In A Nutshell
While you might not take any notice of whether you live on Main Street or Maple Road, the suffix of an address actually has decades of history behind it. These suffixes were originally used for very specific reasons; just at the mention of the name, a person would be able to tell exactly what the thoroughfare looked like and to what purpose it was originally built. Roads were very specifically built to replace railroads, providing a direct route from one place to another. Streets, on the other hand, were more residential.
The Whole Bushel
How to get goods and services from one area of a state or country to another has always been a problem. Before the popularity of the automobile, there were trains. The downside to trains was that they ran from one very specific spot—the station—to another. Once you got there, you still needed to find other transportation to the final destination, whether it was grandma’s cottage or a warehouse for your cargo. Once the automobile took the country by storm, railroads were replaced by roads that served much the same purpose; they would get you from New York to Philadelphia, but once you reached your destination you still had some navigating and creative traveling to do.
And that’s where streets come in. Originally, streets were smaller thoroughfares within a specific place that let you navigate to your final destination. Where roads were long, clear avenues for fast travel, streets had corners, stop signs, and intersections. They’re also shared with pedestrians and bicycles. People parked along streets, people stopped on streets, people got lost on streets.
Roads were built to cross the miles and miles of open space that exists between larger places like towns and cities. Streets, however, were designed to serve as dividers between city blocks, fencing in areas for homes, commercial spaces, parks, and recreational areas. They define areas within a place. Simply put, you drive past things on roads. You stop to see things on streets.
As cities and towns expanded, the distinct difference between roads and streets became less clear, with each taking on characteristics of the other. Now, the term “highway” is often used to describe the original purpose of a road. Other terms were also added as road maps got more and more complex.
A boulevard is a thoroughfare that supports several lanes of traffic and also typically has lanes for bicycles. Landscaping is an important characteristic of boulevards, as they are typically lined with trees or have green spaces in the median between traffic lanes (similar to a parkway). A lane is a short, narrow road, often without a shoulder and usually linking two larger thoroughfares. (Essentially, it’s a single lane of traffic removed from its larger street, road, etc.) An avenue is historically a wide, short, straight, and often tree-lined approach to something else; you might find an avenue leading up to a housing development or a long country home.
With the ever-increasing rate of congestion in cities and on streets, roads, and all of their offshoots, the definitions of each individual type of thoroughfare has gotten more and more fuzzy, with other terms, like “thruway,” being added all the time. Some of these terms are region-specific. The Thruway is a system of limited-access highways designed for fast travel through New York State. Like many highways, the Thruway was designed with no intersections, sharp turns, or hills, with separate lanes for traffic getting on and off at interchanges. This encourages getting from Place A to Place B as fast as possible—the intention of the original road.
Show Me The Proof
TEDx: The important difference between a road and a street (video)
Valhalla Design Group: Road, Street, Boulevard, Avenue, Parkway, Lane
Oxford Dictionary: Avenue
New York State: Thruway Fact Book