Getting to Grips with America’s Grid System

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Chicago is set up in a grid system which is illustrated in this bird’s-eye view. (FB)

When I lived in England, if I had told you my street address, you’d need to be familiar with the town to know where I lived. My house had a number and the avenue had a name, but there were no clues as to its whereabouts. Indeed, if you accidentally forgot the “avenue” part, and looked for “street” instead, you’d have found yourself about a mile off. (Americans – it’s for this reason that you should never omit the street/lane/crescent/avenue nomenclature when sending stuff to the U.K.)

In many (but not all) parts of the U.S., a handy dandy grid system is in place, with streets running at neat right angles to each other. (That’s “neat” as in “neat and tidy” rather than the American “neat.”) People have a pretty good idea where you live when you tell them your address.

New York has perhaps the most famous grid system, while Philadelphia has the oldest. Chicago’s grid system is fairly bog standard, apart from the diagonals to throw you off once in a while. It has the intersection of State and Madison as its zero points, and all Chicago addresses are basically co-ordinates representing how far north, south, east or west they are from the zero point. If someone lives at 1440 North State Street, they live 14 blocks north of the zero intersection. Each street, road, avenue etc. has a numerical demarcation on the map, so you’ll hear people ask “How far west is Halsted” and the answer (800, or 8 blocks west of State Street) will give them a precise indication of location and distance. This explanation of Salt Lake City’s grid does a great job of de-mystifying things.

Because the blocks (buildings between one street and another) go up in hundreds, you can get to some pretty heady addresses quite quickly. In the Salt Lake City example, East 134,000 South is a street that’s mentioned! Within Chicago city limits, the farthest north you can live is in the 9000’s. Although they’ll call it “the nine thousand block,” Americans typically say “ninety two hundred” for example, rather than “nine thousand two hundred,” when naming the actual door number. (More on America vs. Britain in numbers in a future post.)

As mentioned, Chicago throws a curve ball with its diagonal streets, just like D.C., which has diagonal streets, connected with traffic circles. It all looks fairly straightforward on a street map but it’s quite the challenge when you first come to a six-street intersection!

Things can go a bit pear-shaped for us Brits, however, when faced with a grid. Used to receiving directions such as “Left at the Crooked Windmill, past the village green and a sort of right at the Post Office,” directions containing anything to do with a compass aren’t second nature. Especially when you don’t know which way you’re facing to begin with. Americans typically tell you to go “east on Main Street, head north on Lincoln and then west on 5th,” which is all well and good if you have a compass on you, but can be a disaster if you head off west as a first move.

Now that most cars have a GPS or Sat Nav system, navigation isn’t the challenge it used to be, but when all else fails, find yourself a landmark or geographic point to which you can drive if completely lost. In the early days of my Chicago residency, I frequently found myself driving round in circles (or squares). Since I had a digital compass in the car, I often bailed and headed east for Lake Michigan where I could a) not drive any further, and b) find my way home.

If you’re on foot, and not sure of yourself, walk to an intersection and take note of both street names. Locating them on a map is half the solution but you still need to make sure you head off in the right direction. You can either walk to the next intersection, find that on the map and establish your direction — or ask a local! Americans are nothing if not helpful.

Do you find grids easy to navigate? 

  • guest

    if you find math and geometry hard a grid system would be too. How do you Brits survive outside of the UK?

    • expatmum

      We take note of the appearance of buildings and continue to give directions based on pub names and village greens. We also say “the top of the street” and “the end of the road” leaving Americans wondering which end, and what exactly is “the top”.

  • Mrs O’Leary

    “Chicago’s grid system is fairly bog standard” by the simple expedient of burning the city to the ground (1871) and rebuilding from scratch. Also, 800 is a mile.

    • expatmum

      To explain further (for Brits), “800 is a mile” actually means 8 blocks is a mile. Each block, in this example, would have a hundred denomination therefore 800 = 8 blocks. You can actually calculate how far away something is by its address in relation to where you are.

      • Mrs O’Leary

        I said 800 is a mile because blocks are sometimes subdivided, especially downtown, so there might be more than 8 blocks in 800 numbers :-)

  • MontanaRed

    Our town, like many western U.S. towns, is on a grid, too, which was originally oriented from the railroad tracks (the first sign of civilization way back when) which were themselves oriented along the river. Then the grid was re-oriented to north-south/east-west, so there are a few diagonals left over from the first grid, but on the whole it’s not hard. There are also easy geographical landmarks at the compass points, which I always point out to first time visitors so they don’t get (or feel) lost: the river is south, the Rims are north, the mountains are west, and the remaining direction (!) is east. At least one of these is visible from pretty much anywhere in town. When I visit central Florida, which is flat, flat, flat from my point of view, and has the sun directly overhead for much of the day for much of the year, I have a very hard time figuring out which way I’m going without satnav help. It’s an amazingly untethered feeling.

  • Olivia

    I love the grid system. In the city I live in, all the named streets go east and west, while the numbered streets go north and south. Buildings on named streets have larger building numbers to denote where the closest intersection is. For example, a building with the address 22511 SE Main St would be located just off of 225th Ave.

    • MontanaRed

      This is a common and logical system in the US. I think it’s wonderful. In some cities, “avenues” go one direction and “streets” cross them. In Denver, named north-south streets east of Colorado Boulevard are alphabetical, with two streets per letter. Easy-peasy!

  • bluecar

    I found the grid system horribly confusing because all corners looked the same! I have a good innate sense of direction so north/south directions are easy but in England there is almost always a cheat for that at church towers or steeples are always on the West side of the church. Now I live in a city that has mountains to the West making it easier but I still turn at the wrong corner every now and again.

  • hard seen news

    I was to advised the easiest way is to drive around. At first it was a little confusing, but I ended up using the same technique I did in the UK; either counting off turnings before the one I needed or, as you mentioned, using a landmark for reference. It’s also handy that many of the main roads have signs telling you the next intersection.

    Using street view on Google maps helps too.

  • tpatt525

    I live in a rural Georgia town and we use landmarks to give directions. We also use time to measure distance. (“How far are you from Atlanta?” “About 45 minutes.”)

  • jadekitty

    I had a meltdown in the middle of London because I couldn’t figure out where the heck I was! Not a single street went in a straight line, and the names would change half way through…and that was IF you could fine a street sign! And I’m good at reading maps. Aside from the cultural differences of describing directions, I think the grid is easier for a visitor with a map.

    • frozen01

      The great thing about London, though, is that every transit stop and Boris bike station has a map attached to it. I don’t think I knew the name of a single street I was on, but I spent days wandering the city without actually ever getting truly lost.

  • Pingback: A British Hitchhiker's Guide to Understanding America's Driving Lingo | Mind The Gap | BBC America

  • John H Harris

    Where I live (Jamestown, NY… yes, that hometown Lucille Ball blathered on about really does exist), most of our streets are on a grid system, but numbered streets only exist in a fairly small area. Main Street is split into North and South, using the Chadakoin River as the demarcation line.

    The numbered streets lie only on the North Main side, and East numbered streets exist only up to 8th Street, though there is East 15th Street.

    West 16th Street branches off of West 15th, forming a “mini-block”, so on Washington Street (one block west of Main), the numbers jump from 15th to 17th.

    19th and 20th streets do not exist, with 21st being another branching street forming a “mini-block” with 22nd Street. Numbered streets end at 23rd.

    All other streets in Jamestown are named, with Street, Avenue, Lane, Drive and Boulevard being essentially interchangeable, as all are applied to both main thoroughfares and obscure streets that are little more than alleys… which are also named, with the Alley and Place/Plaza nomenclature referring to essentially the same type of narrow back street. The sole exception to this rule is Tracy Plaza, which is the roof of the city’s police precinct and the main fire station, and which contains City Hall.

    And then there is Virginia Boulevard. These two streets break all of the above rules. They lie south of the Chadakoin, do not cross Main Street, Instead, they mark the East and West borders of Allen Park, the city’s main green space. East Virginia Boulevard is then revived one block west of where West Virginia Boulevard terminates as it crosses Alfred Street and becomes Highes Street. It ultimately becomes East Virginia Circle after it crosses Labarbera Lane.

    After reading this article, I am now convinced that Jamestown was laid out by an Anglophile… :D

  • Eric Willette

    In Boston, if you are in a part where the streets are in a grid, then you are in a part where the roads were laid down after Boston started filling in the river and the harbor.