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American Speech 76.2 (2001) 221-224

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"The" Freeway in Southern California

Grant Geyer, Walnut Creek, California

Visitors to southern California who rent a car and need to ask travel directions soon learn that an extra word is necessary. Residents of metropolitan Los Angeles use the article the preceding the number of an interstate highway, which is not true elsewhere, even in the northern part of the same state.

As the use of the automobile began to take over intercity transportation in North America, naming highways with numbers was not always our nation's general practice. As early as the first decade of the 1900s, a loose collection of streets, roads, and wagon tracks carried an official designation of The Lincoln Highway westward from New York City. Between those early days and World War II, states and counties began numerical route designations. The federal government also supported certain arteries under the old U.S. highway system, whereby north-south routes had odd numbers and east-west routes even ones. General conversation tended to use either the number by itself (no the) or the prefix Route (again, no the); hence, The car died on 380 halfway between Greenville and McKinney, and I Get My Kicks on Route 66.

For many small towns and cities, official names were shortened to the road or the highway (later free-, express-, and thruways). Today, you hear in many rural or semirural areas It's four miles outta town on the interstate 'long towards Goshen. Elsewhere, where toll roads were used, where there was but one, you'd hear up the turnpike or down the pike, but at the same time, when discussing a larger area, the usage required the Pennsylvania Turnpike or the New Jersey Turnpike.

Los Angeles 60 years ago invented freeway, a term clearly meant to specify divergence from the tollway concept, meaning 'free of charge', as in [End Page 221] 'nontoll'. Especially car-conscious residents of metropolitan Los Angeles, the freeway city, long ago established themselves as a mobile community, with a hard loamy soil and reasonably dry, warm weather, where decent roads were cheap and easy to build. It was not unusual even in the 1930s for people to drive long distances within what was at that time America's most spread-out metropolis. A hundred years earlier, Richard Henry Dana observed in Two Years before the Mast, while traveling at breakneck speed in a six-horse coach from San Pedro north, that the Pueblo of Los Angeles could build roads wherever they wanted. In fact, travel so lacked barriers that the horses more or less raced along wherever they pleased across the flat terrain, merely needing to sense their destination.

In about 1941, just before the completion of the first of the famous freeways, intercity traffic came into Los Angeles on the north-south axis on U.S. 99, U.S. 101, or California Route 1. To and from the east, it was U.S. 66. Before the freeways were built, locals generally preferred the old, time-honored street or road names instead of numbers in conversation. So for 'U.S. 99' they said San Fernando Road because the highway followed that particular named street, as far as the distant end of "town." Likewise, 'U.S. 101' was Ventura Boulevard and 'Route 1' was Pacific Coast Highway. Eastward, though the eventual cross-country conduit ended up being Route 66, until leaving town (which could be a distance of 30-40 miles) a driver spoke of Foothill Boulevard, Colorado Street, Valley Boulevard, Olympic Boulevard, and so forth, which were the major east-west arteries before freeway days. And leaving from downtown Los Angeles or Hollywood to head up the coast, you took THE Pacific Coast Highway (from the Westside) or Cahuenga Pass or THE Cahuenga Pass road. Route 1 or Route 101 was not used in town.

So there was usage both with and without the in southern California, with dominance perhaps by those not using the article. But in 1941 or so, THE Pasadena Freeway (then baptized THE Arroyo Seco Freeway ['brook dry' in...


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pp. 221-224
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