Here’s Why Southern California Freeways Have ‘The’ in Their Names

It’s a staple of Southern California commuter culture and it all comes from the early pioneering of America's freeways.
Getty/Chris Rosales

I’ve gone years saying it without noticing it, but one day in my early adult life, I got roasted for saying “the 101” in front of a friend from out of town. As a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, I have no other way of referring to a highway. It turns out that Los Angelino’s love for the definite article comes from LA being one of the earliest pioneers of the modern freeway system.

In the ‘50s, the interstate system was in its earliest stages. It wasn’t until the Federal Highway Aid Act of 1956 that construction officially began on federally-funded interstate highways, a new generation of ultra-wide high-speed roads designed to link the country. Before that, local and state governments experimented with parkways and freeways. One of the earliest was the Arroyo Seco Parkway which connected Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles.

The trouble was California’s state highway numbering system was a mess. Highways in Los Angeles had several route numbers for the same freeway. For example, the modern US-101 in Hollywood used to be route 101 and 66. The nearby Harbor Freeway, now state route 110, was once known as route 11, 6, and 99. This presented an issue for those ancestral Angelinos. The solution was the local names given to the freeways when constructed. Instead of route 101-66, it was commonly called the Hollywood Freeway. The 11-6-99 was the Harbor Freeway. And the 11-99 was the aforementioned Arroyo Seco Parkway.

I pulled out my 1956 edition Thomas Brothers map to check the info, and it’s genuinely fascinating to look at. All of the freeway names on the map still exist on the modern highway signs in LA. Thanks to a state act in 1964, the freeways were consolidated into single route numbers, and the local names for the highways fell out of fashion. But the ever-important definite article used to name the Arroyo Seco parkway stuck, even as it evolved into state route 110. Sorry, the 110.

It’s one of my favorite bits of SoCal dialect. Yes, it might sound dumb to a fair portion of the country, thanks to The Californians on SNL. But yes, we do really say it like that. Now I’m gonna take it to the 10, switch over to 405 north, and get off on Mulholland where I belong.

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