During a recent holiday visit to Los Angeles, my family visited the new Cars Land in Disney’s California Adventure. This neat addition to the park got me thinking of the original US Highway 66, and its impact on American development and American culture. Though often framed in a nostalgic light, I view the story of Highway 66 as one of search for efficiency in an ever-changing world of development, destruction, and rejuvenation.
Thousands of people drove Highway 66 to move west during the 20th century. This mass migration was arguably as significant as covered wagons crossing the continent a century earlier. Individual sections of the legendary highway provide a fascinating glimpse of change. For instance, Highway 66 historically ended at the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, California, steps away from the famous Santa Monica Pier. A few miles inland, the highway had routed over the Arroyo Seco Parkway (pdf) between Pasadena and Los Angeles. The Parkway is generally considered the first modern freeway in the United States. It opened on December 30, 1940, with leading-edge technology of dedicated lanes, no cross traffic, and a divided highway.
What is not so well known is that part of the for the Arroyo Seco’s right-of-way was initially developed as an elevated bicycle route. Imagine that! The initial stretch of America’s first freeway began at a time when the nation was enamored with bicycles. In fact,the national interest in bicycling spawned the League of American Wheelmen, to support “good roads” for the mode. A Southern California Chapter of the League, the Los Angeles Wheelmen, was eventually superseded by the American Automobile Association, an organization that also sponsored “good roads,” as well as clear signage, safe driving, and standardized highway numbering.
What is perhaps more amazing is that in the heart of the most car-centric culture in America, bicycle riding continues to flourish with the Los Angeles Wheelmen, who still advocate safe roads, and coordination of short and long-distance rides to promote bicycle use. So what was originally set up for bikes was replaced by cars and asphalt decades ago—but has remained for bikes over time, on the infrastructure that replaced them.
The envelope pictured here was sent via Wells Fargo Express sometime in the 1890s by a bicyclist in Santa Monica, to the LA Wheelmen in Los Angeles, at that time a pretty good distance. Wells Fargo has been in Los Angeles since 1855, and in Santa Monica since 1879. While the distance between the two places hasn’t changed, the service time between them has. It just depends on whether you’re on a bicycle or in a car, or on the internet!