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L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

Bikeway Was Ahead of Its Time

November 29, 1998|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

As the darlings of both cardiologists and environmentalists, bicycles are very much a thing of the moment.

But as the users of the Los Angeles region's proliferating bikeways pant their way to ecologically sound good health, few probably realize that--in Southern California terms--they are definitely pedaling back to the future.

Take, for example, the first phase of the Los Angeles River Bike Path Project--L.A.'s first lighted bike path to downtown--which opened last year. More than a century ago, along the sycamore-shaded Arroyo Seco, a visionary pedal-power promoter named Horace Dobbins pondered the problem of linking the growing Pasadena area with downtown Los Angeles. What Dobbins envisioned was an elevated bikeway that he hoped would mark a turning point in transportation history.

Sport in Fashion

It was the Golden Age of bicycling, and the sport was not only a fashionable craze, but also the center of many Angelenos' social life. Around town, the sight of young women bouncing around on handlebars with their beaus singing the popular song "Daisy Bell" was common.

Hiking their long skirts, women began to enjoy the surge of unbridled independence when manufacturers removed the bar down the center of the bike, allowing modesty and mobility to strike their own balance on two wheels.

Bicycle clubs such as the East Side Club in Boyle Heights and the Wanderers in Santa Monica often raced one another. The Crown City Club in Pasadena had its own one-third-mile track for racing, a club uniform and, as one newspaper said, "a strict prohibition against group bicycle runs on the Sabbath."

The Los Angeles-to-Santa Monica bike race was held every July 4, and it was the proud Riverside Club that held the Los Angeles-to-Riverside bicycle racing record of 4 hours, 15 minutes.

On Jan. 1, 1900, throngs of self-propelled commuters lined up spoke-to-spoke and gladly paid a nickel to pedal along a four-lane wooden bikeway that stood three to 50 feet above the ground. It extended from Dayton Street in Pasadena, just south of the Green Hotel, to the Hotel Raymond in South Pasadena, then the Southland's largest tourist hotel. The 1.4-mile route began over an alleyway between Fair Oaks and Raymond avenues. But the short section of the Pasadena Cycleway soon became known as the "ride from nowhere to nowhere," when funding ran short and cyclists that were once lulled by the rhythm of the wheels got tired of lugging their bikes up stairs to the track.

Dobbins, the promoter of all this pedal power, almost brought his dream to completion--even though he was not a bicycle enthusiast. Later mayor of Pasadena, he was a visionary businessman who dabbled in waste management and also happened to build one of the largest three-hull catamarans ever constructed.

In 1897, this wealthy Easterner who had settled in Pasadena a decade earlier founded the California Cycleway Co., an enterprise for "bicycles and other horseless vehicles" that aimed to turn cycling into a profitable venture.

The stockholders were capitalists in high-collar shirts, not granola-munching environmentalists. Bicycling was the high-tech transport of the time, and Dobbins' investors expected to make a bundle.

If you build it, they will come, was the strategy.

Dobbins envisioned an elevated route from Pasadena through South Pasadena, hugging the curves of the Arroyo Seco (now the route of the Pasadena Freeway) and tunneling through the hills of Elysian Park to downtown Los Angeles.

Incandescent lights placed at 200-foot intervals would convert the bikeway into a "gleaming serpent." The elegant Merlemont Casino, complete with cafes, restaurants, reception and luxurious waiting rooms and a Swiss dairy, was planned at the halfway point in Highland Park.

Worldwide Publicity

There was money behind the project, state legislation to allow it and worldwide publicity touting it as the "world's first elevated bikeway" and "the only toll road catering exclusively to two-wheelers."

"The earth turns and we turn the earth," Dobbins said as he shoveled the first spade of dirt at the casino's groundbreaking ceremony. The crowd gave three rousing cheers, a bugle sounded and the bikeway was off and pedaling.

Well, not quite.

Although it was called an "engineering marvel" at a cost of $200,000, Dobbins did not count on a growing army of motorists traveling courtesy of Henry Ford's mass production, or on the local opposition from the much wealthier Henry Huntington, who didn't want competition for his Pacific Electric Railway.

With his inheritance money gone, Dobbins' right of way was an attractive target for other transportation moguls. Construction was halted, and Dobbins eventually was forced to sell his route to the Southern Pacific Railway in a hostile takeover. The veloway, as it was briefly known, was buried. Dobbins lived on in Pasadena until his death in 1962.

His bikeway's proposed route was adopted in the late 1930s by the builders of the Pasadena Freeway. Today, a new generation of bicycle enthusiasts, including Dobbins' grandson, Will Dobbins--who serves on the board of California Cycleways, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to bike advocacy--wants to exhume its remains and build a bicycle superhighway. It would be elevated, lighted, patrolled and landscaped for $18.5 million.

Rasmussen's new book, "L.A. Unconventional," a collection of stories about Los Angeles' unique and offbeat characters, is available at most bookstores or can be ordered by calling (800) 246-4042. The special price of $30.95 includ

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