The 405, The 101: Here’s why Southern Californians add ‘the’ before freeway numbers

Southern Californians are very keen on discussing traffic and directions, but it always begins with the.

You know, when you’re driving on the 101, the 110 or the (terrible) 405.

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Most of the country just says the freeway or state route number. There is no definite article.

We’re taking a road trip down 75 to Florida!”

You wouldn’t say, “We’re taking a road trip down THE 75.” 

It would be weird.

Which brings me to the question of why is this a thing here?

According to KCET, Southern California was an early adopter of the freeway system — long before the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 brought several U.S. cities their first freeways.

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A 1939 plan by the city of Los Angeles refers to proposed freeways by name rather than number. (Photo: Metro Transportation Library and Archive)

The freeways were named based on where they went or passed through, such as the Cahuenga Pass and the San Bernardino Freeway.

State highway officials also gave them routes numbers, but often times freeways in the LA area had more than one number.

“The Pasadena Freeway, for example, was Route 6, 66, and 99, all at once,” Nathan Masters from KCET writes. “The Harbor Freeway carried both Route 6 and Route 11. The Hollywood, Route 66 and 101.”

Pretty confusing, right? It was easier to call the freeway to Ventura, the Ventura Freeway, rather than a cluster of numbers.

So how did we get to calling it the 405, the 91, the 5?

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In 1964, the state simplified its highway numbering system, giving each freeway only one route number. Masters says a lot of new construction added “unfamiliar freeway names” to area road maps, and drivers found it easier to learn the new numbers rathan than new, long names like the San Gabriel River Freeway or the Redondo Beach Freeway.

Southern California eventually joined the rest of North America in referring to freeways by number instead of name, according to KCET.

But old habits die hard, and Angelenos kept their way of adding a definite article, the, to the freeway numbers—much to the amusement of transplants and visitors when receiving directions.

Tap here to read KCET’s full report.

And if you haven’t seen “The Californians” skit from Saturday Night Live, stop what you’re doing right now and Google that sh*t.

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