There’s a reason why they say ‘the 101’ down south

The simple answer: Before it was 'the 101,' it was 'the Hollywood Freeway,' of course

December 22nd, 2015 | Posted by John Frith

We tend to stick to weighty subjects on the Alliance’s blog. Bad roads destroying cars. The threat of collapsed levees in the Delta. Why Republicans in other states support transportation funding increases. Stuff like that.

But hey, it’s the holidays, so we thought we’d look at a vexing but less serious topic: Why do folks in Southern California drop a “the” in front of freeway numbers? (H/T to the Mercury News’ Mr. Roadshow and KQED TV.)

Los Angeles County, freeways

The 1939 L.A. city highway plan refers to its proposed “parkways” by name, not number.

As someone who has lived for many years on both sides of the Tehachapi, we have to be careful to refer to “the 5” when talking to L.A. friends about the Golden State/Santa Ana freeways, but just “5” when in Sacramento. It’s a balancing act but one we’re pretty successful at doing. But why do we have to do it in the first place?

A recent report by Nathan Masters, a manager for the USC Libraries, seemingly answers the question.

Masters points out that the first segments of the region’s vast freeway network predate being part of state and national highway systems. The Arroyo Seco Parkway, later the Pasadena Freeway (and now once again the Arroyo Seco Parkway, aka the 110) and the first portion of the Hollywood Freeway through Cahuenga Pass opened before World War II. The first wave of freeways were always called by their names — the San Diego, the Hollywood, the Harbor, the Ventura.

And since the numbering system changed several times over the years as the old U.S. highway numbers were retired and mainly replaced by new Interstates, it was still much easier to call them by their names. Masters notes that the Pasadena Freeway was for a time U.S. 6, U.S. 66 and U.S. 99 — all at the same time — before becoming SR 11 and later SR 110.

But as the network grew, the names became more complex and less descriptive. Our favorite example is I-605, the San Gabriel River Freeway. Yes, it follows the river, but to where? We recall even back in the ’70s and ’80s hearing radio station traffic reporters (back before Waze, children, they told us where accidents were up ahead to help us plan our trips) calling that highway “the 605” while still referring to other freeways by name.

As Masters puts it:

Although the transition was gradual — numbers only eclipsed names in common usage in the late 1970s, and Caltrans still included the old names in signage through the 1990s — Southern Californians eventually joined the rest of North America in referring to freeways by number. But when they did, they retained their old habit of prefixing a definite article, the, giving rise to a regional idiom that still confounds and amuses outsiders today.

So, NorCal, let’s cut our southern cousins some slack and try not to snicker at their regional dialect. At least they don’t say “hella.”