Where the US Streets Have No Names

Elizabeth Borneman

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Does your street have a unique name, or do you constantly have to redirect your friends and family around your confusing neighborhood? Do you have a hard time navigating new cities, or do you find them to be fairly straightforward?

In a world of smartphones, paper maps have almost gone the way of the dodo. While satellites may have taken over some of the information our brains used to have to handle, they aren’t always perfect. However, there is another way to make navigation easier to deal with whether you are using your own directional skills or your phone’s.

Half of the Streets in the United States are Numbered

Numerical numbering systems, or numbering streets in specific orders, is one way some cities have taking the pain out of navigation. A comprehensive analysis of streets in the US found that half of the cities here prefer to have their streets numbered rather than named.

Street Grid Pattern

Cities like New York City have long used the numerical system to create an easy to follow grid pattern. New York City introduced the system in 1811, and many other American towns have followed suit.  


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A 19th century colored map showing New York City's street grid pattern.
Map of New York City created in 1862 by James Miller showing’s the city’s street grid pattern. Map: Library of Congress.

Two other cities pioneered the use of the numerical system in the United States: Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. These three cities may have been the original inspiration for the other half of American cities that also chose to number their streets rather than name them.

Map showing the area in Washington D.C. around the U.S. Capitol. Map: U.S. Government, public domain.
Map showing the area in Washington D.C. around the U.S. Capitol. Map: U.S. Government, public domain.

Numbering streets may not be as much fun, but it certainly helps keep people going where they need (and want) to go. The number system set a precedent so that anyone, no matter where they were from, could show up in a city and figure out what direction they were supposed to be going based on the numbers around them. Even if you’re not a math person, this system seems like a pretty good way to go- especially if you find yourself a bit lost!

The researchers also found that the greater a city’s population, the more likely they were to use some sort of numerical grid system. This allows cities to continue growing without abandoning the logic of the grid system they have been using since their city was created.

More:

Rose-Redwood, R., & Kadonaga, L. (2016). “The Corner of Avenue A and Twenty-Third Street”: Geographies of Street Numbering in the United States. The Professional Geographer68(1), 39-52.

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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.