John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
An analysis of roadway suffixes in six major U.S. cities reveals differences rooted in history.
For folks who've visited Chicago and thought, Damn, this city has a lot of avenues—that's a spot-on assessment. In fact, 35 percent of Chicago's roadways end in "Avenue," which is substantially higher than New York (about 20 percent) and Philadelphia (10 percent).
We know that thanks to data scientist Seth Kadish, who's made a fun visualization of the urban distribution of street-name suffixes. "I visualize any public data I find interesting, and city-data portals are a great source," emails Kadish, who's 30 and lives in Portland, Oregon. "I've done geographic analyses of streets, but I felt this would be a fun, albeit simpler, visualization."
Kadish analyzed six major cities (Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco), looking at how various suffixes like "Way" and "Drive" stacked up against the total number of streets in each. He didn't take length into account—L.A.'s 43-mile Sepulveda Boulevard carried the same value as Philly's block-long Salter Street—and roadways with no suffix, like "Bowery," and rarer suffixes like "Grove" and "Bayou" went into the "Other" box. "No street went uncounted!," he notes.
A couple of things jumped out at Kadish while he was crunching the data. "New York is interesting due to the high percentage within the 'Other' category," he says, "which includes suffixes like 'Loop' and 'Parkway.'" Though he cautions he's no historian, he guesses that it's this crush of loops, bridges, expressways, highways, and alleys that determines New York's otherness.
"I originally graphed other cities as well, like Austin, which had a strange affinity for 'Cove,'" he adds. "Aside from avenues, 'Drive' is the only suffix that comes close to 20 percent of a city's names (in New Orleans)."
Some other theories: San Francisco's legion of hills and steep, winding roads must account for it being the leader of "Terraces." New Orleans' status as king of "Courts" perhaps comes from its cultural roots with aristocratic France. And as for Chicago also ranking highly for "Boulevard," Reddit member "planification" offers this explanation:
Another trend in parks [in the 1800s] came from Paris, which was to create grand landscaped roads that ran throughout the city. Part of the motivation was beautification, but underlying that the idea was that by providing people with open space, you could prevent the spread of disease. Chicago borrowed this idea and created a boulevard system that can be traced through the city.