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The Arroyo Seco Freeway

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[Map scans 1976-1999 -- 155K] [Map scans 1957-1965 -- 152K] These (rather large) map collages show this route and other important nearby routes in (first image) 1947, 1957 and 1965, as well as (second image) 1976, 1984 and 1999. Click each thumbnail to open individual separate windows for each 150K-plus map graphic and prepare to scroll. ^^ Keep the windows open for reference through the rest of this photoessay.

This exhibit is in the process of reconstruction. Please pardon the older photography.

In 1911, landscape architect Laurie Cox submitted a proposal to the Los Angeles Park Commission for a "parkway" -- half-park, half-roadway -- designed to simultaneously improve traffic congestion caused by the rapidly burgeoning population of motorists, as well as make that same drive more pleasant. Great minds must have thought alike, because the City of Pasadena proposed the same route in a "high speed" (by the standards of the day) form as a connector to Los Angeles in 1916. Cox's idea would, by 1940, yield what then-Governor Culbert L. Olson would declare to be "the first freeway in the West" -- opened in grand form 30 December 1940 with a blessing from Native Americans, a four-hundred plus automobile caravan, a brass band and a 15,000-person audience. Constructed between 1938 and 1940, the three-lanes-per-direction Arroyo Seco Parkway was an immediate success, so successful that the California Department of Highways (as it was called) petitioned AASHTO to re-route US 66, which then still ran on a parallel alignment along Figueroa St, to the new parkway and re-sign the old route, which was partially co-signed with then-CA 11, as US 66 ALTERNATE (or US 66 A on some maps). This was granted in October 1940; the extension to Los Angeles of the now Arroyo Seco Fwy, including the famous Four-Level interchange with US 101, was completed in 1953, and the entire route would be renamed the Pasadena Fwy in 1954. After the Great Renumbering and US 66's demise, little CA 11 would take on the entire designation, including the Harbor Fwy, which was built south of the Pasadena Fwy from 1952 to 1970. It would then be renumbered a final time in 1981 as CA 110/Pasadena Fwy, which is the freeway's present designation. From its opening day until the present time, it represents the best and worst of freeway design: an innovative (for the time) construction done with a lamentably short-sighted view of the future explosion in automobile use, resulting in the recurrently snarled freeway we have today which has been preserved in nearly the same form as it was built originally over 60 years ago.

During its earliest days, the Arroyo Seco Pkwy was considered leisurely and scenic (an amusing irony to harrassed denizens of CA 110 today), darting between small tree-lined parks with occasional vistas of the San Gabriel mountains in the distance. Without cross-traffic to distract drivers, it was genuinely a pleasure to drive, and at least initially fulfilled both of Laurie Cox's original aims of relieving traffic snarls (with an impressive top speed of around 35mph -- funny how little has changed, eh?) but remaining a elegant, beautiful civil engineering package. However, in a manner prescient of many future Los Angeles area freeways, it was already well in excess of its design capacity when it was introduced; its generous shoulder had to be hastily adopted as the third lane (its paving with asphalt leading to the characteristic two-tone road surface; see the Caltrans archival photograph at left for the original configuration), and a combination of geographic limitations, budget constraints and irregularities over abutting right-of-way would result in the Pkwy's characteristic tight curves, limiting its effective maximum speed and rapidly annihilating any practicality for large truck traffic (witness the bright white "NO TRUCKS" signs that plaster all present-day CA 110 advance signage). On top of all that, concurrent construction of the Arroyo Seco Flood Control Channel, a Depression-relief Work Progress Administration project, was the only thing preventing the entire parkway from being washed away by the Arroyo Seco itself. (Spanish speakers will find this especially funny, since arroyo seco is supposed to mean dry gully!) Nevertheless, its economic and engineering importance cannot be overstated, particularly as it was the basis on which most of the remainder of the Los Angeles freeway system was built (being the first). It is undoubtedly for this reason that Caltrans brought the old name back for the original section in 1996, and the Parkway itself being designated as a historical engineering landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The thumbnail at right links to a map image of the route in 1947, after its full construction but before its expansion. For better historical continuity of the following photoessay, I have also included a little bit of the modern Harbor Fwy, which in the days of the Arroyo Seco was also traverseable as Figueroa St and signed as US 6 and CA 11. Construction of the modern freeway, as mentioned above, started in 1952 with the last segment opening in 1970. After the Great Renumbering and US 6's truncation to its present terminus in Bishop, CA (seen in US 395 Part 5 and the Summer of 6), CA 11 took over this routing as well. Although it also became Route 110 in 1981, it became Interstate 110, not CA 110, accepted as chargeable Interstate in December 1978. (CA 110 had been rejected as part of the Interstate system much earlier in 1945, and will likely never be signed with an Interstate shield for this reason, even as non-chargeable mileage.) More of this route will be photographed in my future US 6 photoessay, but for now I include a few interesting tidbits to make the route more continuous (and more importantly, more interesting). By the way, old US 6 is not part of the Arroyo Seco Pkwy itself, but it is part of the modern CA 110 tunnels, which were part of Figueroa St during the original days of the Parkway.

[Caltrans new signage] Caltrans District 7 (Los Angeles/Ventura counties) has a project on the books as of this writing that seeks to designate CA 110 as a National Scenic Byway and improve the corridor with redesigned walkways, designated greenspaces and interpretive zones. Part of this redevelopment involves re-signing CA 110 with new, unusual brown overhead signs with a leaf-and-branch motif (example to the left). The project is funded in part with $308,000 in grant money furnished by the Federal Highway Administration. Unfortunately, without sensitivity to preserving the old signage and design, much of the old architectural and civil engineering style (even the crummy bits) may be plowed under and lost forever in the name of alleged cultural advancement. The Arroyo Seco Project Page describes this plan in more detail.

Photographed March 2005 with additional photographs taken May 2005.

Harbor Fwy portion. Some of the old signs are still partially visible on the overhead signage. This is at the beginning of modern I-110, coming off the Vincent Thomas Bridge (CA 47). Although most of the old shields were hidden with greenout, this one was painted, and the paint is starting to come off (look closely at the bottom of the [oddly configured] Interstate shield for the bottom of the old one). This was apparently an old CA 11 shield (darn, I was hoping it was US 6).

All of I-110 up to the junction with modern-day I-5 is part of the old Grand Army of the Republic Highway, as well as portions south (i.e., anything that carried a US 6 shield); a plaque marks the southern end at Ocean Avenue in front of the Terrace Theatre in San Pedro. There is a Grand Army of the Republic Highway sign still on modern US 395, and on US 6 as it leaves Bishop.

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NB I-110 Harbour Fwy at I-105 Glenn Anderson Fwy (Century Fwy), a dizzying five-level interchange best appreciated from the air. The first "multimodal" interchange in the state, it has five ramp levels (including the LA Metro light rail line) and three independent transfer levels, including direct HOV-to-HOV connectors. It was completed in 1993 and won a Federal Highway Administration award for its innovation.

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None of these shots really do justice to its enormity. The LA Metro station is partially visible here.

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Approaching the end of I-110 at the I-10 Santa Monica Fwy interchange, which is the present day dividing line. The Skyway HOV lanes on the left, built in 1993, run a large portion of the route overhead. Wouldn't want to be on this highway in an earthquake ...

The level of traffic depicted is despairingly typical of all hours, any day of the week.

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End I-110. US 6 did not diverge until the junction with US 99 (present-day I-5 Golden State Fwy), and US 66 did not take over the alignment until the junction with US 101 Hollywood Fwy (which was cosigned with US 66 at that time). The Pasadena Fwy designation is the historical consequence of this; it does not start until past the Four-Level (CA 110/US 101 interchange), and so this segment of CA 110 is still called the Harbour Fwy.

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Downtown Los Angeles skyline.

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Coming up on the Four-Level Interchange (note that there is no marked exit to south US 101, despite the fact that the I-5 and I-10 exit runs on that alignment, as the East LA Interchange and the US 101 present day southern terminus is nearby). This is the historic intersection with US 66, which ran west cosigned with US 101 (exit north US 101 to follow that route). The official southern terminus of the Pasadena Fwy is here (thus the end of the Harbour Fwy). There are prominent "NO TRUCKS" warnings on the CA 110 overhead signage, a consequence of the Arroyo Seco's original design, as we have already discussed.

The "NORTH I-5" designator on the CA 110 sign is actually not Caltrans issue. It was put up by disgruntled motorist and artist Rick Ankrom in August 2001, who was tired of missing the exit (the exit to I-5 north [the old US 6 diversion] is not for several more exits, well into the tunnels). Rather than simply complain to the bureaucracy, he exhaustively researched MUTCD signing standards, designed the button copy appliques and shield himself to those standards, signed them on the back, and -- with hard hat and a forged construction logo on his truck -- calmly riveted them onto the sign in broad daylight. The forgery was so good that no one noticed: Caltrans thought it was their own work, and only found out months later when Ankrom admitted the act and showed a videotape he had made demonstrating its construction and installation. Although technically vandalism, something I normally despise, Ankrom did perform a useful public service with the sign's modification and his efforts to design the modification completely to spec deserve some credit. Caltrans must have agreed, because not only did they wisely not press charges (which would have looked pretty stupid) but the modifications were allowed to remain, signature and all.

[As of 1/2010, this sign is gone -- Caltrans replaced it with a new sign with NORTH I-5, but got the last laugh on Richard Ankrom as his sign was sold for scrap.]

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[4 Level Interchange map] Passing through the Four-Level, now travelling on old US 66. Click the thumbnail to the right for a view of the Four-Level, circa 1963 (before the Great Renumbering, showing all the routes it served). Note that after the freeway's construction, CA 11 was routed with US 66 on the Pasadena Fwy as well as with US 6 on the Harbor Fwy. Also note that this portion of US 66 here was co-signed with US 6 and CA 11 also.

The Four-Level is officially the Bill Keene Interchange, named in honour of KNX traffic and weather reporter Bill Keene (on air 1957-1993) for his contributions to Los Angeles traffic reporting by the State Senate in 2004. It was the world's first four-level interchange, designed in 1947 and open for traffic 1953-4 (the Library of Congress alleges 1949 but I find that date rather rapid and therefore dubious). It is a veritable historical relic, although some of the later modifications to that end are of suspicious import. In particular, the "antique" concrete railing visible here on the uppermost level was actually a later addition for effect. The original metal railing is visible on the level directly below it.

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Dodger Stadium exits past the Four-Level, ahead of the tunnels.

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Entering the Figueroa St tunnels (built 1936). Originally, the tunnels handled both north and southbound traffic emptied into them by the Arroyo Seco Pkwy and from Figueroa St itself. This became an obvious bottleneck as traffic levels soared and so during the construction of the Four-Level, the present-day southbound lanes were built and the tunnels allocated for northbound traffic only.

Note the object of Rick Ankrom's ire, seen at the upper left, and when they say watch for stopped vehicles, they aren't kidding.

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Through the tunnel.

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Sudden unexpected exit to Solano St and Academy Rd leaving the first tunnel, coming up on the next.

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Passing through ...

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... another tunnel. Finally, the I-5 Golden State Fwy (old US 99) appears on the left. This is where US 6 historically diverged north cosigned with US 99; note the hasty and incomplete greenout over the word "Bakersfield" to change the control city to Sacramento. Greenout with the CA 110 shield is also present, covering up the old CA 11 sign.

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Outside the tunnels, heading to the start of the Parkway. Some shots of this area, including from Avenue 26, are on the exhibit for old CA 163.

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Begin Pkwy. New historic designation signs are now up, erected 1996 (although it is still not an official historic landmark at the time of this writing).

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First advance signage for the first exit, Avenue 43.

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Coming up on the first exit.

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Avenue 43. Let's look at the anatomy of this bizarre exit configuration, which dates from the original construction and has not been upgraded since. There are others like this on CA 110; this is not the only example.

Despite being terribly antiquated by modern highway standards, the Avenue 43 exit configuration was a significant engineering innovation for its day and is noted in the Historical American Engineering Record as one of the major feats of design introduced by the Arroyo Seco.

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The exit occurs at a sharp right turn without deceleration lanes. Note that the on- and off-traffic are not divided by anything more than a double yellow line and a small, non-elevated island.

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It then crosses this charming overpass over the flood channel dated 1940 ...

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... to the street. This wide-angle shot is taken across the street on the other side. The old-style street sign can be seen (sort of) on the right. The exit and on-ramp (such as it is) are on the left.

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Getting back on the freeway, the "ramp" actually ends at a dead stop.

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There are no acceleration lanes, and no true merge. Come to a complete stop, and then floor it.

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Coming up on Highland Park.

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Old-configuration sign, with later button copy added.

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Reverse of the Ave 52 exit sign, with ugly barbed wire.

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Although many of the exits are awkward like Ave 43's, Ave 52 (here) has a more-or-less modern ramp configuration. We'll look at one of these in a moment.

Note the different colour of the left lane's asphalt. This is the old shoulder section, which was hastily incorporated into the parkway early on when the old two-lane design proved inadequate.

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Old-style white fencing is still present on the Ave 52 onramp as we pass by.

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The view here is reminiscent of what Cox likely sought to accomplish, with this (pleasantly surprisingly) open road ahead, and a rather charming view to the right of, for lack of a better name, I'm sure, the Arroyo Seco Park. Parks and greenspaces that CA 110 presently feeds include this one, as well as the Montecito Hgts Recreation Area, the Ernest E. Debs Regional Park, and (from a distance) the Arroyo Seco Golf Course.

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An interesting concrete railing on this old bridge, almost quasi-Moor. Ave 60 has another sharp sudden exit configuration like Ave 43's.

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The Santa Fe Arroyo Seco Viaduct, built in 1899. This important local conduit linked Los Angeles and Pasadena, used for short-hop traffic and transfers. The freeway was simply built under it; the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation has an intriguing photograph of the viaduct in use, as well as a rare image of the Pkwy with ... no cars. Shocking, or in the words of eBay, RARE!!! L@@K!!!!

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One of the infamous tight turns, coming around past the Marmion Wy exit.

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York Blvd bridge, sailing high above the freeway.

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Looking back at the York Blvd exit on the southbound side, which was interesting to me because of the non-standard exit arrow (not down or diagonal, but straight to the right).

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As you may or may not have noticed, there's no consistent shoulder on the Arroyo Seco. Call boxes are placed in occasional pull-over zones ...

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... which are scattered throughout inconsistently. These were introduced in 1949 as a means of ameliorating the loss of the left shoulder (see above).

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Crossing the Arroyo Seco Channel into South Pasadena.

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And what a welcome we get, from this rather charming landscaped greeting. Amazingly, it dates from the original construction of the Pkwy, and has been maintained ever since.

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First end freeway sign, just to the left of the landscaped area.

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Speaking of the Channel, on the southbound side at this point is a bridge sign still stating the route as CA 11. There are actually a couple of other bridge signs with the incorrect designation, a la remnants of CA 7; a CA 11 sign also appears on old CA 163.

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Orange Grove Avenue is one of the "proper" ramp configurations. I chose it since it goes to a rather lovely section of old Pasadena.

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The interchange, from the overpass.

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Orange Grove Avenue through Pasadena. Beautiful day.

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Getting back on the freeway. Even though there's a merge sign, don't you believe it.

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You still have to stop, and the "acceleration lane" (as it were) is precipitously short. Floor it.

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Last exit (Fair Oaks Ave to S Pasadena).

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End freeway advance signage.

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As we round the curve around Raymond Hill and look back southbound, the abandoned original ramp for Fair Oaks Ave is seen. Today it mostly collects winos and weeds.

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On some of the older postmiles, the "0" in "110" is stamped in suspiciously smaller size which makes me wonder if these are old CA 11 postmiles that were just updated rather than replaced.

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End freeway.

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Looking back southbound (one more time), we see the present-day Fair Oaks Ave exit which replaced the earlier one.

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Continuing north from this point on, we are signed as Arroyo Pkwy.

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Glenarm St intersection. The original routing continued up to Colorado Blvd, but the alignment north of this point (PM 31.9) was relinquished in 2000. Signage still persists, as we will show.

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Okay, last time we're looking back, really, honestly, no kidding, with the corresponding Arroyo Seco Pkwy historical designation sign at the northern terminus.

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CA 110 NB signage at California Blvd and Arroyo Pkwy despite CA 110 supposedly having ended blocks earlier.

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Amusing and infrequently-seen LED "no left turn" sign at California Blvd.

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Modern Arroyo Pkwy "CA 110" and I-210, the logical if not the spatial descendant of old US 66, are discontinuous. Frequent advance signage warns you to divert off for the through route.

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Colorado Blvd and Arroyo Pkwy. This is where the two US 66s met; pre-Arroyo US 66 (old US 66 ALT) headed west (left), and both US 66 and US 66 ALT headed east together. We keep going straight for the moment to run Arroyo Pkwy out to its modern end point; old Arroyo Pkwy ended right here.

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Present day termination of Arroyo Pkwy at Holly St. We turn right.

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Holly St leads directly to the beautiful old Pasadena City Hall, which is a fabulous photographic study. Built in 1927, as of this writing the City Hall Restoration site proudly asserts that all of the original plumbing is still in place. (I presume no one flushes the toilet when the Mayor is having a shower.) The courtyard is also beautiful, although I didn't have a parking space handy to go over and properly photograph it. Be sure to take in a peek whenever you're dawdling around the area; it's worth it.

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The Robinson Memorial is also nearby, a dual bust to honour brothers Jackie and Mack Robinson, both of whom grew up in Pasadena. Jackie Robinson, of course, was the African-American baseball player who broke the colour barrier in major league baseball by joining the Brooklyn (later Los Angeles) Dodgers in 1947. For his part, his older brother Matthew "Mack" Robinson had multiple athletic achievements himself, including winning silver in the 200m race at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics; he lost to Jesse Owens by an agonizing four tenths of a second. The public display was sculpted by artist Ralph Helmick and dedicated 6 November 1997.

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We turn right at the City Hall building on Garfield Ave to head south again, and join up with Colorado Blvd (old US 66) on which we head westbound.

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WB old US 66 through Pasadena. We turn right on Marengo Ave.

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NB Marengo Ave through Pasadena to I-210.

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Junction CA 134/I-210 at Marengo Ave NB.

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On our way to San Bernardino.

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