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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A Road as a Route and Place: The Evolution and Transformation of the Arroyo Seco Parkway


A predecessor of the modern freeway and a celebrated transportation model of the early 20th century, the urban parkway has fallen on difficult times. Designed for uninterrupted and pleasurable driving through park-like surroundings and a visual connection to the communities the driver passed through, parkways were once hailed as marvels of transportation innovation and design, and as safe and efficient alternatives to non-limited access arterials and boulevards. By the 1950s, however, the goals of pleasurable driving and visual connection had progressively faded in favor of engineering efficiency and higher capacity use. In the meantime, existing parkways became tangled in a web of problems. Originally designed for fewer cars at lower speeds, parkways like the Arroyo Seco Parkway had to accommodate significant increases in vehicles at much higher speeds. This led to traffic congestion (the ten minute trip of 1941 along the Arroyo Seco might now take as long as 40 minutes), bottlenecks, and a major increase in traffic accidents.

Today, the Arroyo Seco Parkway stands as a representative example of an urban parkway still in use but fraught with problems due to its disjuncture between its original conception and ultimate evolution. These changes also symbolize some of the problems and challenges in a freeway-centered transportation system. In what follows we will revisit the history and goals of early parkways, focusing in particular on the “first freeway of the West,” the celebrated Arroyo Seco Parkway. We will examine the forces that brought about its painful evolution and transformation from a visually appealing roadway to an accident-ridden freeway. Drawing from the specific example of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, our investigation will trace the change of the parkway model over time. At the core of our discussion lies the desire to examine if early parkways have indeed become “dinosaurs,” obsolete roadways incapable of accommodating contemporary traffic demands, or if they can be revamped and reclaimed as successful elements of an integrated urban transportation network.

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