California's new exit strategy - driving by number

The existential angst of finding yourself in the Golden State: Is there any there there if Cucamonga becomes exit 121?

This is a good news story for the thousands of Americans who come to California to find themselves - but then find themselves getting lost.

It's for road weary California-freeway drivers who ask for directions to the correct exit - only to be told, unceremoniously, where to get off.

It's for once-loving local families, who are bickering over crumpled California road maps, squinting under 10-watt, glove-compartment light bulbs, and debating the existential conundrum, "Are we there yet?"

This is a story about the last state in the union to number its freeway signs.

California has decided to join the rest of the nation in numbering exits on freeways and Interstates. The rest of the country did this in 1950, but the Golden State has postponed the process on account of funding constraints.

The state has long valued some of its free-form rudderlessness - a kind of rainbow's end libertarianism that attracts seekers, often with chapped, hitchhiker thumbs. It also values the school of thought that resists eclipsing the beauty of the verbal - names such as Ventura, Carmel - in exchange for the clinical dryness of the digit.

But not wanting to get too far lost in the rearview mirror of modern convenience, the state begins embracing its new exit strategy this month.

"This will finally get this state up to snuff with the rest of America," says Jeff Spring of the Auto Club of Southern California.

"It's simply a matter of convenience and safety. Too many people were swerving at the last minute to get off at freeway exits they couldn't find until the last minute."

The plan will cost $30 million, with exit numbers ascending from zero at the Mexican border (for north/south freeways) and also ascending from zero at the Pacific Ocean (for freeways running east and west.) The process will take three years and include 23,000 signs at 5,800 exits on 92 highways.

The idea is simple: All exits will be numbered, in order, with roughly the same digits as the number of miles that the particular exit is from the starting point.

Gone (allegedly) will be the confusion of outsiders confronted by an onslaught of similar sounding names (Mendocino, Montecito, Monterey, Monterrey Park). Arrived (allegedly) will be smoother driving on the nation's most clogged freeways, with less hassle caused by cars in the far left lane suddenly cutting across four lanes of traffic.

I have done an informal poll and found that Californians who emigrated from other states are welcoming the idea.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," says my Michigan-born wife, who notes the state has enough Santas (Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Santa Clarita, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara) to befuddle a tour bus full of cartographers and GTS (Global Tracking System) executives.

"Now I can tell my friends, you get off at exit number thus-and-so and there's no chance of a screw up," she says.

Such a system also helps when more than one freeway exits into the same community: the "El Camino Real" exit from Interstate 5 in San Clemente, for instance, as distinguished from "El Camino Real" exit from nearby route 91.

Or the bewilderment of travelers reading notices such as, "San Diego, next 12 exits."

But some who grew up here and have had experience with numbered exits elsewhere aren't completely persuaded.

How does a number help, some natives wonder, if you're mapless and you're used to feeling your way by placename? In other words: "Santa Clarita" says it all for a native; exit 13 sparks panic.

Because the process will take three years, some say there could be a hitch.With California currently $12 billion in the red, officials north and south are looking for everywhere possible to cut funding.

If the project only makes it half way up the state, those "Santa" communities south of the line will have numbers and those north of the line will not. Some say pan-California travelers may have to be notified legally of such a change, entitled, presumably, the Santa clause.

But others say such legalisms would amount to overwrought bureaucratese from an overlitigious society.

They claim there never was, and never should be, a Santa clause.

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