Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
It’s not an affectation of the car-obsessed—it’s history.
Take the 101 to the 134 to the 10. Adding definite articles in front of every highway, freeway, and interstate must sound like an affectation to out-of-town ears. So why do California drivers talk like that?
It’s not only those drawling, car-obsessed Pacific Coasters who can’t stop adding “the” to their roads. The transpo-idiom can be heard on roads all over the West, from Utah to Nevada to Arizona. And it’s not an affectation; there’s a reason for it, according to Nathan Masters over at KCET, related to the region’s long-standing love affair with the private automobile.
Take Los Angeles, where the practice of adding “the” to highway numbers is probably most acute. By 1956, when the Federal Aid Highway Act spread high-volume, automobile-only routes all over the country, L.A. had already built a ton of roads. The city’s early freeways were local routes, Masters writes, “engineered to carry local traffic and (partly) paid for by local funds.” Rather than be known by an anonymous pair of federally designated digits, these freeways were named after the places they passed through or ended.
The freeway through the Cahuenga Pass thus became the Cahuenga Pass Freeway, and Angelenos knew the freeway to San Bernardino as the San Bernardino Freeway.
These freeways also carried route numbers designated by state highway officials. But they often had multiple numbers. The Hollywood Freeway, for example, included both Routes 66 and 101. Calling these roads by their place names was just simpler.
So how did we get from “the Hollywood Freeway” to “the 101”? Masters explains:
In 1964, the state simplified its highway numbering system, ensuring that, with few exceptions, each freeway would bear only one route number. Around the same time, a flurry of new construction added unfamiliar freeway names to the region's road maps. Drivers found it easier to learn new numbers like the 605 or the 91 rather than new names like the San Gabriel River Freeway or the Redondo Beach Freeway.
Though locals largely adopted numbers over names by the 1970s, the “the” stuck around. And plenty of the region’s old-timers can still be heard explaining their commutes along the Harbor Freeway or the Santa Monica Freeway, even though Caltrans has long stopped including those names on signage.
As for other Western states, some (Arizona and Nevada, for example) saw bursts of locally funded highway construction in the early 20th century, and similarly named their roads for local places. That shift, plus a steady migration of Californians, might be why you hear locals throughout the West who just can’t shake the “the.”