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In Los Angeles, California, the US, the phrase surface street is in common use. It refers to an ordinary city street, as opposed to a controlled-access freeway. Presumably the word surface comes from the fact that these streets are at ground level, whereas freeways are often elevated.

I suppose I first heard this phrase somewhere in southern California, but assumed it was a standard term that I just happened to be hearing for the first time. But I have now seen claims that surface street is specifically local to Los Angeles and the vicinity (example from the LA Times).

  • Is the use of surface street localized only to southern California, or is it in general use anywhere else?

  • Are there other common terms (either widespread or localized to other places) for a street or road which emphasize that it is not a freeway?

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  • If there are better tags, please feel free to add them. I looked for a "local-dialect" tag but did not find it. Jun 20, 2015 at 4:28
  • It's definitely used in the northeast. Or, at least, my friends use it here. They also use "local streets".
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 20, 2015 at 4:28
  • I’m not sure where that author gets it. I’ve heard ***surface streets *** used many other places.
    – Jim
    Jun 20, 2015 at 4:36
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    We use it in Northern California (or more accurately, the San Francisco Bay Area), too. I suspect that the tendency of route-mapping software to prefer freeway routes has led to greater consciousness of the term "surface streets" among people who would rather avoid freeways.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 20, 2015 at 7:27
  • @Dan: I've lived in both Southern California and the Northeast, and I suspect that the reason you hear it is that you have friends from California. In my experience, most Northeasterners don't use it. And it is certainly much more common in Southern California than the Northeast. Jun 20, 2015 at 12:36

2 Answers 2

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Surface Streets Kayte Deioma, Driving in Los Angeles: Los Angeles Driving Vocabulary, about.com

In Los Angeles, the term "surface street" refers to any normal street that is not a freeway or limited access highway.

Wiktionary

A street that is not a freeway and has at-grade intersections with other surface streets.

The Wiktionary definition agrees with the idea of "ordinary city street, that is not a freeway; is at ground level, unlike elevated freeways," while the vocabulary seems to suggest that the term is local to Los Angeles, CA.

However, surface street is a standard term in engineering, including transportation, highway engineering, railways, etc., and is not specific to LA, or even to CA.

Steven Kuhrtz, US EPA Transportation controls, 1974

"… surface street bus lanes in Atlanta, Birmingham, and Baltimore have increased auto speeds more than bus speeds."

Traffic Analysis Toolbox US DoT FHA, 2007
"… a surface street section inserted in a freeway interchange to allow merging of ramp lanes"
enter image description here

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The term "surface street" appears to have originated towards the end of the 19th century in the proposals to build urban railways; in order to distinguish the ground level from underground and elevated systems.

For example, the 1867 report of the "Special commission to ascertain the best means for the transportation of passengers in the city of New York" in 1867 proposes building an underground railway system with a "surface street" above it at ground level.

There are many other references from the late 19th century (from Chicago, New York and other cities), all of which are referring to ground-level roads as "surface street". So to answer the first question, it appears that the term is not localised to Southern California, but is in widespread use elsewhere. As to other localised expressions for the same thing, I do not know.

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    +1, though I think you might want to clarify your paenultimate sense a bit. Answering “Yes” to whether something is A or B is logical, but rarely satisfies the querent. ;-) Jun 22, 2015 at 15:58
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    Well spotted, Janus. I've fixed it, and also googled "querent" in the process. Jun 23, 2015 at 8:31

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