Street or avenue – does it really matter?

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Ever have one of those routine basic questions that totally flummoxed you and made you wonder how much you really know about what you had been so certain about?

I had one of those recently.

I was ordering something online and, as I gave the operator my address and street name, they asked a routine question – was that a street or an avenue?

I had lived at that address for over 25 years, and I knew that many neighborhoods had streets in one direction and avenues in the other direction.

But I still didn’t know.

I told them it was a street, because I knew, as far as delivery was concerned, it didn’t really matter.

But it made me wonder, and as I looked at neighborhood street signs for confirmation, they were no help either.

In general, in many cities, numbered streets are labelled as streets while named streets are labelled as avenues.

There are many exceptions, and probably few municipalities have bothered setting rules or even guidelines on such things.

But online retailers, apparently, need to know such things.

It was something that I, as an informed citizen, should know.

And, as I discovered, few of my fellow citizens knew either.

When I asked my neighbors, at first they looked at me as if that were something everyone should know, until they too realized that they didn’t know either.

It turns out that by no less authority that the US Postal Service, we in the United States use about 156 street tags, labels, suffixes or whatever else we might want to call them.

From “Way” to “Court” to “Lane” to “Plaza” or “Boulevard” or “Drive” to a hundred or so more, those designations could be, or mean, almost anything.

Outside of residential areas, the names become even more surreal; “Beltway” “Parkway” (nothing to do with either parks or parking) “Turnpike”, “Junction” and, of course, “Interstate”, “Highway” and “Freeway”.

At least for me, the options were not quite so bewildering – I knew that the strip of bland-looking pavement in front of my house was either a street or an avenue.

In some places, New York City for example, avenues run (approximately) north and south while streets run (approximately) east and west.

On a more universal level, streets tend to be narrower and less busy than avenues.

For whatever reason, streets tend to have more houses on them than avenues, while avenues tend to have more trees – and higher real estate prices.

Boulevards tend to be more scenic – and most often misspelled.

As far as definitions go, even though these words, most of the time are relatively synonymous, in some cases the connotations are so powerful that you need to careful how you use them.

The phrase “on the street” has a very different meaning than “on the road” – as do the phrases “hitting the street” and “hitting the road”.

Somehow, “on the avenue” has a very different impact from “on the street”.

“On the boulevard” or “on the plaza” have essentially no meaning.

“On the highway” or “on the freeway,” in most cases, either means in transit or stuck on the side of the road.

The truth is out there

So in the spirit of pursuit of a relentless search for the truth, I sought out the most solid evidence I could find; the street signs in my neighborhood.

Some people take photographs of sunsets or mountain views. Or even of their grand kids. Or pets.

I take pictures of street signs.

The street signs would be proof.

My wife accompanied me as I closely inspected and photographed many of the street signs around our house.

She, of course, is all too accustomed to such peculiar quixotic adventures, and she probably wanted to make sure I didn’t get arrested.

Besides, she wanted to go for a walk anyway.

As we walked in our neighborhood, I noticed something very strange; yes, the numbered streets were consistently designated as streets, but the named streets seemed to have no pattern or consistency whatsoever.

Some were streets and some were avenues.

The majority were streets.

But I could not tell if the “avenue” signs were newer or older.

Plus, I was not sure if “majority rules” applies to street signs.

Rest assured I will pursue this case further, and you can sleep better knowing that the crack Tacoma Daily Index news team will not rest until this, and a multitude of other oddities and stray corners of the greater Tacoma area have been explored, unearthed and, perhaps even probed.

Our eyes are always on the street, avenue, court, drive, boulevard or beltway.