What Does That Street Name Reveal?

3 min read

You may dream about going where the streets have no name, but the truth is, most street names hold a lot of significance and history. Some names often give context clues as to the type of road and what surrounds it, which was especially useful for pre-iPhone navigation. There is no official system for regulating the names of streets in the United States, but naming conventions often reveal clues about the area's status, use, form, function, and geography.

Highways, Freeways, and Interstates

These terms for multi-lane roadways may seem interchangeable, but subtle differences exist. All three refer to significant roads connecting towns and cities, but highways have the broadest usage. Highways can be designed for fast-moving traffic, or they can flow through areas where drivers will encounter reduced speed limits, traffic signals, and intersections.

Freeways are essentially express highways. Drivers can cruise down a freeway at higher speeds while traffic flow is unhindered by intersections. An interstate, by definition, is a freeway that runs between states. Technically, these roadways are controlled by the Interstate Highway System. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 to create the 41,000 mile network of roads and ensure “speedy, safe transcontinental travel

While highways and interstates do have technical distinctions, you can spot a West coaster by their use of the word “freeway.” The origin of “freeway” likely comes from the distinction between a free-to-use road and a “tollway,” but drivers from Southern California also often add “the” before the names or numbers of local freeways, such as “the 5” and “the 101.” The definite article addition is credited to the naming convention of roads (such as The San Bernardino Freeway) before Eisenhower's highway system.

Roads, Streets, and Avenues

As perhaps the most common street names found in an address book, these apply to most roadways in a town or city. “Roads” can be any passage connecting two points. “Streets” are found in more developed environments and typically have houses or buildings on either side.

An “avenue” is like a street, but is traditionally lined with trees or other aesthetic landscaping. The French loan word means “a way of approach,” initially referring to a tree-lined path that led up to a country house. By the late 19th century, it was used in the U.S. to refer to all kinds of streets, even those without trees — for example, see Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Drives, Lanes, and Ways

The more minor roads in town will typically go by one of these names. Newer housing developments may pick any of these names, but traditionally they each apply to a certain type of roadway. Someone who lives on a “drive” may be situated on a route that winds around natural features such as lakes or hills. A “lane” is typically a narrow road found in a rural area. A “way” is usually a small side street split off from the main road. Other names for smaller roads include “alley,” “passage,” “route,” “terrace,” “throughway,” and “vista.”

Courts and Places

These are familiar names for streets with a dead-end or only one entrance. While a “place” is a road with no throughway, a “court” is a road that typically ends in a loop, sometimes called a “cul-de-sac.” This French term that means “bottom of a sack” was used for streets with no outlet, beginning around 1819.

Circles and Crescents

If a road has an unusual shape, city planners may use a geometric name to call out its form. A “circle” is a road that loops around to begin and end at the same street, such as Columbus Circle in New York City. A “crescent” is a moon-shaped road where both ends join the same street. Crescents are common in Europe, where winding roads are more the norm. Other street-name shapes include “loop,” “oval,” “square,” and “quadrant.”

Hills, Parkways, and Causeways

In addition to the shape, a street name might call out unique geographic features. For example, roads on a steep incline might have the word “hill” in their names. A “parkway” often runs through a landscaped or otherwise picturesque area. A “causeway” is a road built over water, such as the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana.

Esplanades, Stravenues, and Quays

Finally, some roads are named for their function. An “esplanade” is an extended, open, level area, typically beside the sea. It comes from the Spanish “esplanada,” which translates to “large level area.” They are more common in coastal regions of the United States, but they might be called a “promenade” in other areas.

In Tucson, Arizona, locals refer to “stravenues,” a mash-up of the words “street” and “avenue.” These roads run diagonally between streets and avenues, naturally. The term “quay” (pronounced “key”) is more commonly used in British English, but it refers to a road near the water, such as the Queens Quay in Toronto.

Featured image credit: Wildroze/ iStock

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