A new day, a new thing

My goal to learn something new every day

Day 10: Uptown, Downtown and the differences between Freeways, Expressways & Highways

Earlier today, while doing some work on a project I’m involved with, I came across the word uptown. Of course, I’ve heard the word before, probably first through the Westlife *cough cough* Billy Joel song Uptown Girl. But it struck me that while I kind of understand what it means, I’m not 100% sure. If a student were to ask me what it meant, could I have given a correct answer confidently? Of course the more common downtown I do feel comfortable talking about. While we wouldn’t use it in the UK, we prefer city/town centre, it’s a term I’ve become accustomed to in Korea.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, which is where I get most of my definitions when I’m thinking about how I’d explain them to students, defines downtown and uptown as:



in or towards the centre of a city, especially its main business area



in or to the parts of a town or city that are away from the centre, where people live

A simple enough explanation then. Not surprisingly, Downtown  is much more common than uptown as a quick search in COCA reveals: 17,864 occurrences of downtown compared to 1,314 for uptown.

But then I got to thinking, why do we call it DOWNtown when it’s in the centre? The Online Etymology Dictionary offers this explanation:

downtown (n.) 1835, from down (adv.) + town. The notion is of suburbs built on heights around a city.

And Wikipedia, which cites its source as a book called Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950 by Robert M. Fogelson, has this to say about the origin of the word:

The term is thought to have been coined in New York City, where it was in use by the 1830s to refer to the original town at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. As the town of New York grew into a city, the only direction it could grow on the island was toward the north, proceeding upriver from the original settlement (the “up” and “down” terminology in turn came from the customary map design in which up was north and down was south). Thus, anything north of the original town became known as “uptown” (Upper Manhattan), while the original town (which was also New York’s only major center of business at the time) became known as “downtown” (Lower Manhattan).

A fairly easy explanation of uptown then, and if a student were to ask me why we say downtown, I think I’d have a good chance of satisfying their curiosity.


But all this thinking about American English reminded me of a question that I’ve had from students on a couple of occasions (nailed it again 🙂). The question is usually along the lines of “What’s the difference between freeway, highway and motorway?” To date, my answer has always been that I know motorway is used in British English, while freeway and highway, along with expressway are used in American English. The difference between them in the American context, I’m not so sure about though. I did ask an American colleague about this quite recently, but he wasn’t too sure either.

N.B. Highway is used in British English to refer to any public road, although only really in formal/legal contexts. The name of the government department responsible for such roads is helpfully named the Highways Agency.

Image courtesy of Tiberiu Ana on Flickr

Image courtesy of Tiberiu Ana on Flickr

Once again, it’s back to Google, and the following is what I’ve been able to find out.


A freeway, also called a controlled-access highway, is designed for fast moving traffic. Freeways are free (hence the name) of any signals or intersections, which means that traffic can continue without the need to stop, conditions permitting of course. Access to these roads is controlled by a slip way, which allows cars to build up speed before joining. Motorway is the British English term for this type of road. Freeways are typically used to travel between large cities and states.


Expressways differ from freeways in that there are some obstructions, such as intersections and crossings, on the roads, although to a lesser extent than arterial roads (see below). In contrast to freeways, these type of roads are also called limited-access highways. In the UK, the most similar road is called a dual-carriageway.

Arterial Roads & Collector Roads

These were new terms for me, but kind of made sense in the context of expressways and freeways. Wikpedia says: “The primary function of an arterial road is to deliver traffic from collector roads to freeways or expressways.” Collector roads on the other hand connect streets to the arterial roads and are commonly found in residential areas.


The American legal definition of the word highway is similar to how it is used in British English to denote any road open to the public. However, in everyday use, it has a narrower meaning. In fact it has several meanings, depending on which type of highway you are referring to. And this is where I found it to get a little complicated (links provided throughout, should you wish to learn more).

National Highway System

The US has a National Highway System, that is actually a network of certain highways including the Interstate Highway System.

Interstate Highway System

The Interstate Highway System or Interstate is a network of freeways. It makes up part of the National Highway System. The full name of the Interstate is the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways after President Eisenhower who pushed for the system to be built.

U.S. Highways

The U.S. Highway system is older than the Interstate, and in many areas the Interstate has taken over for long-distance travel. However, there are some areas in the US where the Interstate is underdeveloped and U.S. Highways are still in use.

State Highway

Lower down in the hierarchy than Interstate and U.S. highways are state highways. The volume of traffic on these roads differs from state to state, and as a result, the conditions and quality of these roads differs too. In the US, most state highways are primary or secondary roads, but some freeways can also be state highways.

County Highways

County Highways are so called because they are maintained by the county. Some county highways can be freeways or expressways, but in more rural areas can also be simple country roads that are not maintained often.


And there is my very (very) basic understanding of the differences between the types of roads. I learned that the terms highway and freeway are not mutually exclusive, and there are quite a few different types of highways. I can see why my American colleague had difficulty explaining the differences when I asked him. At least now when a student asks me about the definition, I’ll have a lot of information for them, although it might only serve to confuse them even more.

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This entry was posted on January 10, 2015 by in Language, Travel and tagged , , , , , .


January 2015

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