Every now and then I find myself asking, “what, actually, is the difference between all of the different kind of streets? Is there any difference, or is it just another example of an English language wank?” Well, as it turns out, there is a difference! In fact, the variations in street types are actually one of the more impressive examples of our language’s specificity. When used correctly, and not by shonky developer throwing street names about willy-nilly, these words offer us pretty finite descriptions of any which street.
An ‘alley’, for example, refers to a rear, service street. Alley’s do not usually contain street numbers of their own; more likely they run parallel behind the street with the numbers and serve as points of access to garages or shop loading zones. If we think of J.K. Rowling’s ‘Diagon Alley’, for instance, although the magical shops’ front access is off the actual alley, by using ‘alley’ J.K. quite neatly alludes to its being a somewhat hidden street, used by only those who know of it and require it.
Although, perhaps J.K. might have used ‘arcade’ instead, as an arcade almost always describes a street lined with shops.
A ‘close’, common in the United Kingdom and countries that use British English (like Australia), should simply refer to a dead-end street. As in, the end of the street is literally closed.
Another quaint British-ism that is, admittedly, not so widely used here in Aus. The ‘high street’ is the main road of any town and is usually where most of the town’s major amenities, i.e. supermarket, chemist and banks, are found.
Perhaps the most common of street-suffixes, the humble ‘road’ is any major street, residential or commercial, off of which other streets are accessible and onto which many streets merge. Roads are almost always significant to a major route-way.
Like ‘road’, ‘street’ is also a very common suffix used almost always to indicate some kind of important, arterial (significant to major routes) roadway. However, unlike roads, streets are versatile in their size and whilst they can refer to major roadways, they can also refer to smaller, residential ones. Streets are also always found well within a city or suburb.
In keeping with the sense of frivolity it evokes, a ‘parade’ is a street that runs along a seafront.
Lanes are small and quiet, dead-end streets and are quite often privately owned.
‘Avenue’ is used for smaller residential or commercial streets.
Terraces should, traditionally, be raised residential streets that sit a little higher than their surroundings – on a hillside, for example.
A ‘drive’ is a suffix generally reserved for residential or commercial streets in quite densely populated, suburban areas.
In Australia, both freeways and motorways are limited-access highways. However, whilst freeways indicate a toll-free highway, motorways almost always require a toll be paid at some point. This is not the case in the United Kingdom however, so don’t panic if you are planning a trip there and find that the vast majority of their major roads are motorways; you’ll find that very few collect tolls.
Interestingly, highways themselves are not necessarily limited-access. Whilst many are limited-access roadways, a ‘highway’ can also be a major national, state or even provincial roadway with many access points.
One of the more specific designations, a ‘boulevard’ is a wide, tree-lined, street. They are almost always of major importance.
An “esplanade” should refer to a mostly pedestrianised street (although many places seem to flout this rule – I’m looking at you, Manly).
So there you have it; your more major street varieties and their differences explained. Don’t be disappointed if you notice any that don’t quite fit these descriptions – these days such decisions are usually made by the aforementioned shonky developers and town planners, who don’t know their ‘there-s’ from their ‘they’re-s’.