Monday, August 23, 2010

Street numbering madness

Without doing much research, let’s accept the following as fact: until the 19th century, the street plans in cities were not planned, they just grew organically. Philadelphia was one of the first planned American cities using a grid system (1682) with a planned numbering system -- streets running north-south were numbered and east-west streets were named after trees (to reflect that the City was a garden city).

Of course, the problem with using trees as the names of streets is that even with the logical grid system, if you’re unfamiliar with the City there’s no way to know where Walnut St is in relation to Pine St. So not surprising, in the Commissioners' Plan of 1811 for Manhattan, it was decided that everything above 14th St would be laid out as a grid, and both the north-south and east-west streets would be numbered streets.

Birmingham, AL is relatively new city (founded 1871), and before anything was built, the planners decided it would be a grid with all numbered streets.

Now you’d think being such a new city it would have the most logical street design and numbering system because the planners had the benefit of seeing what worked and failed in other American cities over the last 100 years -- Manhattan’s 1811 plan had been around for 60 years. But something went terribly wrong. As my friend describes it, the City ran out of street names.

Here’s a map of part of Birmingham:

I was in a car with my friend; he was driving and I was navigating. We were going west on Dennison Ave and needed to turn at 16th Way SW. I told him to do this, but not to get excited when he saw 16th St SW or 16th Pl SW -- neither were our turn; we were looking for 16th Way SW.

The whole city looks like this. It appears that streets were added after the original plan, and instead of giving the streets proper names, Birmingham wanted to keep as many streets as possible named after numbers. It's led to total insanity.

So going north to south, there's 31st Alley N, 31st Ave N and 31st Alley again -- except there's no directional suffix. And then 31st Alley becomes 30th Alley N. WTF?

How about this:

From east to west there is:

  • 1st Alley W
  • 1st St N
  • Center St N
  • Center Alley W
  • Center Pl W
  • 1st Alley W (again)
  • 1st St W
  • 1st Alley W (again)
  • 1st Place W

It's massive FUBAR.


  1. How would you fix it?


  2. When the new streets were added, the only alternative was to use proper names. And that’s what they should have done. It would have been a lot less messy.

    If the City is ever running a surplus they could initiate a plan to rename all the streets, but that will probably end in disaster. I wonder if a city has ever done that before.

  3. This is actually pretty common in Florida. For instance in the Miami area there are NW/NE/SW/SE quadrants with certain prefixes that correlate to E-W or N-S roads. Avenues N-S, Streets E-W, but those aren't the only ones, there are Place, Way, Court, Drive, Road, Path, Trail, and others. The numbering system is meant to tell you how far something is, as the system of addressing relates to distance from the "Zero Line".

    In fact, in some parts of the state like Ocala/Marion County there are street types and suffixes in the name ex. 154th Street Pl, 37th Avenue Rd, etc.

    And as far as renaming/renumbering... the only time I have seen it happen in this state is when a rural area, ex Levy County, adopts Emergency 911 services and they renumber all the streets to match/extend the area currently covered by that service.

    Also, on another note... that Google map may not be accurate, or maybe some of those roads are driveways and not named streets, or they just don't know the name of that street and assigned what they feel is a logical name.

    I make maps myself (not for Google unfortunately, wish I could figure out how to land that job) and these are the types of things we are constantly trying to work out. Not to spam your site, but there is a website called where customers who use our maps; Yahoo!, Mapquest, Garmin, Magellan, Pioneer, GM, Ford, and on and on, can submit problems or requests for updates of new things or things that have changed. It doesn't happen immediately, but the higher profile the area and roadway the quicker it gets to a local field office to be reviewed.

  4. Thanks for the detailed posts.

    The streets that are named "alley" are narrower than regular streets called avenues, streets, places, etc. I guess that they were either part of the original city plan and the idea was for them to be some kind of service streets, or they were added later to break up the size of the city blocks. From looking around the city I think it's a mixture of both.

    I don't understand how they use the directional suffix. In the northeast part of the city there are a lot of streets with a "S" suffix. One of my friend's theory is that the directional suffix is all screwed up because the northern part of the city looks northwest (the original avenues -- the east-west streets -- really run southwest to northeast).