arroyo seco parkway

LA Point of Interest: The First Freeway

Arroyo Seco Parkway

I’ve always thought the Harbor Freeway after you pass downtown Los Angeles and snake through the old tunnels toward Pasadena is particularly beautiful.  Turns out that section of freeway was the first freeway ever built in the Western United States and it was originally named the Arroyo Seco Parkway.

Don’t miss out.  Sign up for our e-mail list and get a weekly digest of new posts.

Los Angeles Freeway names can get confusing.  The 110 Freeway is called the Harbor Freeway in its entirety.  However, the section north of the Four Level Interchange, aka The Stack, where it meets the 101 Freeway is referred to as The Pasadena Freeway.  That section was originally the Arroyo Seco Parkway.

Pasadena Freeway
The northbound lanes of the Harbor Freeway pass through the original art deco Figueroa Tunnels.

From The Stack, it enters the hilly Elysian Park area where the northbound lanes pass through the four Figueroa Street Tunnels and the higher southbound lanes pass through a cut through the hills.  The Figueroa Street Tunnels are a set of four four-lane tunnels that carry the northbound traffic.  The tunnels opened in 1931 and connected the north end of Figureroa Street to Figueroa Street downtown.  The route was then known as a part of the famous Route 66.

The Arroyo Seco Parkway was built in 1935 utilizing the art deco Figueroa Street Tunnels for the route.  Since that time Figueroa Street has been discontiguous.  The freeway terminates a few blocks before Colorado Street in Pasadena.  Both Colorado Street and the parkway are a part of the historic Route 66.  The Arroyo Seco Parkway wasn’t completed to the Four Level Interchange until September 22, 1953 and it was renamed the Pasadena Freeway the following year.

Though the traffic has more than quadrupled since the parkway was completed, it remains as it was originally built.  The original freeway was designed to handle a top speed of 45 miles per hour and many of the on and off ramps make sharp right turns directly onto and off of the freeway.  The entrance to the 5 Freeway (added later) is a left exit making a sharp turn and is usually backed up a long distance.

Trucks and busses were banned from the freeway in 1943 to help reduce congestion.  Busses have since been allowed back onto it, but trucks have to take the 2 Freeway into Pasadena.  Despite its age, it remains a beautiful and the fastest route from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena.

As you enter the freeway from Pasadena a sign reads “Welcome to the Historic Arroyo Seco Parkway.” The state legislature designated the original section, north of the Figueroa Street Viaduct, as a “California Historic Parkway”. The American Society of Civil Engineers named it a National Civil Engineering Landmark in 1999, and it became a National Scenic Byway in 2002.

Beginning in June 2010, the state began modifying interchange signs to remove the Pasadena Freeway name and reinstate the Arroyo Seco Parkway name. Signs that indicate route 110 as a “freeway” are being modified to “parkway” or its “Pkwy” abbreviation.  It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.

If you are visiting Los Angeles, driving this historic section of freeway is truly worthy of putting in your things to do in Los Angeles bucket list.  It is a decidedly different and beautiful stretch of freeway.  For more reading on the development of the Los Angeles freeway system, read The Unfinished Los Angeles Freeway System.

la photographer

110 freeway
Figueroa Tunnels cutting under Elysian Park.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *