Rules of the Road: A Look Inside How Streets Are Named
Have you ever been driving happily along, minding your own business, when a thought suddenly pops into your mind: just what is a road anyway?
A road is simply defined as anything that connects two points.
We don’t mean in a metaphysical sense. Instead, what is it that makes the stretch of tarmac you’re driving on a road and not a street, or a drive instead of an avenue? What’s the deal with boulevards? And who decides how streets are named? (Thankfully, it isn't these guys.)
We had the same questions…and decided to do some digging.
WHERE THERE’S A ROAD, THERE’S A WAY
If trees and buildings are on both sides, you’ve found yourself an avenue.
The first thing to know is that our roadways aren’t just categorized at random. As Phil Edwards at Vox points out in this super-informative video, there are strong naming conventions governing what counts as a street versus an avenue, and beyond—and in fact, many of these guidelines aren’t just nationwide, but international.
For instance: a road is anything that connects two points, while a way is a small side street off of a road. Streets are public ways that have buildings on both sides, according to Edwards, and they tend to run perpendicular to avenues.
So what’s an avenue, you might ask? It’s defined as a stretch of road that has trees and buildings on both sides. Traditionally avenues were quite grand, but that association has eroded over time, as the Smithsonian Magazine points out, thanks in part to euphemistic real estate developers trying to make smaller roads seem more impressive. Then there are boulevards, which are even wider streets lined with trees on both sides, plus a median in the middle.
Other fun facts: lanes are narrow roads in rural areas, while drives are longer, winding roads whose shape are often influenced by lakes, forests, and other natural features. Terraces follow the top of a slope, places are roads with dead-ends, and courts are loops without a thruway.
And it doesn’t end there. We haven’t even talked about highways versus interstates, freeways versus beltways…or what on Earth an esplanade is. If brushing up on road trivia is up your alley—that’s a small pathway between buildings, by the way—Edwards provides a good (if slightly dizzying) overview.
No surprise here: Main Street is one of the most popular street names in the United States.
Now that we’ve figured out just how roads work, it’s on to the next question: how are streets named?
The first surprising thing we discovered is that there’s an actual word for the name given to a street: odonym. And as the Washington Post points out, odonyms aren’t purely functional. They’re also fascinating markers that “encode the culture and geography of America,” reflecting local landmarks, communities, and other regional traditions.
A selection of the most popular U.S. street names reveal some pretty broad trends that crop up again and again. Those include references to nature, compass directions, surnames of famous individuals (presidents are a popular choice, especially George Washington), or descriptors, often of natural features.
And what about the new streets that are being built? Generally, it’s up to real estate developers—with oversight from their cities—to give newly constructed roadways their names. Local engineering and public works departments are also given veto power. For cities like Washington D.C., which has very established street-naming conventions, any proposed name that deviates from local traditions could very well be rejected.
Still, that hasn’t prevented some pretty odd odonyms from cropping up around the country. Los Angeles has a Colon Street, and Longmont, Colorado has a 100 Year Party Court (it probably helps to know that the town is a local craft brewery hub). Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is home to the uninspiring Duh Drive, and San Francisco has a Fella Place.