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Do other cities have logical street numbering systems like Chicago's?
August 20, 2009

Dear Cecil:

What other major cities have a street grid that works similarly to Chicago's — that is, where each street is an address coordinate (Diversey = 2800 north, etc)? Never been to Los Angeles, but judging from pictures that have coordinates on the street signs, I'm guessing Los Angeles does. I know New York does not, but allegedly there's some kind of mathematical formula with which, if you have the address of a numbered street, you can calculate where the street-and-avenue intersection is. Boston's layout is so weird I'd be dead surprised if they have such a system!

— ScatteredFrog, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

This is one more reason to be glad you live in Chicago, as if food, politics, and Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers weren't enough. (What, you don't think politics here is entertaining? Fine, move to Nebraska and watch the sorghum sprout.) The weather may be suboptimal, but we've got a street numbering system that can't be beat. If you don't believe me, try driving a taxi, delivery truck, etc, just about anywhere else. Two weeks max and you'll come screaming back. Regular Straight Dope readers will recall my telling the story of the sainted Eddie Brennan, the father of Chicago street numbering and naming. Now it's time to hear about what happened in the unfortunate municipalities where Eddie didn't reside.

 We start with some history, courtesy of Dennis McClendon, Chicago geographer, historian, and map geek extraordinaire. Dennis reminds me that, while Eddie Brennan raised it to a high art, Chicago-style street numbering wasn't invented in Chicago. What we've got is a variant of what's known as the "Philadelphia block system," enacted by that city in 1858, in which (a) there are 100 street numbers to a typical block, and (b) the street numbers correlate with the numbered streets, e.g., cross 9th Street and you're in the 900 block. Chicago added a couple useful enhancements: (c) the street numbers correspond to distance, so that, with a few exceptions, there are 800 street numbers to the mile, and (d) generally speaking, the arterial streets are spaced at half-mile intervals. According to Dennis, permutations of this scheme are used in virtually every American city west of the Appalachians other than San Francisco. Few towns were as relentless as Chicago about (d), and I'd say it's more common to have 1,000 numbers to the mile, but you get the idea.

Alas, not all U.S. cities adopted this reasonable methodology. Examples:

San Francisco. Streets are numbered from wherever they were thought to start, so that you can have parallel streets numbered in opposite directions. Thus numbers on Central Avenue increase from south to north, whereas numbers on Masonic Avenue, one block away, increase from north to south.

Pittsburgh. The street surveying system in this city — Pittsters freely admit it — consisted in its entirety of the following: (1) Follow cow home. (2) Pound stakes. (3) Build street.

New York. Here we have a puzzle. New York is, of course, the economic and cultural nerve center of the nation. I have personal knowledge that many intelligent people live there. However, Manhattan in particular has what's perhaps the stupidest street numbering system on the planet. (Well, there's Caracas, which has no street numbers at all.) The east-west streets aren't so bad — Fifth Avenue is the dividing line between the east and west sides, and there are 100 numbers between numbered avenues. True, the street numbers don't match up with the avenue numbers (that is, First Avenue doesn't correspond to the 100 block). You have to know that Park Avenue used to be Fourth Avenue, so when you cross it you jump from double digits to the 100s, whereas Lexington is just Lexington, so when you cross it you're only at 140. West of Central Park, moreover, Central Park West is the zero line, so that when you cross Columbus Avenue on 57th Street you're in the 400 block, whereas when you cross Columbus on 59th you're in the 100 block. Despite these complications, one sees the basic rationale.

Not so with numbering along the avenues, which is a complete nightmare (click here and scroll down for a chart). The numbers advance going north, but that's about all you can definitely say. For example, suppose you walk west on the line of 66th Street from the East River to the Hudson. (Yes, I know this involves detouring through Central Park. Work with me here.) You find the building numbers are at 1260 at Second Avenue, 850 at Fifth, 65 at Central Park West, and 1955 at Broadway. If someone tells you he's at 350 Park Avenue, this provides no immediately useful information. Instead — I'm serious — you must apply a fiendishly complicated algorithm to determine the cross street (many people rely on computers to do this),  and even that will only get you within a block or two. If you were in Kiev, you'd figured the guys who dreamed this up had been hitting the vodka. But it's New fricking York. What's more, there's no reason for it to persist. Manhattan north of 14th Street has a street layout so grimly orthogonal it makes the Chicago grid look random. They could renumber the whole thing tomorrow! Billions of dollars wasted due to lost souls looking for addresses would instead be saved! But no. Many persons would whine, and if you think the whining is intense at community meetings in Chicago, you ought to see it in New York.

Boston. All the streets converge on a single point, where the motorists crash into each other and die. This explains Boston's high mass transit use and low population.

Seattle. Seattle is a good example (Brooklyn and San Francisco are others) of colliding-grid syndrome. This condition is found in cities where you had numerous flinty souls laying out street grids in different parts of town who never talked to each other, or, as apparently was the case in Seattle, hated each other's guts. Thus in the central part of the city we find three grids, one lined up with the compass, one tilted 32 degrees, and a third 49 degrees. Where the grids met up, the streets were pasted together as well as could be managed. Unavoidably, however, as you travel through Seattle your perspective on reality abruptly and repeatedly shifts, obliging you to stop in for coffee repeatedly to calm your jangled nerves. Thus, Starbucks.

Atlanta. Every street is named Peachtree.

Salt Lake City. Not all towns are as slapdash as those named above; some take matters to the opposite extreme. Salt Lake City and other towns of the Mormon west use the Lyman system, which amounts to analytical geometry applied to daily life, producing Cartesian-coordinate street addresses such as 682 East 400 South. If you want a complete explanation, read here, starting on page 12. All I'll say is it takes three pages of small type.

Los Angeles. You think I'm going to make snotty comments about Los Angeles. Not me. True, the street layout and numbering system are a godawful mess, with colliding grids, discontinuous numbering, etc. However, they've done the best they could, considering the city is basically a collection of independent hamlets patched together. What's more, this is a city with mountain ranges in the middle of it. In Europe, the people on opposite sides wouldn't even speak the same language, much less coordinate the street numbering. (I realize some linguistic drift has occurred in Los Angeles.) So let's cut these folks some slack.

Tulsa. I also have a soft spot for Tulsa, at least since Dennis told me how the place is laid out. In Tulsa, streets run east-west, and avenues run north-south. Streets are numbered and avenues are letter-coded. These things aren't unusual. The charm of the Tulsa system is that the letter coding is in the form of city names. Avenues east of the dividing line are named after cities east of Tulsa (Boston, Cincinnati, Detroit, etc., through Xanthus, Yorktown, and Zunis). Avenues west of the line are named after cities west of Tulsa (Boulder, Cheyenne, Denver). What's more, after getting through the first 26 streets going east, they started over, going through two and a half alphabets' worth of cities before running out of steam and resorting to numbers. Maybe the Germans would have continued with the alphabet until they reached the Polish border, but this is Tulsa. I stand in awe.

Washington, D.C. Lest you think rational thinking is restricted to flyover country, Washington not only uses an alphabetic street system, the number of syllables tells you which alphabet you're in.  That is, the first alphabets going out from the center consist of P, Q, R, and S streets, etc.  Places, or minor streets inserted in between the main streets, have one-syllable names such as Riggs or Swann.  For the next alphabetic series, further out, the names have two syllables: Porter, Quebec, Rodman, and Sedgwick streets.  For the third series — can you guess? — three syllables: Patterson, Quesada, Rittenhouse, and Stephenson.  Luckily, the District of Columbia boundary was reached before they had to squeeze "Antidisestablishmentarianism Street, NW" onto a street sign.

Houston. I don't want anybody to think I have it in for Houston, but one must call a spade a spade. Houston uses the Chicago street numbering system, with 800 numbers to the mile. This is admirable. However, a difficulty of the scheme is naming a street that falls between, say, 6th and 7th. In Chicago we append a designation such as "place," which isn't ideal, since if you omit the designation you're lost. Houston's solution: 6½ Street. I'm sorry, that's worse.

 — Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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