California Road Naming And Direction Conventions

A newcomers guide to driving in Cali

California has a lot of roads and a number of different road types. From freeways to country roads, expressways to parkways, it’s easy to become confused when traveling from point A to point B.  While official naming and marking conventions don’t vary much throughout the sate, they way that locals refer to various roads are far from standard.

So, before you hit the road in your California car rental, remember to brush up on your road naming and driving conventions – both the official and not-so-official versions. Here’s a rundown of what you need to know.

The Difference Between Roadways in California

There are four types of major roadways in California:

  1. Freeways
    Freeways are large, multi-lane, limited access roads (think motorways in the U.K. or autobahns in Germany). These roads prohibit the types of vehicles that can drive on them. For example, mopeds, bicycles, and pedestrians are prohibited. California car rental travelers won’t encounter any stoplights or stop signs on freeways. Cross traffic is prohibited, and most freeways are completely divided. Speed limits are usually 55 or 65 miles per hour. Rural freeways often have a posted limit of 70 miles per hour.California car rental travelers may encounter California Highway Patrol officers along these routes. These officers enforce traffic violations and ensure the safe handling of traffic accidents and car breakdowns. It’s also worth noting that most freeways and highways (see next bullet point) are equipped with roadside emergency phones or call-boxes, a handy tool if ever your cellphone runs out of battery during a long California car rental commute.
  2. Highways
    Highways come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, many of the larger ones (like the US 395 or US 50 between Sacramento and Placerville) are essentially freeways in all sense except the naming. With that being said, the main characteristic that distinguishes freeways from highways is the fact that cross traffic is permitted through the use of traffic lights and stop signs.The California Highway Patrol and sometimes the local police force patrol state and federal highways. The county sheriff’s deputies and local police monitor county highways.

    If this has you confused, here’s a quick tip from the California car rental experts at Super Cheap: all Interstate routes are freeways; however, not all US or state routes are freeways. Most state routes are actually highways.

  3. Parkways and Expressways
    This type of roadway is the equivalent of a short urban or suburban highway. These are usually multi-laned and divided for safety. California car rental travelers may encounter traffic lights and stop signs along these routes. Parkways and expressways normally have higher speed limits than surrounding suburban roads.
  4. Urban and Suburban Roads
    These are “normal” roads – the ones that are located in cities and suburbs. Speed limits are normally around 25 miles per hour.

Note: Turnpikes are not used in California. As such, don’t be surprised if the locals look at you oddly if you happen to use this phrase when asking for directions.

Official Naming Conventions

Officially, black and white shield-shaped signs identify federal freeways and highways in California. The route number is painted in black on a white background with a shield bordered by black. If you’re looking at a map in your California car rental, federal highways and freeways are denoted in the form “US 101”, or the shield with the number in it.

Interstates, on the other hand, are identified with a red, white and blue shield (a blue background with white numbering and a red top). These shields are also shaped differently than federal freeway and highway markers. Interstates are normally referred to in the form “I-880” in maps or as “Interstate 880”.

Local Confusion: The name “Interstate” can be a little misleading to California car rental travelers. Some Interstates in California go only a few miles or link other freeways with each other. This is just a quirk of the state and something that rental car drivers will have to get used to.

Green rounded-triangle signs with white numbering denote state routes. Unfortunately, state routes are referred to in a wide variety of ways in maps and publications; so don’t just look for the green shield marking on your map. Some popular map markings include ovals and squares for state routes.

Feeling apprehensive about driving your California car rental during your visit? Don’t be! Simply ask a Super Cheap rental agent for assistance.