Elevating Chicago

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Where you are vs. Where you're going

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

Suppose you're driving west on North Avenue.  You cross the river, scoot under the Kennedy, and come to the light at Ashland.  You look up at the street sign and notice: you're at 1600 West.  That's great.  Your friend lives on Sawyer, which you know is just past Kedzie.  Just over two miles to go, no sweat.  When you approach the light at Kedzie though, you double check your friend's address--in the 1800 block.  Quick: which lane do you get into?  Like a good Chicagoan, you know that North Avenue is 1600 North, and you'll be making a right onto Sawyer to head north a couple blocks.   Easy. (Sawyer's also one way north, so it was really your only choice.)

Thumbnail image for North Ave sign.png

But what about everyone else?  The ones that don't know the names and numbers of every east-west arterial from Howard to 130th.   Well, they've got two options.  One is to try and crane their neck as they pass through one of the major intersections and hope to make out what the sign for North Avenue says--this is more than a little dangerous, and you've probably sworn at an out-of-towner who slowed down through an intersection to try this.  The other option is trial and error--but with one-way streets, that's a recipe for disaster.  Chicago has made a subtle value judgment here; it's more important to know the addresses on the street you're on than the ones on the street you're about to cross--or turn onto.  In our example above, it was nice to know that you were 2 miles from Kedzie, but was that bit of knowledge more important than knowing which way to turn on Sawyer?

If you've ever navigated in another city that consistently puts block numbers on its street signs, you've probably noticed that they do it differently.  In fact, Seattle is the only other major city I could find which numbers the Chicago way. In Philadelphia, Washington, DC, San Francisco, and many others, the system is exactly reversed.

Kater st Philly - Edu-Tourist.jpg

Turn left for the 2000 block of Kater St. in Philadelphia, right for the 2100 block. Photo courtesy of Edu-Tourist on Flickr.

Taking our original example, every street sign you'd see on North avenue would, in one way or another, tell you that turning left (as you head west) will take you down the 1500 block, while if you turn right, you'll be on the 1600 block.   There's an assumption here that once you're on the same street as your destination, you either know what hundred you turned onto it (and so can count blocks until you're on the right one) or you can catch the address of any building as it passes by.

Having navigated extensively in both systems, I still can't decide which I like better--and which I think is better for the city as a whole, which is a different question.  I think Chicago's system is better for locals, but the other way is more straightforward for tourists and new residents--especially because these cities tend to put numbers on street signs at more than just major intersections. Anyone have a strong preference one way or another? And more interestingly, does anyone know the how/when/why behind this decision?

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