What’s the difference between a road and a street?
For that matter, what’s the difference between a street and an avenue? What about a road and a parkway? Why do some people live on “lanes,” while others live on “drives”?
While street-naming conventions might seem relatively random, they’re usually based in logic (note the key word “usually” in that last sentence; we’ll explain more about that in a moment). Urban planners typically choose names based on the road’s size, function, and aesthetics.
To answer our first question, a road (rd.) is anything that connects two points. A street (st.) is a public way with buildings on either side of it. Therefore, every street is a road, but not every road is a street. Simple, right?
But roads bearing the “road” name tend to run toward rural areas, or at least to less-developed portions of a city. Roads also tend to be longer than streets, although this isn’t a hard and fast rule. As you might expect, naming conventions can get a bit complicated.
Here are a few more basics, courtesy of a recent Vox video.
Avenue (Ave.): Like streets, avenues are public ways with buildings on either side. They run perpendicular to streets, however, so if an address has “avenue” and you’re driving on a “street,” you’re probably in good shape.
Way: A side street off of a road. Ways are typically fairly short and often have dead ends.
Lane (Ln.): A narrow road, often leading to a residential area.
Boulevard (Blvd): An extremely wide street, often with vegetation on either side and a median splitting up the lanes of traffic.
Drive (Dr.): A long, winding road with a route shaped by bodies of water, mountains, or other geography. Drives often lead to private properties, but that’s not always the case.
Court (Ct.): A street that ends in a circle (cul-de-sac) or loop.
Place (Pl.): A street with a dead end, but no loop or circle.
Freeway: A high-speed road that doesn’t require a toll.
Pike or Turnpike: Usually, a toll road.
Terrace: A road that follows the top side of a slope. If you associate the name “terrace” with fancy homes, that’s why—real estate at the top of a hill is often more expensive than the real estate at the bottom.
Alley: A passageway between buildings. Alleys are rarely marked on maps, since they aren’t intended for vehicular travel.
Of course, your city might ignore these naming conventions.
In most places, urban planners aren’t required to follow street naming conventions. They simply do so in order to provide some clarity and organization—which, after all, is what they’re paid to do.
But over time, city landscapes can change. Close off an “avenue,” and it might eventually become a “court.” A simple “street” might take on the attributes of a “boulevard.” Street-naming conventions are far from perfect.
In the United States, some street names also provide clues as to their purpose.
Most towns have a Main Street, for instance, which is traditionally populated by local retail shops. In the United Kingdom, the name “High Street” is often given to this street.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that “Main Street” is the most popular street name in the United States; according to the National League of Cities (NLC), it’s actually the seventh-most popular. The first is “Second,” followed by “Third” and “First.”
How can towns have a “Second Street” without a “First Street”? The NLC gets its data from the United States Bureau of the Census, which counts each street name individually. Therefore, “East Main Street” or “West First Street” wouldn’t count towards the rankings for “Main Street” or “First Street,” respectively.
As for the other street names on the list, “Oak,” “Maple,” “Cedar,” and “Pine” make decent impressions, perhaps showing that urban planners have trees on the mind. Other popular street names denote the location of an important town feature, for instance “Church” and “Mill” streets.
Street naming is actually a fairly modern science.
Most major U.S. cities have fairly complex, carefully planned grid systems, but outside of these massive urban centers, most people lived in rural areas with road names denoted by a number. In the mid-1900s, Americans began moving out of cities and into suburbs. These towns were planned carefully, and street names often showed an emphasis on nature (hence the widespread appearance of “Oak” and “Pine” streets).
U.S. city planners also drew inspiration from major European cities, which helps to explain why drivers will occasionally notice an “Oxford” or “Regent.” Planners also began using the United Kingdom’s relatively strict naming conventions to denote the attributes of various types of roads—for instance, avenues run parallel to streets.
Even so, there’s no law requiring avenues to run a certain direction. Take the info above with a grain of salt; while it may be helpful if you’re trying to find your way around a new area, your best bet is to always carry a map.