When it comes to history, Los Angeles isn’t really a place people think of. Sure, there’s a legacy of filmmaking, and some remnants of Spanish and Mexican rule, but little here is iconic when it comes to historic sites. However, there is one “gift” that Los Angeles gave the country – and the world: the freeway.

Highways have been around since Roman times, connecting distant cities together. However, while early 20th century highways were wider (perhaps two lanes per side) and more direct, they featured cross-traffic, roadside businesses, and traffic lights when going through populated areas. Think of the iconic Route 66 as an example, connecting Chicago to Los Angeles via all sorts of small towns, where the highway and Main Street were the same thing.

Tunnels! One of the highlights of the northbound freeway.

The modern freeway – or expressway as other parts of the world call it – was born in 1940 in Los Angeles. Here, the Arroyo Seco Parkway broke ground in several ways. Built in Pasadena and Los Angeles’ Arroyo, a mainly dry stream bed, it provided a faster connection between Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles by eliminating intersections and cross traffic altogether. Instead, the main roads intersecting the parkway were given bridges over it, and ramps connecting them with the new highway. These became the first on- and off-ramps in modern highway construction.

A sign commemorates the historic highway we are now driving.

The Arroyo Seco Parkway cut what was, at the time, an incredibly wide path through newly designed parklands in the Arroyo itself. Three lanes on each side, it was meant to provide a pleasant recreational drive. It curves with the bends in the Arroyo, crossing under bridges and through green public spaces. In 1940, the road was fantastically modern, meant to accommodate vehicles that weren’t traveling at 70+ miles per hour. The narrow and curved lanes were up to that challenge, and the on- and off-ramps, some of which were little more than a sharp turn with a stop sign, also weren’t inhibiting for drivers of the time.

Ignore my windshield and focus on, instead, the novelty of a bridge over the highway, and what that must have meant at the time. Also note the curve coming up.

Today, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, part of California 110, is the same as it was then, and a drive along its route feels a bit outdated. Starting in Pasadena as Arroyo Parkway, it becomes a freeway just south of Glenarm Street, with decently graded on-ramps only at Fair Oaks Avenue and Orange Grove Blvd. during its time in Pasadena. From there, it winds down the Arroyo – which can still be seen – passing Interstate 5 before cutting along the side of Dodger Stadium and into Downtown Los Angeles. There, it crosses under US Highway 101 (which connects Los Angeles to Olympia, Washington) in the world’s first stacked freeway interchange, called the Four Level, for its four levels: one for the 110, one for the 101, and two for the various connectors. (The portion of the 101 that became Los Angeles’ second freeway connected Downtown LA with Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. Now, the 101 is a full freeway throughout the majority of its time between Los Angeles and San Francisco.)

Heading south into the Four Level – the fourth level is below. The top is US 101.

I enjoy driving the Arroyo Seco Parkway whenever I get a chance. It’s a slower drive, forced by the narrower lanes and sharper curves than most freeways, but a reminder of what it must have been like to cruise back in the early days of mass automobile production. I put the windows down, letting the breeze sweep my hair, and drive through a simpler time, before the mass of freeways that has taken over Los Angeles and most of the urbanized world.

Cruising down (up in this case) the historic freeway.

And I remember, that while my hometown may not have the history of London, or even of Philadelphia, it does have some amazing things that have changed the world. This is just one of them.

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4 thoughts on “America’s First Freeway

  1. Jonathn, before the interchange was called the Four Level it was called the Cloverleaf.

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