House numbers
September 22, 2007 5:57 AM   Subscribe

Why are house numbers in America so long?

I've always wondered this. If you live at '10112 Main Street' or '1015 Lincoln Avenue' do you have thousands of houses on your street? What's up with that?
posted by dydecker to Society & Culture (42 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, you do.
posted by anastasiav at 5:58 AM on September 22, 2007

Also sometimes cities are laid out on a grid where numbers represent distance (like Chicago for example). In Chicago every 800 is a mile, so someone who lived at "2400 N Lincoln Avenue" lives three miles north of the arbitrary center point of the city. Very handy for navigating.
posted by true at 6:00 AM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Here - I'll even elaborate:

Google Map of 1 Forest Ave Portland, Maine to 1182 Forest Ave, Portland, ME

This stretch of road is 2.8 miles long and as you can see from the map is very densely populated (these happen to be businesses, not homes, but the idea is the same).
posted by anastasiav at 6:01 AM on September 22, 2007

No, you probably don't. It's usually distance-based, so that it's possible to determing location from the number. See here, for example. That talks about cities primarily, but you can have quite large house numbers on even sparsely-populated rural roads for the same reason.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:02 AM on September 22, 2007

Well, sometimes you do. But that's the block numbering system in effect -- i.e. start from the next 100 after each junction -- and is particularly useful in grid systems where the number gives an indication of the nearest cross-street.
posted by holgate at 6:04 AM on September 22, 2007

My old home address, by the way, was 13019 on a rural road that had 4 houses on it. You could get mail there by sending it to 13019 NE, City State Zip.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:05 AM on September 22, 2007

(Or, as others have said, the approximate distance along a street that you'll find the address. The same convention often applies to motorway/freeway exits, where 'Exit 43' is 43 miles from the state line, not the 43rd exit along the road.)
posted by holgate at 6:07 AM on September 22, 2007

I know the numbers aren't quite AS huge, but a lot of the time every block in a downtown setting will be assigned a "hundred." In other words, from Main Street to, say, 2nd Street (or from Broad Street to whatever the roads that run parallel to it are called -- virtually every town in America is built around the intersection of Main and Broad) will be numbered 100-199 (or 100-148, or however many they get up to when counting each building), and then from 2nd Street to 3rd Street it's 200-299 or 200-223 or whatever.

Can't speak with much authority on rural houses, though. I suspect that part of it is that if you're the first on a given road, you pick the number yourself, and a lot of developers will pick huge numbers just so that they don't have to worry about running out of numbers on one side.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:23 AM on September 22, 2007

In Philly, our grid (at least in Center City--it gets wonky once you spiral out) is based on the numbers of the streets. So everything between 9th and 10th Streets is numbered between 900 and 999. We further break this down (which I know is true in some other places, as well) by having the even numbers on the south side of the streets running east-west and on the west side of the streets running north-south, and the even numbers are the opposite. At least in Center City, it makes it very easy to find the numbers. The between numbered streets thing is true outside of Center City, as well, but the streets aren't in a true grid throughout the rest of the city (South Philly, for example, has 2 major streets running at a diagonal). And one you're out of center city, the blocks seem to change size (mostly in South Philly they feel shorter--not sure if they actually are or it that's just the small feel of the area--or the same size while in parts of North Philly and West Philly they're longer or the same size). The block lengthening seems to be even more prevalent on the big college campuses (Temple, Drexel, UPenn).
posted by monochromaticgirl at 6:34 AM on September 22, 2007

In my county, the rural roads are numbered in accordance to their position relative from the courthouse (in the county seat). So 600 W is the road that is 6 miles west of the courthouse. The houses along the highways are numbered similarly, with the first digit representing the miles and the rest being feet...I don't remember how exactly.

For example a house at 5678 N State Road 123 would be 5 miles north of the courthouse, and be between roads 500 N and 600 N. Then again, this is in the midwest where things lie in more or less a grid-like pattern.

From personal observation, I have found that houses/buildings along 'main' (or broad) streets in the east tend to stay in the double digits, while in the midwest (don't know about the west) are at least in 3 digit territory. But I haven't observed that many cities/towns.
posted by theRussian at 6:39 AM on September 22, 2007

To collect information, the numbers will directly represent distance in only a relative few cities.

In general, the numbers get high because they go up by 100 every block, no matter how few houses were on the last block. So the first house north of the zero point on Main St will be 1 Main, and the next house on that side will be 3 Main, and so on until you get to 19 Main, where the block ends. The next house after that will be 101 Main, not 21 Main. In areas of town with smaller blocks, street numbers can go up faster than in areas with bigger blocks.

This is a feature, not a bug -- if you're looking for 1740 Fake Street, and you notice that you're driving by 1032 Fake St, you know you can ignore things for seven blocks and concentrate on driving instead of navigating.

Another approach to a gridded city uses numbered streets. Here, the house number can be determined by its position on the grid. 2120 NW 21 St in Gainesville FL is on 21st St, in the northwest part of town, between 21st Ave and 22d Ave. This is also a feature; if you're looking for that address you know to just pay attention to blocks until you get to 21st Ave and then start looking for it. These types of cities have soulless, bureaucratic addresses but are blissfully easy to find your way around once you know the few major cross-streets.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:42 AM on September 22, 2007

Another "not necessarily", but for a different reason than I saw above.

I live in a "typical" american town or small city, 200k people plus suburbs. I'm in an "older" area of the city, which is to say that the land was parceled out by the city in the early 20th century and most of the houses were constructed in the 40s.

My address is on Burr Street, which runs from 14th to 17th streets. Because of the block system, the houses starting from the 14th street intersection and going towards 17th street are numbered starting at 1400, with odd numbers on the south side and even numbers on the north side. The last number before Burr dead-ends at 17th street is just below 1700. There's no "1 Burr Street" in my city.

The difference between the numbers of adjacent houses on the same side of the street is usually 6 on this street, but there can be different (even-numbered) differences depending how many numbers are actually needed on a block.

This is all in the space of "three blocks", or at most 1/4 mile or .4km. In that space there are about 40 houses (all single-family dwellings here, no apartments) on both sides of the street.

If there was another block of Burr street somewhere else in the city (and this happens -- sometimes a street is "interrupted' for a block by a park, or disappears for entire miles only to reappear) it's almost guaranteed to be running the same direction (e.g., east/west) and on the same line as the other part(s) of the block. In that case, the houses on the other part of the street would have different numbers -- say running from 3300 to 3900.

See also: City Block on wikipedia
posted by jepler at 6:53 AM on September 22, 2007

Another aspect that I've observed is that some numbers are skipped. For instance, Tulsa (where I live) uses a fairly common numbering system- house numbers refer to the numbered cross streets, there's a distance system, odd-numbers on one side, even on the other, etc. But a house numbered 1343 might sit between 1341 on the North side and 1347 on the South. There isn't a 1345. I can't find any rhyme or reason to this in the neighborhoods I'm familiar with.
posted by Shohn at 7:00 AM on September 22, 2007

It's a feature, not a bug, and it prevents the problem that I've seen in Germany, where all the numbers are used: sometimes, if a street is long enough, even if you have only a few numbers used per block, you can end up with a situation where there is no overlap in the number ranges used on opposite sides of the street (one side of Irgendeinestraße has 120-128, and the other side has 142-158).

2120 NW 21 St in Gainesville FL is on 21st St, in the northwest part of town, between 21st Ave and 22d Ave.

A particular caveat for Gainesville is the fact that 53rd St is often followed by 53rd Ct, 53rd Dr, 53rd Pl, etc.
posted by oaf at 7:08 AM on September 22, 2007

Yes, but I saw no reason to confuse our poor godless foreigner with those details.

But 53d St would never be followed by 53d Pl in Gainesville. Streets, terraces, and drives run north-south; avenues, places, roads, and lanes run east-west; boulevards run diagonally.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:14 AM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

But 53d St would never be followed by 53d Pl in Gainesville.

I haven't been there in a while. But if you drive far enough you will see the same number twice in a row or more.
posted by oaf at 7:24 AM on September 22, 2007

sohn: sometimes that happens when the -lot- is numbered, not the house. one of those houses might be on two lots, they might both share the missing lot. so a number will appear to be skipped.

house numbers aren't always large--they range from 1-5 digits, depending on the numbering convention. it differs town to town.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:42 AM on September 22, 2007

Interesting question, I never thought of it. Here in Billings, Montana, east/west addresses are determined by the numbered cross-street. My address is 2260 St. Johns. St. Johns runs east and west, and I am located west of 22nd Street. Anything west of 23rd would be 23XX, etc.
posted by The Deej at 7:53 AM on September 22, 2007

Why are house numbers in America so long?

Because America is big.
posted by happyturtle at 7:53 AM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 8:03 AM on September 22, 2007

I always wondered about this, too - before we moved in (70s) our house was "1 Park Road." Then they went through a re-numbering early in the 80s, and it became "16152 Park Road."

There are certainly not 16000+ houses on Park Road, so I thought it was weird.
posted by Liosliath at 8:10 AM on September 22, 2007

Just for the 'other' viewpoint, this is all news to me living in rural New Hampshire. My address is 1 [Street], and I'm the first house. At the other end of the street is 30 [Street], and they're the 30th house.

I've never, ever seen it any other way, except that sometimes they'll skip a few here and there for large lots in case they're subdivided later.

Just wanted to explain that not all of America uses this system.
posted by fogster at 8:13 AM on September 22, 2007

Many (most?) U.S. cities were planned on a grid before lots were sold. Washington, D.C. wasn't the first grid to be laid out, but I'm sure it was influential in many, many that would follow.
posted by gimonca at 8:33 AM on September 22, 2007

Note also that people don't really think in "thousands" when they say these addresses. 2917 Something Street would be "twenty-nine seventeen". 14806 Boondocks Drive would be "one four eight oh six".

Here's a chunk of East Bethel, Minnesota, in the far northern suburbs of Minneapolis. You can see how the orderly "northeast" grid of Minneapolis, with numbered avenues going east/west and streets named after presidents going north/south (here at least west of Hwy 65), is still there in traces, but isn't being followed absolutely. The numbering system still holds, though: the first possible address after 221st Ave NE going north would be 22100 on the west side of the street or 22101 on the east side.
posted by gimonca at 8:50 AM on September 22, 2007

In the Fraser Valley outside Vancouver, Canada, the first three digits refer to the cross street. All the streets out there are numbered (for the most part). So a house with the address 20338 56 Ave would be nearest to 203 Street. 56th & 203rd.

In Vancouver proper, most of the avenues are numbered. The West Side streets were supposed to have been laid out in alphabetical order, but no one told the mapmaker and they're random. However, you can at least tell the avenue nearest the street. If you have the address 6065 Culloden Street, you simply subtract 15 from the first two digits. Thus the cross street is 45th Avenue. The reason you must subtract 15 is that the avenues start 15 blocks from the waterfront, on the other side of the downtown peninsula.

As for why many streets go up 100 at a time and houses may be 4 or 10 digits apart, it's usually to allow for future deveopment. If they went 101, 102, 103 and the parcels of land were big, they'd have to renumber everything if the properties were subdivided.
posted by acoutu at 8:57 AM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I lived in rural Minnesota, my address was 16929 Grove street. every building in the county (and not also in a city) had an address like that, based on its position. This was part of an enhanced Emergency Response initiative that was put into effect. It made it so that the ambulance/fire company/sheriff wouldn't have to hunt around if there was an emergency, even if it was at a grain bin in the middle of a field.

This new system replaced the old one of "Box #X, Rural Route Y, Nearest City", that the post office used.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 8:59 AM on September 22, 2007

But 53d St would never be followed by 53d Pl in Gainesville.

I haven't been there in a while. But if you drive far enough you will see the same number twice in a row or more.

I think the point here was that St & Pl are never parallel, not that you wouldn't see two 53ds in a row.
posted by Nabubrush at 9:39 AM on September 22, 2007

Just wanted to explain that not all of America uses this system.

Same in NJ and Connecticut. Normal house numbering... start at 1, evens on one side, odds on the other.
posted by smackfu at 9:58 AM on September 22, 2007

Every municipality has its own system, but most follow one of two systems: continuous numbering, or hundred-block. Both systems are blocked out on grids, and both have a “baseline,” or zero point. That is the point where address will start, and you’ll find either 1 Main Street or 100 Main Street, depending on the system. Continuous numbering involves a formula wherein the local government first determines how many addresses are contained in one mile. Say the number is 1,000; divide that by 5,280 (the number of fee in one mile), and it equals approximately one address number every five feet.

In a hundred-block system, addresses are plotted out on a grid, where it dictates that the house at point XY is number 100, and the numbers increase sequentially within the same block. The grid is usually carefully broken down into X number of houses comprising a block, and are mapped out as the “200 block” or “400 block” of Elm Street.

Of course, add into the above formulae the further mandates of odd/even numbering based on east/west or north/south streets, and it’s enough to convince you to not choose a career in civil engineering.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:16 AM on September 22, 2007

We got new numbers when we got 911 service, it is now yards from the beginning of the street so we went from 15 to 63. It helps the respondents know when they are getting close or something.
posted by stormygrey at 10:22 AM on September 22, 2007

I wonder if anyone has a house number that is one million or higher. That would be cool.
posted by jayder at 10:27 AM on September 22, 2007

Just to make it clear, every municipality is different. I live on the 100-200 block of 18th st, and the numbers increase as they head toward Broadway, up from Oak, which just happens to be the boundary of the lake and has nothing to do with any of the central streets of the city. The addresses tend to start at natural boundaries around here- First street is at the edge of the Bay, and #1 Broadway is the closest address to the water. The only numbering conventions that exist in downtown Oakland are that the street addresses of named streets between numbered streets will correspond to the numbers (1952 Myrtle is between 19th and 20th streets), and odd is on one side, even on the other. Generally speaking, each block goes up by 100, but sometimes blocks are divided (200-250). It's certainly not by the number of houses.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:40 AM on September 22, 2007

But a house numbered 1343 might sit between 1341 on the North side and 1347 on the South. There isn't a 1345. I can't find any rhyme or reason to this in the neighborhoods I'm familiar with.

Developers -- even in the 19th century -- would assign house numbers based on street footage. The lot sizes don't match up precisely (and it's better to have too many numbers than too few, obviously), so the house that sits (say) 50 feet from the corner gets the first number, 100 feet the next ... and then 150 feet is still on the second house's lot, so the third number in the sequence is skipped.
posted by dhartung at 2:26 PM on September 22, 2007

I will just chime in to say that in Mission Viejo, California, the master-planned community I went to high school in, no number for any address was less than five digits, with almost all residences being numbered in the 20000s.
posted by mdonley at 2:42 PM on September 22, 2007

It should be noted that none of the above applies to NYC, whose numbering system leaves this poor Washingtonian entirely confused.
posted by naoko at 3:36 PM on September 22, 2007

Most of the western USA was mapped and delineated before there were any settlements there. Why didn't they only delineate the geography in a given area as people started settling there? Because they were planning for the future. The Land Ordinance of 1785 set up a system whereby the entire land area of the territories could be divided, subdivided, and subdivided again to the smallest practical unit of ownership for farmers, ranchers and speculators. Municipalities use the plat system to further subdivide property for ownership of individual numbered lots.

The survey system was set up with the future in mind; people above who call addressing peculiarities "features" are correct for the same reason. Just because there are only 16 single-family homes on the street today doesn't mean that there won't be 48 row-houses on the same street in twenty years. The numbering schemes determined by each municipality (and there are a lot of schemes that vary from one jurisdiction to the next) are designed to accomodate change and growth over time. There are also situations like dhartung/thinkingwoman describe, where the original subdivision platting & numbering of lots no longer coincides with the actual development of the land. Cities have whole departments tasked with assigning and maintaining addresses; to keep the whole thing functional, they occasionally have to make strange adjustments.
posted by Chris4d at 4:35 PM on September 22, 2007

Well, let's use the street El Camino Real as an example. It's a historic road that runs pretty much the entire state of California. About 600 miles.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:07 PM on September 22, 2007

Also, I think Broadway in New York runs about 150 miles or so continuously if I recall.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:11 PM on September 22, 2007

Here in northern suburban Detroit, we have "mile roads" running east and west, and the address on a north-south road tells you what miles it's between. You subtract 5,000 and then divide by 2, and there's the mile equivalent. For instance:

Example: My local Best Buy store, 32300 John R. Road, Madison Heights, Michigan. Subtract 5000 to get 27300, divide by 2 for 13650, and you find that, indeed, it's a little more than halfway between 13 mile and 14 mile. Cabbies would love this, if we had more than a dozen cabs in the whole damn city. :p

On east-west roads, forget it. There's such a mishmosh of systems, it's futile.
posted by Myself at 5:04 AM on September 23, 2007

You *are* kidding, right, Myself?
posted by pjern at 8:46 AM on September 23, 2007

No, why would I kid? Seriously, poke around with your favorite mapping service and explore the northern Detroit area. Look at the numbers of addresses on north-south roads, and check them against the system I described. It works for most of the area.
posted by Myself at 11:58 PM on September 24, 2007

Oh, gee, Myself is such a kidder! Everyone knows his long history of map and street-grid related in-jokes!

Actually, I was born and raised in Detroit, and am very familiar with the Mile Roads. Didn't know about the convoluted math, though! Interesting! I have no clue how the houses I lived in were numbered. The first one, 2713 4th Street, was on a numbered street, a block down from Grand River. Maybe Grand River is considered 2500? The second, 7011 Burwell was bear Livernois and Warren, but no where near any numbered street.

I never thought of it growing up, it just seemed arbitrary.
posted by The Deej at 5:19 AM on September 25, 2007

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