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VIDEO | 02:36
Patt Says: Happy 80th birthday, Pasadena Freeway
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Patt Says: Happy 80th birthday, Pasadena Freeway

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.

Knowing how ambivalent we feel about freeways here, maybe you don’t want to celebrate this:

The Pasadena Freeway is turning 80 years old.

Now, as you try to negotiate its 5-mile-an-hour exits and its stop-sign entrances, you may not believe it.

But when it was finished, it was a modern technical marvel – the Arroyo Seco Parkway, snaking miles through the arroyo between hills and trees.

On a good day, it could get you from Pasadena to downtown in the time it took to smoke a cigarette … back when people did that.

The governor and the teenaged Rose Queen opened it in December 1940, in time for New Year’s Eve traffic jams … but it took some getting used to.

For starters, people had no idea what to call it. “Stopless motorway” was one suggestion.

And people had no idea how to drive on it. They stopped right in traffic to pick up and drop off passengers.

Originally, the center median was only four feet wide … and at first it was planted with pretty fruit trees … until some woman got killed running across the lanes to pick pomegranates …

Then they switched to oleanders, and finally, unesthetically, to concrete and chain link.

And … so many freeways later … we now know that the Pasadena Freeway was in some ways the shape of things to come – one highway engineer called it a learning laboratory.

But it stands alone in some ways.

It was originally intended as a leisurely scenic route. Unlike every freeway since, it was built for style, not just for speed. You were supposed to relax and enjoy the view.

It’s not a freeway for trucks … nor for the faint-hearted. You have to know its quirks, the way a riverman like Mark Twain knew the eddies and shoals of the Mississippi.

It can be fun to drive, all those curves and dips – or it can be terrifying, like shooting the rapids.

It was built for a top speed of 45 miles an hour, so if you go faster than 50 or 55, you feel that centrifugal tug, like you’re a runaway planet about to slip out of your orbit .. and if you’re not careful, out of this world.

Remember that next time you drive the Pasadena Freeway: 80 is its age, not its speed limit.