A More Perfect LA? Excavating the Cycleway

A segment of the Cycleway map

A segment of the Cycleway map

The Arroyo Seco corridor, connecting Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles and thus a significant commuter thoroughfare, is an appropriate lens through which to examine a slice of the city’s complex transportation history. Horace Dobbins’s never-completed bicycle “Cycleway” path, the subject of this essay, is depicted alongside the Red Car line, once part of the most extensive public transit system in the country before tracks were demolished to make way for automobiles and freeways. The old Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway track is now repurposed as the Metro Gold Line. For future-minded Angelenos with a renewed passion for public transit, bicycle commutes, and even trekking through the city on foot, these memory maps of old routes tantalize us with the question, “What if?”

The following excerpt from  LAtititudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas tracks the author’s journey in uncovering the truth about this elusive path.

Cycleway

By Dan Koeppel

The California Cycleway wasn’t just the first freeway in Los Angeles. It was also the best, because it envisioned a more perfect version of this city—a place where bicycles, not cars, ruled the road. The first time I heard about the Cycleway, I was captivated and stricken with disbelief. It was the mid-1990s, and I was with Dennis Crowley, a bike activist who believed that the old pathway could be—had to be—rebuilt. Crowley took a group of us into the Arroyo Seco, the dry creek bed whose route the Cycleway was to have paralleled. A modern bike path had been cut into the concrete-lined waterway, but to Crowley, it was an abomination.

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Horace Dobbins, creator of the California Cycleway, showing off what would be the Cycleway's downfall, an automobile, in 1900. Courtesy of Pasadena Museum of History.

Horace Dobbins, creator of the California Cycleway, showing off what would be the Cycleway’s downfall, an automobile, in 1900. Courtesy of Pasadena Museum of History.

Twenty thousand miles of road crisscross the county of Los Angeles, spreading across an area as big as the state of Connecticut. The region is frequently thought of as oversized, unmanageable, even ugly—a heartless, soulless array of mini-malls and blacktop.

Here’s what I tell people—and I say it a lot, so much that my friends and acquaintances are tired of hearing it: If that’s the Los Angeles you see, you’re probably looking out the windshield of a car. Released from our steel-and-glass enclosures, the size of Los Angeles suddenly becomes the source of its power; the city transforms into the world’s biggest game board, with endless variation and permutation, infinite opportunities for exploration and revelation.

I have been “playing” this Los Angeles for over two decades. The game involves searching, finding passages that span both physical place and time, and then bringing people along. I lead walks through the city along themed or idealized passages, trying, for example, to ring downtown along dirt roads, back alleys, and networks of public stairways. To me, there’s soul-nourishing discovery, even beauty, in Los Angeles’s infamous sprawl.

The great California Cycleway in 1900. Courtesy of Pasadena Museum of History.

The great California Cycleway in 1900. Courtesy of Pasadena Museum of History.

Early on, most of my explorations were speculative—a search with no particular object in mind, other than discovering things I didn’t know about and hadn’t seen. I opened my walks to the public, hoping that they would attract people to walking in a city that, to say the least, was unwelcoming to the activity. But over the past few years, an almost shocking transformation has begun. Pedestrianism and bicycling are undergoing a renaissance in Los Angeles. Much of that activity is focused on the neighborhoods between Pasadena and Los Angeles, among the region’s most densely populated, polluted, and traffic clogged. Those communities—and I live in one of them—are in desperate need of cleaner, calmer ways to get around. Over the years, I came to view the Cycleway, as described to me by Crowley and then, especially, as depicted in the Pearson’s article that I discovered several years later, as a template, a vision of Los Angeles as it once was and maybe could be again.

There was only one problem: The British magazine Pearson’s was a reputable publication, but when it came to Denham’s story, its London editors were hoodwinked, something I discovered as I turned my explorations toward the Cycleway, looking for traces of it in the modern landscape. The California Cycleway was a real thing, but the project the article described—majestic, visionary, and especially complete—never happened.

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I’d become obsessed with the idea of finding a piece of the Cycleway within the boundaries of the City of Los Angeles. To me, such a remnant would be proof that Dobbins’s vision extended far enough that his legacy, his dream, could be taken seriously—and could, perhaps, be embraced in a Los Angeles that is currently thinking about more gentle ways to move people from home to work, suburb to city.

 

Read about Koeppel’s complete journey in LAtititudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas. Also, Koeppel, along with several other authors, will be leading tours based on their essays during FOUND L.A. on Oct. 17 and 18.

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