The Story of the Highway 97 Alphabet

Highway 97 Lettering

Scan around Canada’s highway system and you’ll find that BC is the only province to have an A, B, C and D version of a highway.

In this province, those letters are tagged onto Highway 97 – as in Highways 97A, 97B, 97C and 97D. But why is that?

It turns out that in the Okanagan, locals view Highway 97 as intrinsic to the region’s identity. (After all, another name for Highway 97 which stretches from the BC/US border near Osoyoos through to Kamloops is the Okanagan Highway). When plans were afoot to link that section of Highway 97 with the new Coquihalla Highway around the 1990s, municipalities and chambers of commerce wanted to embrace “97” in the new highway’s name, rather than have a newly numbered route.

We met with the communities and they told us it was important to keep the number and add a letter for the sake of branding. They wanted visitors from beyond the area, to see the locale as one region. The “97” would keep them on track.

Thus, the route which links Highway 97 and Highway 5 (the Coquihalla Highway) and extends from Merritt to Ashcroft, became Highway 97C.  Coincidentally and conveniently, the “C” also helps identify the highway’s “connector” role. Fittingly, Highway 97C’s other name is the Okanagan Connector, and it’s also often referred to (unofficially) as the Coquihalla Connector.

Similar forces were at work for other Okanagan area highways – Highways 97B and 97D – as they connect communities in this popular vacation destination.

How About that “A”, Eh?

Merritt Highway Going back to the start of the alphabet, “A” is the most common letter attached to a highway number, for example Highways 17A, 1A and 3A.  We add the “A” to a highway, when new alignments are built, and the original road is still viable and travelled but is no longer considered to be the main route. The new route has the number alone, while the first highway gets the addition of “A”.

An “A” can also be a cue that it’s an “alternate” route and can sometimes be a more scenic or leisurely drive. And as Canadians, we all find a certain appeal to “A,” eh?

Letters More Popular in the Past

Once upon a time, BC had a small alphabet soup of “letter only” highways. “A, B, C, N, R, S, T and U” were attached to such roads as the Pacific Highway and the Banff-Windemere Highway. These letters were later converted to numbers. (There was once also a Highway 97E and 97W).

How Highways are Named Elsewhere in Canada

Numbers and letters are used a variety of ways across Canada.

Albertans add an “X” to their numbered highway names for routes that are new alignments or spurs of existing highways. Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Yukon, NWT, Newfoundland and Labrador don’t attach any letters to their numbered highways. New Brunswick has no letters attached, but has numbered routes that extend all the way up to Highway 970. (BC’s biggest number is Highway 395).

Prince Edward Island sticks to “A” and Ontario has a few “As” and “Bs” attached to their numbered routes. Quebec once operated numbered highways accompanied by the letters “A” to “C” but in the 1970s the names were changed to numbers only.

If you’re driving in Nunavut you don’t have to keep track of highway numbers at all. There are only eight highways, which all together total about 850 kilometres, and none connect to any other parts of Canada. They go by descriptive names like Coral Harbour Airport Road, or Niaqunngusiariaq Road which links the capital of Iqaluit with the community of Niaqunguut, five kilometres away.  If you want to travel from one community to the next by motor vehicle, in most instances, you’d need to put your vehicle on a barge (or make a long and likely arduous journey by all-terrain vehicle or snow machine.)

Whatever routes you drive in BC or Canada – numbered, lettered or not – please mind your Ps and Qs and drive safely!

For information about the Okanagan and other fun and fascinating vacation routes, check out:

We gratefully acknowledge Wikipedia, and all who contribute to it, as one of our sources of information for provincial highways in Canada.

Some other blogs about signs, that you may find interesting:

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Page 1 of 34 comments on “The Story of the Highway 97 Alphabet”

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  1. When you mention how other provinces do it, you could point out the Nova Scotia “100 Series” Highways. If my memory serves correctly, they are numbered 101 – 107 and are the limited access highways that connect various parts of the province. They roughly parallel highways 1 – 7 which are the original highways and serve as Main Street in many towns.

  2. I think all of Highway 97 should have a Trans-Canada shield designation including all of Alaska Highway. You are traveling across Canada but in a north and northwest direction to the Alaska border.

  3. For the numbered Highway System and Naming of each Highway in specific Hwy 11. For such a short Hwy from Mission to Huntington (Sumas USA Boarder). Why would the segments have different names, when it more or less one continus road: for example: Abbotsford-Mission Hwy then Sumas Way = Abbotsford-Sumas Hwy.

    • Hi Ben – thanks for your question. We shared it with our traffic engineering group and they let us know that many highways did not start out as highways, but rather were taken over by the ministry as they grew and expanded. Often these smaller sections of highway retain their local names as they are still relevant to the local area itself (for example, Highway 97 in Kelowna is still referred to as Harvey Avenue, Highway 17 on Vancouver Island is called the Pat Bay Highway, etc.)

      We can’t say specifically where the names originated on Highway 11, but it is likely something similar. We encourage you to contact our local area staff or perhaps a local Abbotsford or Mission historical society – as they might have more information on how the names originated.

      We hope that this helps!

  4. The Team Gushue Highway in St. John’s was signed 3A. Could be a temporary suffix, as it doesn’t yet connect to 3 as far as I know and it looks like it was envisioned to do so. Manitoba has at least a couple of 1A routes, for example through Brandon. There’s also at least the 10A and 16A in Saskatchewan at Yorkton. I drove in every province during the year 2016 and collected official maps – things may have changed and of course are subject to change.

  5. @TRANBC Could you explain the story behind Blanshard St. = Hwy 17 = Patricia Bay Hwy? Are they supposed to be variants or is each one supposed to refer to a specific segment only? Same with Douglas St. = Hwy 1 = Trans-Canada.

    • Hi Lina,

      Thanks for your questions about the names for Blanshard Street, Highway 17 and the Patricia Bay Highway.

      Highway 17 starts from the intersection of Belleville and Oswego Streets near Victoria’s Inner Harbour and ends at Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal. Within Victoria (and a bit of Saanich) it’s mostly Blanshard Street, which begins slightly east from the highway’s starting point, and extends to around Vernon Ave/the Uptown shopping area. Heading north from there, Highway 17 is also known as the Patricia Bay (or Pat Bay) Highway, and they both end at the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal. (Patricia Bay is located on the Saanich Peninsula, a finger of land that Highway 17 extends over to the ferry terminal.)

      Note: there is also a Highway 17 in the Lower Mainland that begins at the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal. This is often called the South Fraser Perimeter Road.

      • When the Ministry Hwy System travels through on municipal roadways within city limits, They get a secondary name like Blanshard Street. Its similar here in the Lower Mainland. In Surrey, Hwy 10 = 56 & 58 Street, in langley Hwy 10 starts at Hwy 1 @ 232 Street and then Glover Road and Langley Bypass (depending on what segment you are on), Hwy 15 Pacific Highway = 176 Street, and we can go all the way to Aldergrove for Hwy 13 = 256 Street to name a couple.
        This is what I think. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  6. Another interesting thing when traveling to Kamloops from Vancouver the highway exit numbering continues from highway 1 to highway 5 ( Coquihalla) and back to highway 1 again in Kamloops.

  7. Highway 97 could also be the Cariboo highway or the Alaska highway. How did the number 97 come to be the name for over 2000 km of road stretching from Osoyoos to the Yukon border? The Okanagan portion makes sense as a continuation of US highway 97, but why did it not terminate in Sicamous or Salmon Arm rather than having an awkward East-West connection to the Cariboo highway, which is more directly in line with highway 99 than with the Okanagan section of 97?

    • Hi Jason,

      Yes, Highway 97 does have alternate names as it travels through the province. It’s the longest highway in BC! In addition to sections being known as the Okanagan, Cariboo and Alaska Highways (depending on the location), it’s also called the John Hart Highway between Prince George and Dawson Creek. I’m not sure how the names were chosen, but will check with one of our people here, to see if they have that historical information.

      • The Cariboo and John Hart Highways were at one time also numbered Highway 2 in addition to Highwway 97. Why was the Highway 2 desination dropped for the Cache Creek to Dawson Creek segment of highway when this could be considered the primary north-south route?

        • Hi Graeme,

          Thanks for your question about previous names for the John Hart Highway section of Highway 97.

          I’m going to check into the past Highway 2 designation, with one of our people who has a long history with the ministry. I’ll get back to you here, with what I am able to find out.

        • Hi Graeme. The government got rid of the Highway 2 designation in 1962. Not sure of the reasoning, but generally it’s never a good idea to have two different names for the same highway. As such, calling it Highway 97 from border to border makes sense. Highway 2 still exists, but now ties into Dawson Creek to the Alberta border.

      • John Hart, as premier of British Columbia from December 9, 1941 – December 29, 1947 undertook an ambitious program of rural electrification, hydroelectric and highway construction. Hart’s most significant projects were the construction of Highway 97 to northern British Columbia (which is named in his honour)

  8. Maybe one day the remaining 2 lane sections of the unimproved 1962 Trans-Canada Highway will become Highway 1A. Oh, is that a pig I see flying past my window…

  9. Finally, an answer to 97C (and others). When it was being built, I thought for sure the Okanagan Connector would just be a natural extension of Highway 8 (Spences Bridge to Merritt), and 97C made no sense to me at the time.

  10. Might also be worth mentioning that BC’s 97 is a continuation of US97 from Washington state, as are 395, 97, 99; and 93 from Montana and 95 from Idaho. I have wondered if 101 fits into this pattern?

    • Hi Brendan,

      I’m not sure how Hwy 101 in the U.S. links with BC Hwy 101. I’ll check with some of our people here about that, and let you know here what I find out.

      • Highway 101 is the coastal route in the USA, thus BC 101 was numbered the same way.
        One must research and understand the USA highway numbering system prior to the Interstate system as to why most north/south highways in British Columbia were/are numbered they way they are. Trying to “reverse engineer” the system will not seem logical otherwise.
        USA Highway system: N/S are odd numbered, starting from East to West. E/W highways are even numbered, starting from North to South. Triple digit numbers are spurs or alternate; and the first number being odd or even denotes the type.