straight dope on street names.

What’s the difference between a street, a road, an avenue, a boulevard, etc.? There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to how the names of public ways are suffixed. Does it depend
on width, length, importance, or (more likely) the builder’s whim?

Whatever scarcities we may have in this world, a shortage of street-name suffixes isn’t
one of them. The possibilities include but are not limited to alley, avenue, boulevard,
circle, court, cove, crescent, crossing, dale, drive, estate, extension, gardens, gate,
heights, highway, lake, landing, lane, loop, park, parkway, path, place, plaza, point,
promenade, ridge, road, roadway, square, street, terrace, trace, trail, village, or way,
to say nothing of commonly used foreign words such as camino, calle, etc.

Confronted with this plethora of terms, you’ll probably have one of the following

(1) We need some kind of system here.

(2) We don’t need no stinking system, we need some minimal restrictions to protect the
public interest.

(3) Whatever, I don’t care. Go away.

Reaction #3, I venture to say, has historically predominated among the public officials
nominally in charge of these things, but reaction #1 has occurred often enough to convince
people there’s some underlying plan when in fact there isn’t. The most famous sorta-system
is Manhattan’s grid of north-south avenues and east-west streets. Here’s another from the
Tri-County Regional Planning Commission of Lansing, Michigan.

  • Cul-de-sacs should be named circle, court, way, or place
  • Meandering streets–drive, lane, path, trail
  • North-south streets–avenue, highway
  • Streets with planted medians–boulevard, parkway.

Guilford County, North Carolina, prefers:

  • North-south streets–street; east-west–avenue (take that, Manhattan)
  • Diagonal–road
  • Dead-end streets–terrace, point, cove, dale, way
  • Cul-de-sacs–court
  • Short curved roads with ingress and egress from the same thoroughfare–circle.

Kenai Peninsula Borough, Alaska, is even more precise:

  • North-south cul-de-sac–circle.
  • East-west cul-de-sac–court.
  • Northwest-southeast street–drive
  • Northeast-southwest street–lane (doesn’t the Kenai planning department have anything
    better to do?)
  • Begins and ends at same thoroughfare–loop
  • Meandering–road.

You get the picture. Lacking a detailed national standard (where are the French when we
need them?), we’re left with a muddle. One may hazard the generalization that long streets
typically are called avenue, street, highway, road, etc., while short ones get terrace,
court, place, and the like. But there are many exceptions even to this simple rule.

Don’t despair. The U.S. Postal Service, exhibiting rare common sense, has decided suffixes
aren’t worth worrying about. It merely requests that street names be unique without regard
to suffix, lest mail carriers be confused if the suffix is left off. (A notorious violator
of this principle is Chicago, which has numerous instances of streets with names like 21st
Place running parallel to 21st Street.) The agency adds a few other reasonable guidelines,
e.g., street names should sound dissimilar to one another to avert mix-ups. These rules
appear to have been widely adopted by local officials. In short we have a collective
bureaucratic judgment that the power of the state ought to be exercised economically, a
conclusion that might be applied to many aspects of public life.

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