Addison Street Sign

St. Paul vs. Chicago Street Signs

Chicago’s Street Grid

I used to live in Chicago and it had a great street grid.

This was very good for riding transit. I loved that I could ride the #55 bus, which predictably ran on 55th Street, and the #4 Cottage Grove bus went predictably on Cottage Grove.

Chicago's #55 Bus Route


But it was also good for navigating the city in general. I memorized the street numbers for the major streets throughout the city, and many of the south side’s streets were already numbers. If I was looking for 5510 South Hyde Park Boulevard I would know it’s just south of 55th Street. If I’m looking for 3615 North Ashland I know it will be just north of Addison because Addison corresponds with 3600 on the North Side.

Chicago Grid System Map


The street signs in Chicago are designed to make this numbering system obvious and useful. If I begin to travel north on Western Ave I will see the numbers changing as I cross various streets. These numbers will tell me how far north I’ve traveled on Western. If I’m looking for an address I can simply look at the street sign I’m approaching to know when to turn. In effect, each street sign tells you that particular street’s location in relation to the city’s “center.”

Street Signs Seen While Traveling North On Western

Street signs seen while traveling north on Western Ave

St. Paul’s Streets

Now let’s move to St. Paul. The grid is not as strong with this one. But there are numbers! Unfortunately, they are facing the wrong way. If I start on Forest Street and travel south I will see many street signs as I pass streets. However, the number posted on the street sign WILL NOT CHANGE.

Street Signs Seen Traveling South On Forest

Street signs traveling south on Forest

Forest is a north-south street, so it is a certain distance east of the “center” point of the city (940 E). As I travel south on Forest the numbers facing me don’t tell me how far south I’ve traveled. Instead, they repeatedly tell me how far east I am. Why do I need constant reminders of how far east I am? I was the same distance east on Geranium as I was on Jessamine, Case, and Sims. I don’t need to see that number again. It isn’t useful.

The Geranium Ave sign says “940 E,” but Geranium Avenue isn’t 940 E. The Case sign says “940 E,” but Case isn’t 940 E. This repetition of “940 E” on the cross streets gives me constant reminders that I’m actually on Forest, which is 940 E. Do they think I’ve forgotten which street I’m on? How is this helpful?

Yes, yes, I can turn my head at each intersection to peer and squint at the Forest Street sign and figure out how far I’ve traveled south or north. However, this is dangerous – especially if traveling in a car at high speed (>20mph) and lethal mass (all cars).  Good luck if you’re at a major intersection, though, because there aren’t any numbers at all!

Street Signs at Maryland And Arcade

Street signs at Maryland and Arcade

Is this a thing we can change? I’m sure it would cost us $millions to reprint street signs over the entire city, and it wouldn’t make sense to do it piecemeal because the system only works if it’s a coherent system. So, we’ll be left for all eternity with a system that doesn’t actually work.

Unless you. You will apply to be Public Works Director. And you will run on a platform of redesigning the street signs and argue for it with such passion that the mayor will be overwhelmed and hire you on the spot. Hooray!

Eric Saathoff

About Eric Saathoff

Eric Saathoff is a public school teacher living in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul. He is a regular walker, cyclist, transit user, and driver with his wife and three young children. Eric serves on the Payne-Phalen Community Council and the St Paul Transportation Committee.