Southland Sessions

Southland Sessions

Start watching
Professor T

Professor T (UK)

Start watching
SoCal Update

SoCal Update

Start watching
Us

Us

Start watching
The Latino Experience

The Latino Experience

Start watching
Key Art of "Summer of Rockets" featuring Keeley Hawes and Toby Stephens.

Summer of Rockets

Start watching
Line of Separation Key Art.

Line of Separation

Start watching
Artbound

Artbound

Start watching
Death in Paradise Series 10

Death in Paradise

Start watching
millionaire still

KCET Must See Movies

Start watching
Independent Lens

Independent Lens

Start watching
MJ250sC-show-poster2x3-Bflky7i.png

Tending Nature

Start watching
Earth Focus

Earth Focus

Start watching
City Rising

City Rising

Start watching
Lost LA

Lost LA

Start watching
Member
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams.

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

5840135_cr_header.jpg
Support Provided By

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?

1939_parkway_plan_1920.jpg
This 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.
This 1956 Shell Oil roadmap highlights L.A.'s freeways in orange. Note that each freeway bears several route numbers -- one reason why Angelenos initially referred to freeways by name rather than number. Courtesy of the David Rusmey Map Collection.
This 1956 Shell Oil roadmap highlights L.A.'s freeways in orange.Note that each freeway bears several route numbers – one reason why Angelenos initially referred to freeways by name rather than number. Courtesy of the David Rusmey Map Collection.

Soon a shorthand emerged for describing a route through the city. Joan Didion captured this Southern California vernacular in "Play It As It Lays" (1970), in which Maria "drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura."

How, then, did that morph into "the 405 to the 110, the 110 up to the 101, the 101 to the 5, the 10, the 5, the 110, the 134"?

Two developments convinced Southern Californians to refer to freeways by number rather than name. 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.

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.

See More – That Explains It: Answers to Things You've Always Wondered About L.A.

sandiegofwy1958-thumb-600x452-99043.jpg
This 1958 photo shows the now-discontinued practice of signing freeways by their name as well as route number. Seen here is the San Diego Freeway (then CA-7, now I-405), looking south at its junction with the Ventura Freeway (US-101). Courtesy of the USC Libraries – Los Angeles Examiner Collection.

Further Reading and Research

Support Provided By
Read More
A light structure similar to scaffolds were used in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

How the Gleeful Aesthetic of L.A.’s 1984 Olympics Unified a Sprawling City

In 1984, Los Angeles exuded Olympic psychedelia, a gleeful '80s aesthetic which underlined the complementary power of sport, culture and art. It would also revitalize a bedraggled Olympic movement.
Nat King Cole And John F. Kennedy greet an African American debutante.

How African American Debutantes Shaped a New Vision of Black Womanhood

The history of the young Black "deb" illuminates African American women's history and the complexity of racial representation. Theirs is a story of challenging institutionalized stereotypes that limit the role and potential of Black girls.
A bed cushion is carried by a man walking into one of the homes in the Olympic village during the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

The Olympic Village: A Los Angeles Innovation

The Olympic Village is now an accepted part of the Olympic tradition, but it wasn't always that way. It was an innovation born in Los Angeles.