. Crashes into the old steel center divider often require repairs that shut down two lanes. That’s why the California Department of Transportation has been installing concrete barriers.
Quon, an engineer and 26-year Caltrans veteran, helped design the 105 Freeway, including those connecting ramps that vault more than 100 feet over the 110 interchange. When he looks at the Arroyo Seco, he sees the work of the engineers who pioneered his craft.
“They were handed something that had never been done before,” he said.
It was a revolutionary idea when it was conceived in the 1930s: an urban autobahn connecting several neighborhoods, a strip of roadway with no stop signs or traffic signals.
“All anyone knew those days was driving on the boulevards,” said Heinz Heckeroth, 85, a retired Caltrans engineer. Olympic and other boulevards were widened. But it wasn’t enough.
With the Auto Club rallying support, the Pasadena Freeway was born. But there were no traffic engineers then, and thus no one to contemplate the unique problem of entering and exiting a freeway. That’s why, at several of the freeway’s entrances, you still have to leap into traffic from a dead stop.
Exiting sometimes requires slowing down from 55 mph to 5 mph to negotiate a hairpin turn. With comic regularity, some poor truck driver fails to notice the “no trucks” signs downtown and gets stuck on one of the off-ramps, requiring a CHP rescue.
All that makes the Pasadena Freeway an anachronism. But it’s also a treasure because it’s the first example of a uniquely Southern California creation, and one of our principal contributions to world culture — albeit one with not-great consequences for the environment.
“If we hadn’t built the Arroyo Seco, I don’t think we would have had the public support to build the rest of the system,” Heckeroth said. People liked the Pasadena Freeway. Suddenly, a city filled with cars seemed to make sense.
We covered our city with freeways. Eventually, so did just about everyone else.
Heckeroth started working on freeways in 1950, at the long-defunct Los Angeles City Department of Freeways. Back then people came from all over the world to see how we Californians did it.
Several innovations we take for granted began on the Arroyo Seco, Heckeroth told me. Road signs hanging on the overpasses — instead of on poles at the exits, where people crashed into them. And the signs announcing the next three off-ramps.
“We realized people needed time to get ready to exit,” Heckeroth said.
The need for other freeway innovations — shoulders, for instance — were evident only after the Arroyo Seco Parkway was finished.
I’m very often driving at or below the speed limit on the Pasadena Freeway. I do this because I am wise and experienced in the ways of the Pasadena. For the same reason, I avoid it in the hours after the first winter rains, because that’s when it’s most menacing.
You can go fast on the Pasadena, and I’m sure those turns feel sweet at 70 in a sports car. But remember, there’s either a stoplight or downtown gridlock awaiting you on either end. So why hurry?
For those of you who choose to ignore that advice, I have just one thing to say: Please stop tailgating me!
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