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.

18 thoughts on “St. Paul vs. Chicago Street Signs

  1. Bob Roscoe

    I think the Case (pun intended) can be made that the St. Paul method instinctively herds people to pay more attention to their cityscape than the lazy Minneapolis system. I am a Minneapolis resident but I know the layout of both cities equally. I sense that the reason I see a more enriched city in St. Paul is that I am looking more closely as I go to what places along the streets in St.Paul offer.
    It is well known that St Paul people show more noticeable, although subtle) pride in their city.

    Which reminds me: I have a perfect method to explain to people in my city how to find the place they are looking for in St. Paul – all you have to do is get very close to you want to go before you ask someone (presumably a St.Paul person) where you want to go.

    1. Jake N

      As some one who doesn’t live in either Minneapolis or St Paul but visits both I greatly prefer the Minneapolis system. I can actually find what I’m looking for. In St paul I sometimes give up and leave, vowing to never bother again.

      Grids are great!

  2. Reilly

    As a former St. Paul pizza guy, I’m also quite curious as to how they ended up using 480 (?!) addresses per mile. Have you or commenters come across any reason for that?

    I have a theory, but it’s pure conjecture. A visual examination of the grid suggests it may have something to do with the variety of block lengths in different neighborhoods of the city (often in 3:4:6:8 ratios relative to one another). 480 happens to be the second-least-common multiple of 30, 40, 60, and 80 (using the actual LCM of 240 would not have provided enough numbers).

    However, this still doesn’t explain why the major N-S streets occupy places that aren’t multiples, halves, quarters, etc. of 480 — i.e., the zero point isn’t itself a major road. (Rice at 140W, Dale at 620W, Lexington at 1100W…)

  3. UrbanDelite

    One cool feature of the Chicago grid is that every 100 equals an 8th of a mile. Fullerton(2400 North) is one mile south of Belmont (3200 North) and so forth. Typically, the north south running blocks are an 1/8th of a mile, but not always. The map you posted seems to indicate distances.

    The bus system there is a bit easier to navigate because the streets run either north south, or east west, for the most part. There aren’t many streets that make wild turns in both directions: looking at you Hennepin/Larpentaur ave!

  4. ClassIdiot

    I always understood the number on the sign to relate to the house/parcel numbering location. This is useful in St. Paul where you don’t have blocks that go to the next 100 each block. So, knowing the rough grid on reading the sign, So, heading south on Forest, I know whether to turn left or right if I am looking for 958 E Geranium.

    1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff Post author

      I think I’d prefer going to the next 100 each block rather than having some exact fraction of a mile as described below.

      1. Robert

        Eric Saathoff wrote:

        “I think I’d prefer going to the next 100 each block rather than having some exact fraction of a mile as described below.”

        This would make sense if you were in a city where the streets are numbered and all the blocks the same length. Neither applies in Saint Paul. In Saint Paul, since that does not apply, the house numbers are the only way to measure distances. And you only need two “pins.” For example, I know that University Avenue (before it starts curving north) is at 480N, while Lexington Avenue, except for when it is passing through Como Park, is 1100W. So if I’m at, say, 540 north Hamline, I know that I am an eighth of a mile north of University, and since it’s a half mile away from Lexington, I’m at 1340 west. I’m three-eighths of a mile south of Thomas, seven-eighths of a mile south of Minnehaha; I’m a mile and an eighth north of Summit; I’m 120 house numbers from Grotto or Pascal, 240 from Snelling.

        All that I know from remembering just TWO numbers, and I know it ONLY because Saint Paul has a regular 480-numbers-per-mile system.

        I realize you have to have a certain facility with numbers to do this, but it’s just addition; it’s not like you have to use calculus to get from downtown to Lake Phalen. 🙂 And, again, you can’t do this in Minneapolis, because the street grid, while FAIRLY regular, is not PERFECTLY regular.

        As to the bus numbers — I won’t argue with you for a moment about that! At the very least, Metro Transit could try to have even numbers go one direction (say, east/west) and odd go the other! But there is a lot of history behind those numbers — the #16 bus, e.g., had that same number when I was in middle school forty-some years ago.

        1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff Post author

          I think what you’re saying is neat but I don’t personally find it useful. I don’t actually determine things by fractions of a mile. I think, rather, in terms of blocks. How many blocks north of University? I guess you wouldn’t know because of inconsistency in block lengths.

          1. Robert

            I walk. This means, first, that it takes me roughly twenty minutes to cover a mile. To know the distance is vital — it lets me know how long a walk will take, Of course, I can find that out from Google Maps — but I can also figure out what fraction I’ve covered at any block I come to, just by reading the street signs.

            And, remember, the streets are already named. How many blocks are there between, say, Dale and Jackson Streets? No system tells you that. If you renumbered the houses, you gain nothing and I lose a great deal. If you could, at no cost to anyone, rename every street in Saint Paul, it might be another issue — but you can’t rename all the streets, because everyone is already invested in their address.

            I grant that this is harder to explain than the Minneapolis system of house numbers being connected to numbered blocks, but remember, that works for only SOME Minneapolis streets. This works for ALL Saint Paul streets except the tiny minority that angle and do not follow the grid.

            I don’t claim that this is of benefit to you — clearly it isn’t, because you don’t want to use the system. I am simply pointing out that there IS a benefit, and a substantial one, to those who are willing to learn. And renumbering the streets will eliminate that benefit, and will NOT benefit you, because what you want only works with a regular grid and regular street names, which we aren’t going to get, because the streets already exist.

  5. Robert

    Reilly asked:

    As a former St. Paul pizza guy, I’m also quite curious as to how they ended up using 480 (?!) addresses per mile.

    I don’t know the historical reason, but it IS 480 numbers per mile, which is in fact extremely convenient. 480 evenly divides 5280, so each street number represents eleven feet — making four numbers almost equal to a 40 foot lot, meaning that houses tend to be four numbers apart. No other unit that evenly divides 5280 would work so well.

    And 480 is divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 16, 20, and many other numbers. This means that EVERY major fraction of a mile is an even number of street numbers: Half a mile is 240 numbers. A third of a mile is 160. A quarter of a mile is 120. A sixth is 80. A tenth is 48. A sixteenth is thirty. A twentieth of a mile is 24 numbers.

    I live in an area (south of Como Park) where the north/south streets are a twentieth of a mile apart, and the east/west streets are a twelfth of a mile apart. Three-twentieths of a mile away, they shift to twelfths and sixteenths. Only on a 480 number grid would these streets all work out to even numbers.

    And all I need is two house numbers to know where I am, ANYWHERE in Saint Paul. Can’t do that in Minneapolis; it only works on the numbered streets. It’s a great system. Maybe it would make more sense to put the numbers on the opposite signs (I’m used to this way, so I don’t see the problem), but I’m very glad the numbers AS HOUSE NUMBERS are as they are.

    1. Bill Siegel

      Thank you for your post, I had known there was some logic to the St. Paul number system but never seen it laid out quite like this. I’ll have to give it go and try figure it out.

      I have never tried to defend the St. Paul grid or numbering system. It’s definitely not great. But it drives me nuts when Minneapolis people say how bad St. Paul’s system is compared to theirs.

      To me it seems like half the streets in Minneapolis have names that disrupt the number system. Don’t even get me started on NE and SE or having to know if Taylor was President before Fillmore. It’s random inconsistency makes it’s just as useless to anyone not already familiar with it.

      1. Robert

        Bill Siegel wrote:

        “I have never tried to defend the St. Paul grid or numbering system. It’s definitely not great. But it drives me nuts when Minneapolis people say how bad St. Paul’s system is compared to theirs.”

        I like the 480 numbers per mile, but I agree that neither city has a great system. This whole discussion started by talking about how great Chicago’s system is. I would certainly agree that a fully regular system (say, numbers one way and alphabetical streets the other) is better — but it requires a COMPLETELY planned city and a truly regular grid — and that is effectively precluded by the fact that both Twin Cities grew up around their rivers and have streets influenced by them (apart from the fact that Minneapolis used to be two cities).

        “To me it seems like half the streets in Minneapolis have names that disrupt the number system. Don’t even get me started on NE and SE or having to know if Taylor was President before Fillmore. It’s random inconsistency makes it’s just as useless to anyone not already familiar with it.”

        That’s my essential point. There are PARTS of Minneapolis that are easier to navigate than Saint Paul. But what’s the point if it’s only part of the city? Knowing the street number patterns is more effort, but it works on every street that runs either east/west or north/south.

        Now we just have to get them to work on the diagonal streets. 🙂

  6. Ian R BuckModerator  

    Saw all the photos of Forest St signs and thought, “this one was written by an East Sider!” Scroll down to the bottom, “of course it was Eric!”

  7. stevnim

    As a guy who questions everything, I wonder if there was street renaming and/or numbering after the Great Chicago Fire. That would certainly give planners a clean slate to do things over.

  8. Pete Barrett

    My Old Man always told me “Earl Street is the Battle of Hastings”.

    Meaning, the streets that intersect with Earl Street are right about 1066.

    If you are an East Sider, you either know this already, or will never forget it now.

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