Grad School City Streets

In a tiny city like Lexington, it’s easy to form the opinion that street names are more or less arbitrary. What’s the difference between an “Avenue” and a “Drive”? Aside from some subjective, fuzzy differences of length, essentially nothing. A road is a road.

Then again, as city size increases, the headaches of such an arbitrary system increase exponentially. Hence standardized street-naming systems, which were the precursors to the arbitrary small-city naming conventions used today in places like Lexington. Lexington copying and bastardizing a bigger city concept? Never….

Seattle has a slightly less arbitrary but nonetheless intriguing road-naming system. North-south streets are called “Avenues,” while east-west streets are called, well, “Streets.” Roads with any other name may run in any direction. Street numbers increase to the north and west, which is, naturally, exactly the opposite of Chicago. The city is divided into seven directional sectors, the eight cardinal directions minus southeast. Streets are prefixed by their directional and avenues are postifixed. Addresses are standardized as well–the first one or two digits specify the lowest-numbered cross street, and the last two digits specify the location of the building relative to the intersection of the cross street and the street on which the building is actually located.

Chicago’s road-naming system is about as systematic as it gets. The intersection of State (N/S) and Madison (E/W) serves as the “baseline” from which all addresses and street numbers start. There are four directionals (N, S, E, W), and these directionals are conveniently bound by State and Madison. North of Madison, for example, a street is labeled “N.” Like Seattle, addresses are numbered according to their lowest-numbered cross street and their distance from the cross street. With few exceptions, eight blocks equals one mile, so a number increase of 800 corresponds to one mile. Half-block roads are named as “Places” of the road closer to the baseline, so a road between 95th and 96th Street would be called “95th Place.” Some north-south streets outside the city are named in groups of the same letter…hence western Chicago’s “K-town.”

Rational city design…yet another potential perk of graduate school.



  1. Minneapolis has numerical streets running east-west and named streets running north-south. Now comes the cool part: the numerical streets are in numerical order (yeah, so what) and the named streets are in alphabetical order. Getting to 3818 Knox Avenue is trivial. It’s between 38th and 39th on Knox Avenue.

    Now as for St. Paul, well, let’s just say that people from Minneapolis don’t go to St. Paul. (It’s true, I was raised there (3932 Ensign) and only went to St. Paul for Holiday dinners at relatives that had crossed over to the dark side.) Why? What could be so bad? To start with, the named streets are not in alphabetical order. O.k., that’s not so bad as few places have such order. But the buildings are number according to the sewer system or some such nonesense. The Fitzgerald theater is at 494 Wabasha. Now to me be from Minneapolis, I would think that this is on Wabasha between 4th and 5th, probably very close to 5th. Wrong, it’s up near 7th.

    It’s not surprising in the least that the exits off I-94 going from Minneapolis to St. Paul are first 10th Street, then 11th Street, and then 7th Street. Stay Away!!!


  2. Lexington isn’t really “tiny”, though it feels kind of small. I’m counting Fayette Co, because the area has a metro government and so the statistics are collected that way. In 1990 Lex was like #70 in the top 100 most populous urban areas in the US. And Lexington is the second largest landlocked city in the country.

    But the streets are way screwed up. Nothing like the urban planning of Chicago there, to be sure. On the other hand, Lexington Police are marginally less likely to kill you for no reason than are Chicago cops. Whether the lack of lethality is a by-product of poor street layout would require more experimentation to determine.


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