California Freeway Names

— North and South —

This is my take on why people in Southern and Northern California refer to their freeways in slightly different ways.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area in the heart of Silicon Valley. It is a small thing, but it is easy to tell if a person is visiting the area from Southern California. It shows up when people refer to freeway names.

In Southern California the freeway name or number is usually preceded by the word "The" as in "The 210" or "The 405." There are a couple of heavily traveled highways, in California, that go through both the north and south parts of the state. One is U.S. Highway 101 (US 101) and Interstate Highway 5 (I-5). In the south US 101 is referred to as "The 101" while in the north you will hear the same highway referred to simply as "101." Likewise, the southern name for I-5 is "The 5" and in the north the same highway is called "I-5."

I have my own theory as to why there is a difference in the naming conventions. Freeways first appeared in Southern California. Many of the super-highways were the first routes through an area. Freeways in the Southland started out with descriptive names, usually a destination away from Los Angeles. So you would hear traffic reports about "The Santa Monica Freeway," "The Harbor Freeway," or "The San Diego freeway."

In the northland there were regular state and U.S. highways that were referred to by there number preceded with the word "Highway" such as "Highway 101" or "Highway 17." These highways were converted to limited-access freeways after people had become accustomed to using highway numbers. As a result, even though the freeways were given names such as "Bayshore Freeway" and "Nimitz Freeway," people were used to referring to the highways by their numbers.

As more and more traffic situations needed to be reported on the radio, the highway names were abbreviated to save time. (Seconds saved could be used for additional commercials.) A common method of abbreviation is to remove the common or redundant words, such as "Freeway" and "Highway" from a traffic report. So, in the Los Angeles area, The Harbor Freeway became "The Harbor" and "The San Diego Freeway" became "The San Diego." At the same time in the San Francisco Bay Area, "Highway 101" became a very simple "101" and Highway 17 became known simply as "17."

When the Interstate Highway System came along, the cross country freeways tended to be known by their number preceded by the word "Interstate" as in "Interstate 80" or "Interstate 10." Following my rules of north and south naming customs, Interstate 10 (in the Southland) became "The I-10" or simply "The 10" and Interstate 80 (in the north) was referred to as "I-80" or just "80" in traffic reports.

There were a couple of scenes in a popular TV series, placed in San Francisco, that illustrated how the different naming patterns can show up. When the TV show "Nash Bridges" starring Don Johnson went on the air, an early episode had Nash Bridges talking on his police radio telling headquarters that the bad guy had turned his car onto "THE 101." This let the audience in the San Francisco Bay Area know that this cop was not from around here. Because Don Johnson has lived many years in the Los Angeles area, he quite naturally referred to the freeway in the manner he was accustomed. This also happens occasionally when a new reporter from Southern California goes to work for a TV or radio station in Northern California.


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