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What's the Difference Between a Street and a Road?

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Reader Brit asks: "Is there any rhyme or reason to calling a road an avenue, a boulevard, a street or a lane? Is it just at the discretion of whoever names the street?"

Although both terms are often applied to the same thing, a road is different from a street, at least in theory. Looking at the definitions that folks like city planners use and the history of the usage of the words, the difference is a matter of place and purpose.

Roads run between two distant points — two towns, for example. In each of those towns, you'll find streets: paved roads lined with houses and other buildings. It used to be the paving and the buildings that made a street a street, but today you'll find many paved roads that have buildings on them (I grew up on Wisteria Road). Modern sticklers for usage will tell you that what sets streets apart today is the street life that comes with them. On Main Street in a given town, you might find people walking their dogs, having lunch in a sidewalk cafe, waiting for a friend on the corner, or simply people watching. On the road connecting Town A to Town B, you're not likely to find any of this.

The term street, then, should be specifically applied to urban roadways. Streets connect people for interaction, while roads connect towns and cities for travel.

In the real world, though, these textbook distinctions aren't always made.

As cities grow, roads can become urbanized and serve the purposes of streets without having their names changed. Some cities and towns may be planned with naming systems that designate roadways one thing or another without regard to their function. Other roadways serve different purposes along different parts of their length and get different designations accordingly. Pennsylvania Route 611 is a major state highway that runs from South Philadelphia north to Coolbaugh Township in the Poconos. Within Philadelphia, 611 is Broad Street, where you'll find homes, businesses, street life and, on New Year's Day, Mummers urinating everywhere. At the northern end of Philadelphia, PA 611 leaves Broad Street and becomes Old York Road, a historic road that connected Philadelphia to New York City. As it continues north, it also becomes Easton Road, Delaware Drive, and Fox Town Hill Road along certain stretches.

Other Places on the Map

Street sign via Shutterstock

Now that we've hashed out roads and streets, what about the alleys, avenues, boulevards, circles, courts, drives, expressways, highways, lanes, parkways, paths, places, squares, terraces, trails, ways and other roadway name suffixes we use? Here are some select definitions (that aren't always followed):

An avenue is traditionally a straight road with a line of trees or shrubs running along each side, which emphasize arrival at a landscape or architectural feature.
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A boulevard is usually a widened, multi-lane arterial street with a median and landscaping between the curbs and sidewalks on either side.
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A court is a short street that ends as a cul de sac.
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A drive can be short for driveway, a private road for local access to one, or a small group of structures. Other times it refers to meandering, rather than straight, roads and highways.
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An expressway is a divided highway meant for high-speed traffic.
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A freeway is a road designed for safe high-speed traffic through the elimination of intersections at the same grade or level.
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A highway is a main road intended for travel between destinations like cities and towns.
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A lane is a narrow road or street usually lacking a shoulder or a median.
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A way is a minor street off a road in a town.

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Big Questions
Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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