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The What?

from KCET

The 5, the 101, the 405: Why Southern Californians Love Saying ‘the’ Before Freeway Numbers

by Nathan Masters

1939_parkway_plan_1920.jpgThis 1939 plan, developed by the city of Los Angeles, refers to its proposed freeways by name rather than number. Priority parkways are highlighted in color in this 1943 reprinting of the plan from “Freeways for the Region.” Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Southern Californians have a distinctive – “Saturday Night Live’s” Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig might say funny – way of giving directions. To get from Santa Monica to Hollywood, take the 10 to the 110 to the 101. Burbank to San Diego? The 134 to the 5. And, if you can, always avoid the 405.

Why the definite articles? After all, a resident of the Bay Area enjoys coastal drives along “101” or takes “80 east” to Sacramento. Most of North America, in fact, omits the “the” before route numbers.

The answer begins with the region’s early embrace of the freeway. Long before the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 gave most U.S. cities their first freeways, Los Angeles had built several. These weren’t simply extensions of federal interstate highways through the city; they were local routes, engineered to carry local traffic and (partly) paid for by local funds. It only made sense that, as they opened one by one, they’d get local names, ones that succinctly denoted their route or destination. 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.

State highway officials did affix route numbers to these freeways. But clarity dictated that Southern Californians continue to use their descriptive names. In their early years, most Los Angeles-area freeways bore signs for multiple numbered highway routes. The Pasadena Freeway, for example, was Route 6, 66, and 99, all at once. The Harbor Freeway carried both Route 6 and Route 11. The Hollywood, Route 66 and 101. Who wouldn’t prefer the simplicity of a name over a confusing array of numbers?

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Posted on September 14, 2017 by Editor

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