Highway 101 stretches from Los Angeles all the way up California, but there’s a noted difference between how a resident of L.A. refers to it and how a resident of San Francisco refers to it. Thanks to my Southern California upbringing, I refer to “taking the 101,” while a denizen of Oakland or San Jose, or someone further up the coast in Oregon or Washington, would probably instruct a traveler to simply “take 101.”
This is the only time Southern Californians get particularly attached to their definite articles compared to natives of other regions. Why the difference?
It all has to do with how long freeways have been a part of the Southern Californian landscape. When the Arroyo Seco Parkway opened between L.A. and Pasadena in 1940, it was the first freeway in the West (New York already had a few). But outside of Los Angeles and New York City, many places didn’t get highways until Eisenhower launched the Interstate Highway system in 1956.
By the time the rest of the country started building highways, L.A. already had several local freeways. They all had local names that described their route, like “the San Bernadino Freeway” or “the Ventura Freeway.” Besides, certain freeways encompassed multiple route numbers—the Hollywood Freeway was both Route 66 and 101, depending on where you were along it.
In 1964, California simplified its numbering system so the highways only had one route number each, but the linguistic pattern was already set. Eventually, people began to replace the descriptive names like the Harbor Freeway with route numbers, but it was still the 110, not 110.
Essentially, “the” is just Southern Californians’ saying “I drove along highways before it was cool.” Hipness is at least one bright side of dealing with all that traffic.